Long ago, in the early days of the colonies, farmers in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia had to move their cattle to summer pastures so they could plant their spring crops. So farmers drove their herds—cows, calves, and bulls—west into the hills of the Allegheny Mountains. After they crossed the first river, they left the calves in pastures there. After the second river, they left the cows. After the third river, the bulls.

More than 300 years later, as you drive into the mountains, you’ll cross three rivers: The Calfpasture River, the Cowpasture River, and the Bullpasture River. No one knows for sure if that’s how the rivers got their names, but it makes sense—practical names given by practical people.

The early settlers came from Ireland; the English aristocracy had little or no interest in land so far to the west. But soon, the Shenandoah Valley would prove itself to be some of the most fertile ground in the United States. Long before the Midwest was fully settled, the Shenandoah Valley was the breadbasket to the nation.

“Agriculture has always been the top industry in the valley,” says Nancy Taylor Sorrells, a writer and historian in Greenville, Virginia. “It’s always been the underpinnings of our community.”

Unlike the one-crop plantations in eastern Virginia and the Deep South that grew cotton or tobacco, farming in the valley was always diversified. Hemp was prominent in the 18th century, and that would go to Baltimore to make rope and canvas for the sails of ships. (Canvas is a slur of the word “cannabis.”) The Irish settlers knew how to grow and harvest flax for making fine linens, so they grew that too. And, they also knew a thing or two about whiskey. “Whiskey would have been a good cash crop, and it’s a lot easier to get a liquid product to market than it is to get corn to market,” says Sorrells.

Highland County doesn’t have many residents, but its beauty is something residents hope will inspire visitors.

Cattle have a long tradition here, as Sorrells writes in her book, “Virginia’s Cattle Story.” The first cattle drives in the U.S. were here, with cattle being herded down the valley, northward to markets in Philadelphia. Later, the valley became known as a tremendous wheat producing area, and it was here where Cyrus McCormick invented his reaper. Agricultural historians are now acknowledging that Jo Anderson, a slave working on the McCormick family plantation, probably had as much to do with the invention of the reaper as McCormick.

A Painful War. During the Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley was vital to the Confederacy, and in 1864 Abraham Lincoln—after three long years of war—made a decision that would help end it.

“Lincoln was pretty desperate,” says Sorrells. “He’s in a re-election campaign where he may lose the election, and if he does, then he’s going to lose the war. They would settle it, have peace, and we would have two countries.”

Lincoln  turned to his cavalry officer, General Philip Sheridan, and gave him orders to take out the valley. “That’s what he did,” says Sorrells. “From late August until October, they destroyed the bread basket of the confederacy. They burned everything they could.”

Fields, barns, mills, tools, forges, tanneries, even the rail fences—all burned. Livestock was either driven off or killed.

“Lincoln got re-elected, but it was at the cost of complete and total devastation of the Shenandoah Valley. There were numerous descriptions of the valley being like a desert, like a wasteland,” says Sorrells. All of these years later, there is understanding of that time, but some lingering emotions as well. “ ‘Oh, you’re still fighting the Civil War.’ We in the South hear that all the time,” says Sorrells. “I don’t believe that’s true, but when you are from a land where that happened, you remember it a lot more.

“It’s hard to forget,” she adds.

Agriculture has changed much in the Shenandoah Valley since that time, and it continues to change to this day.  An increasing number of farmers here recognize the urban-rural divide hurts both groups, and there’s really no reason for the separation to exist. That’s why many farmers in the Shenandoah Valley welcome visitors to their places and take the time to explain what they do on the farm—and why.

Forrest Pritchard, with a few of his free-range chickens.

Farming since 1816. One is Forrest Pritchard of Berryville, Virginia. He’s a seventh generation farmer living on land his ancestors settled in 1816, but he stood a good chance of never becoming a farmer. “I went off to college in 1992 and was told by well meaning folks that it was crazy to go into farming,” he says. “There was no future in it. I should get a college degree and use my brain to escape from farming.”

But when he came back home in 1996, after earning double majors in geology and English, he announced his plans to farm. The first year brought him a painful lesson—but, he says, it set him on a better path.

Pritchard agreed to partner with a neighbor on shares, expecting to make $10,000 on the land he was providing. After harvest, the farmer came over to Pritchard’s house to tell him that, thanks to a drought in Virginia and a bumper crop in the Midwest, his net profit would be $18.16.

Pritchard sought a new direction and with guidance of a few sustainable farmers, he gave himself time—time for the soils to heal, time to identify a market, time to figure out what would work and what wouldn’t. Today his farm offers grass-fed, grass-finished beef, sheep, and hogs. Chickens, too. Pritchard patiently explored his marketing possibilities and found that farmers markets in the Washington D.C. area were his savior. “We went from doing $100 a weekend at our local farmers market to doing $6,000 or $7,000 a weekend. It was jaw-dropping  to us.” But he says he now understands what is happening—the public has a growing desire for quality food and reconnecting with the people who produce their foods.

Pritchard isn’t a small farmer—he runs 200 to 250 head of cattle, all fed on grass. Hogs, 300 a year. Sheep, 200. But he isn’t a large farmer either—you can tell by the way he talks about his animals, a philosophy he is only to happy to share with visitors.

