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House Agriculture Committee member tours Culpeper, Orange farms
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House Agriculture Committee member tours Culpeper, Orange farms

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The only Virginian on the House Agriculture Committee got a good look Tuesday at a diverse sample of Central Virginia agriculture during an all-day tour of Culpeper and Orange counties.

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger visited with cattle producers, horse breeders, a flour-mill operator and an African American family undertaking an agritourism enterprise.

At her last stop, Heaven’s Hollow Farm in the piedmont of Orange County, she spoke at length with Jacob and Jennifer Gilley, who raise cattle, hogs and sheep on their family farm.

With representatives in tow from the Virginia Farm Bureau, Virginia Agribusiness Council, Farm Credit of the Virginias and Minority and Veteran Farmers of the Piedmont, Spanberger talked with the Gilleys about pasture rotation, land costs, the impact of direct-to-consumer sales, social-media marketing, stream-isolation projects that keep cattle out of waterways, and conservation easements that preserve farmland.

“This helps me make better decisions,” Spanberger told the couple. “This helps me do my job better.”

The 7th District lawmaker chairs the Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee. The other post held by the Henrico County resident, a former CIA case officer, is on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Hearing from the Gilleys helped her appreciate the effects of federal conservation programs, such as one that helps water quality by keeping livestock out of waterways, Spanberger said in an interview.

“These programs are popular, oversubscribed and underfunded, so understanding the real impacts these conservation programs have on this family, this farm, the region and agriculture is incredibly valuable as I continue to make the argument that these programs … really should be an investment we make in the future,” the Democrat said.

She began Tuesday’s tour near Lahore in Orange County, where the Carter family has been on the land since before the Civil War.

Today, Michael Carter Jr. is owner and operator of Carter Farms, which specializes in growing organic plants and vegetables.

The farm also hosts educational workshops, seminars and lectures on the history and traditions of its wide range of produce, a mix of traditional Virginia crops and imports from West Africa with deep roots in African American culture.

Building on his family’s agriculture tradition, Carter Jr. established the operation in 2017 after he returned from a five-year stay with his family in Ghana. With a rich trove of plant lore, American history and Virginia agricultural knowledge, he aims to educate visitors on the achievements of African American farmers and inventors.

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“It was a great place to start today’s tour,” Spanberger said at day’s end, eight hours and many road miles later. “That was an exciting visit. There was a bit of a history lesson, talking about some of the challenges that Black family farmers have experienced over the years, certainly when it comes to lending. That’s something that Congress is trying to rectify, and passed legislation to address.”

Late morning saw Spanberger’s car caravan journey on to Culpeper County’s Greenstone Farm near Raccoon Ford, where the congresswoman was introduced to the 25-year-old horse-breeding operation of husband and wife Jim and Carolyn Miller.

The farm couple raises German warmblood sport horses on 115 acres of beautiful, elevated pastureland offering panoramic views of Culpeper and Orange counties, outlined by the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Millers saw a downturn in business in the early days of the pandemic, but as interest in recreation peaked during the lockdown, so did interest in riding horses. And they were never without work to do around the farm.

“When the rest of the world was struggling with being isolated and in lockdown, we had plenty to do,” Jim Miller said. “It was a life we were already used to, and we have plenty of space. Plus, we work together all the time. That was a real stressor for couples who weren’t used to being together all the time—we already hashed that out years ago.”

Next, at Ardent Mills, a huge flour-processing plant near the town of Culpeper, Spanberger enjoyed talking with the mill’s manager as well as wheat farmers and truckers delivering grain to the complex.

The mill tour was closed to the press, but Spanberer said later that she heard directly what it means to farmers to have such a mill locally, how it affects what they grow and what investments they do or don’t make on their properties.

She also learned how Ardent Mills contributes to residents’ lives in Central Virginia, through participation in food and nutrition programs that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school lunch guidelines.

During Spanberger’s visit, she and officials discussed implementation of the United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement, which Spanberger helped negotiate and pass in December 2019.

When it opened in 1970, Ardent Mills was the most technologically advanced mill in the United States. Renovated in 2018, the facility is the largest mill in a five-state area and grinds some 3.5 million bushels of wheat a year, sourced almost entirely from 250-plus Virginia farmers.

The Gilley family’s Heaven’s Hollow Farm near the town of Orange was the last stop on Spanberger’s daylong agriculture tour of Central Virginia.

Read more in Tuesday’s Star-Exponent about life at Greenstone Farm as well as pasture pests, conservation and pasture management that allows the Millers’ farm to thrive.

Star-Exponent staff writer Allison Brophy Champion contributed to this report.

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Clint Schemmer, a journalist since 1980, has worked at papers in California, North Carolina and Virginia. He’s been a bureau chief, editorial-page editor, copy desk chief and local news editor. Now a staff writer at the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

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