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Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Future of Southwest Virginia

Abandoned Farmhouse, Carroll County, Virginia. Image by L. Shelor

The changing state of the economy throughout the United States has placed extreme burdens on the small and family farmer. All over the country family farms are vanishing; some abandoned by older farmers or inherited by their children. These farms often become housing developments, golf courses or shopping malls.

In our area near Meadows of Dan, the family farm is becoming a symbol of changing times. Many families are able to hold on to the land because tax rates are not very high compared to many areas in the country. But fewer and fewer are operating working farms, and as time goes on the selling of land for development seems inevitable.

Although the housing developments in this area are by nature small, with beautiful and expensive houses, the changes rarely reflect the unique character of our area. Small family farms once stretched out over the hills and tucked into the hollows, sheltered by the friendly mountains that have stood over them for generations. Cattle, sheep, horses, chickens and goats, with a protective family dog guarding stock and children, grazed peacefully over the rolling pastures that were cleared generations ago.

Incomplete development. Image by L. Shelor

Farmers in the old days built their small farmhouses in the lower, sheltered areas, near water for the convenience of the family and stock. One relative told me that they would turn the cattle out on the land to graze for a year. Where the cattle sheltered most during harsh weather was where the house would be built. Many of the roads followed animal trails as well in the early days, since the wildlife found the easiest ways through the wilderness and were attracted to water sources.

The builders of newer homes rarely take into consideration the need for shelter and nearby water. Drilling a well is expensive but possible, and obtaining a good view is more important than sheltering a home from winter winds. Since most new houses in the area are second homes used for summer and weekend retreats, there is no need to consider winter winds in the building.

Farmland, Carroll County, Virginia. Image by L. Shelor

The changing character of the countryside jeopardizes one of the few industries we have available in this region: tourism. The serene beauty of the agricultural community adjoining the Blue Ridge Parkway attracts thousands of visitors yearly. These visitors come from congested cities and subdivisions to enjoy seeing quiet cattle grazing in the fields and visiting with the locals in the small businesses in Meadows of Dan. As time goes on and more family farms are lost, there will be little left to attract the tourist. Some people see abandoned houses as depressing; others as romantic. But seeing housing developments will be just like being at home, with nothing unique to attract the traveler.

Recent state and federal government requirements have put even more pressure on the family farmer, with regulations such as the National Animal Identification System ( looming on the horizon to place yet another burden on the already financially stressed and over-regulated farmer. Agri-tourism is an option for many farmers, especially in this area, but the many requirements for operating these businesses are often discouraging or costly. A recent law is in the works for the state of Virginia to make obtaining insurance for agri-tourism easier, but it seems as one law is made that helps a dozen more are enacted to make it harder.

Abandoned barn, Carroll County, Virginia. Image by L. Shelor

Change in inevitable, and the passing of the family farmer may be the shape of things to come. But as a community and as a country we need to realize what we will be losing: economic diversity, heritage varieties of food and livestock, and the beauty of a rural landscape that cannot be renewed when it is lost to development. It’s time to stop and take stock, before the family farm becomes a distant memory.

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  • At Sunday, 02 April, 2006, Blogger D L Ennis said…

    It always saddens me to see abandoned homes. It’s even worse when they are bulldozed and replaced with modern housing developments or shopping centers. Good write Leslie!

  • At Friday, 02 June, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Good and useful to think about and do something about.

  • At Friday, 02 June, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Back reading book by Louis Bromfield written in 1943-44 about New Agriculture...but more also about preserving the small family farm. Educational and inspiring and useful...everyone needs to read this if a farmer.....his own farm, Malabar Farm is now an Ohio state park.....go see and learn!!!


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