Protecting the agricultural heritage

Published 9:19 pm Monday, December 7, 2009

With a history that goes back to the colonial settlers, commercial agriculture has been a vital component of Virginia’s economy for more than 300 years.

Surely, there have been changes during that time. Today’s mechanized planting, cultivation and harvesting systems allow farmers to work vastly larger farms than they ever were able to work in past years. The variety of crops grown has shifted, and — especially in recent years — the role of the farm family has diminished in the face of an increasing number of corporate farming concerns that cultivate an ever-larger percentage of arable land.

Indeed, the days of buying one’s produce from Farmer John down the road, or even across the county, are largely a staple of Grandma’s Sunday afternoon reflections. There’s a whole generation growing up now that may never know anything about the connection that once existed between real people who farmed and the food that they raised.

But there are people throughout the state who are working to protect the heritage of Virginia’s farmers — and to revive interest among the commonwealth’s residents in produce grown by farmers who do it for themselves and not for some conglomerate.

Shelly Butler Barlow is one of those people, and because of her commitment to Virginia agriculture, she recently was honored as Virginia’s Farm Woman of the Year by the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

Barlow and her husband manage Cotton Plains Farm near Chuckatuck, where they grow corn, cotton, hay, peanuts, wheat, soybeans and vegetables. Barlow also manages a community supported agriculture business that sells produce “subscriptions” to families who receive baskets of locally grown fruits and vegetables every week.

Her efforts for CSA have been — pardon the pun — fruitful. She hardly has to explain the concept to folks around here, anymore. And the public’s growing interest in supporting sustainability by buying locally has fed demand for her farm’s products.

Barlow also works to encourage a new generation of farmers, visiting students and teachers in the public schools as part of the Farm Bureau’s “Ag in the Classroom” program.

Blessed with the fertile soil of the Tidewater area, Virginia will always depend on agriculture to fill the bellies of its residents and the tax coffers of its local and state governments. People like Shelly Barlow, however, will help ensure that there’s always a place at the table for the little guy, the traditional family farmer. Such a goal is worthy of a state where “Heritage” is a word that is so often spoken in hushed, almost reverential tones.