“There are tens of thousands of valuable, approachable, fascinating stories from farmers,” he says. “But there are very few farmers who are telling the story. The intersection between a farmer and a consumer has to be told by a certain handful of ambassadors. I think I’m translating our story in such a way that
is uniting instead of dividing.”

Customers come to his farm store and, if no help is there, they can simply help themselves to the meat cases and pay using the honor system—they put their money in a box. Pritchard enjoys having them come so they can see a humane, sustainable farm (smithmeadows.com). Pritchard has written three books. “Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm” is an account of his journey.

The Shenandoah Valley has a growing number of farmers bridging the gap between agriculture and the non-farming public. South of Pritchard, eight counties have formed the Fields of Gold program, a way to showcase these ‘ambassador’ farms with agritourism (fieldsofgold.org).

Portraits of these farmers show just how diverse agriculture is in the Shenandoah Valley—and how welcoming farmers can be, willing to share their stories.

Shep Rouse enjoys one of his glasses of wine at the Virginia winery he started 27 years ago.

Rockbridge Vineyard is near Raphine in Rockbridge County. Shep and Jane Rouse bought the farm in 1992 and have been running the vineyard for 27 years. “I always wanted to find a profession that would allow me live in this county,” says Shep. With a masters in winemaking from University of California-Davis, he’s doing just that, producing some wonderful wines in a scenic setting. Next on his project: He’s adding a brewery. “The men will enjoy it more than the wine.” (rockbridgevineyard.com)

Voice for farmers. Sarah Showalter grew up on the apple orchard she now runs, Showalter’s Orchard and Greenhouse (showaltersorchard.com). Here she and husband Shannon have 20 acres of apples on their 40-acre farm. It’s a U-pick operation and so much more, with festivals, food trucks—a place to party, within moderation of course. If it’s a nice day, bring a blanket and lay out between the rows of apple trees.  “We couldn’t sustain our farm without consumers coming out,” says Sarah. “Less than 2% of the population has a connection to the farm. It’s just hard to get my head around that.” She understands how many farmers have the attitude of “just get out of my way and let me get it done.” “I totally get that, but that relationship with the customer is so important.”

Sarah Showalter says she’s proud to be a voice for other farmers, adding, “I think it would be such a blessing if more people could meet their farmers.”

Travel around the roads near Fairfield and someone is bound to tell you to stop in at Mountain View Farms and get some ice cream at their self-serve store on the farm (mountainviewfarmproducts.com). But it’s the cheese that Christie Huger and husband Fred make and sell from the 200-head dairy that is earning the highest praises. “We had all this fresh milk and I started playing with it,” she says, and it’s meant a lot to their operation. “We wouldn’t be in business if it weren’t for this.”

Although she doesn’t encourage tours of the farm—there’s just too much work to do—she doesn’t prevent them either.

But farm markets are a great reward. “We always enjoy the immediate feedback. People will always ask how the cows are doing.”

The farm is well known in the area because its artisan cheeses are sold in numerous restaurants and stores. And that, says Christie, is also an ongoing connection with their consumers.

Go to Bill and Judie Croft’s website (meadowcroftfarm.com), and the first words you’ll read are,”Come visit us. We’d like to see you.” They’re serious. They really do want to see you and talk. It’s not that they don’t have plenty of work to do. While Judie is in the kitchen, helping three other women cook and can a wide variety of jellies and pickles, salsas and relishes—she produces over 90 different products—Bill is taking what they produce and puts it on shelves and making inventories.

The canned products are unique, but it’s only part of the story.  From their picturesque farm near Swoope, Bill and Judie Croft are reinventing their farm and sharing it with as many people as possible. “People have lost all connection with where their food comes from,” says Judie. “We have field trips for children, and they do not know where their eggs come from. They just get amazed when they see a hen lay an egg.

“This is a happy place. I want it to be a place to learn, but I also want to show how peaceful it is.”

The sweetest part of the tour in the Shenandoah Valley is on the valley’s edge, up into the Allegheny Mountains—past the Calf, Cow, and Bullpasture rivers—to the farm of Ronnie and Sandy Moyers in Highland County.

With their daughter, Missy Moyers-Jarrells, they make what most people associate only with Vermont: maple syrup. But Virginia is a strong player. Each spring, a maple syrup festival in the small town of Monterey draws 50,000 people. The population of the entire county is just 2,000. Ronnie has a “sugar camp” here where he boils the sap from the maple trees on his 600 acre tree farm. Since he’s opened the sugar camp to the public, he’s seen the number of visitors grow each year—and this is not an easy place to get to.

But is it ever scenic. He, his daughter Missy, and her husband Joe, have big plans and are expanding their venue to include weddings. They’ll have cooking classes for their syrup, and will invite people there to watch the night sky. Very few places in the U.S. are truly dark enough for good star watching. This place is one of them.

But the main thing Ronnie wants to make sure a visitor experiences is the hospitality of the Appalachian people. Always shake their hand. Invite them onto the farm. Show them how maple syrup is made, and let them try it for free. “We don’t charge for that because we want people to experience that culture,” he says. “We need to give them an experience like they’ve never had in hopes they’ll come back to Highland.

“Maybe they’ll want to become a resident.”

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