How best to protect the area’s thousands of acres of farmland from development has been a decades-long debate in Loudoun County, often battled out in board rooms and late-night committee meetings.
Now, the men and women who lead some of the county’s most successful rural businesses say that part of the solution is found in raising up the next generation of farmers.
This week, they announced the New Ag School, a tuition-free certificate program that will provide mentorship to farm employees, as well as hands-on training in everything from horticulture to hospitality to prepare them to grow Loudoun County’s rural economy.
“We are teaching people that you don’t have to stare at a computer all day to make a living,” said Doug Fabbioli, New Ag School board member and owner of Fabbioli Cellars. “We are teaching farming.”
Loudoun’s agriculture economy includes 1,400 farms and rural businesses, such as breweries, wineries and niche farms that offer beef, lamb, poultry, eggs, dairy products, flowers, herbs, vegetables, Christmas trees and even alpaca products.
Kellie Hinkle, also a New Ag School board member and agriculture development officer for Loudoun County Department of Economic Development, said county leaders’ strategy to protect Loudoun’s open space has changed in recent years. It used to be about preserving as many acres as possible, but now it’s about creating agribusinesses that will make that land viable.
“It’s not about preserving acreage anymore just for preserving acreage,” she said. “It’s about building businesses on those acres.”
Fabbioli’s vision to train up the next generation of farmers in a school without walls—which came to him in a literal dream almost 10 years ago—sets that strategy into motion.
The school’s board is made up of wine makers, horticulturists, and other leaders in Loudoun’s agribusiness sector. Together, they developed a curriculum that balances theoretical knowledge and hands-on, relevant skills. Throughout the course of the first phase of the program, participants from a variety of backgrounds—Latinos, retirees, veterans and youth—will be mentored by local farmers in five areas: cleaning and sanitation, horticulture, farm equipment, hospitality, leadership and entrepreneurship.
The curriculum is in both English and Spanish. “We recognize that a lot of our workforce has not grown up here. Here at the winery, in some situations our Spanish-speaking employees have been mentors and, in others, mentees,” Fabbioli said.
To start, the school has six mentors, or teachers, who will go through training in partnership with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, and Fabbioli expects about 12 students to enroll. Among the mentors are Tyler Wegmeyer with Wegmeyer Farm, Loudounberry Farm and Garden’s Jeff Ertman, Molly Kroiz with Georges Mill Farm, and Ben Sedlins with Fabbioli Cellars.
Liam Marshall-Brown, one of the New Ag School’s first students, credits the program to helping him finally find his niche. After graduating from high school in 2013, he went to Appalachian State University and found, after a year, that college was not for him. When he moved back home to Loudoun County, he landed a job at Meadows Farms and later at Fabbioli Cellars, where he formally enrolled in the New Ag School program.
“I learned that I like plants and being outside,” the 22-year-old said. He’s learned to harvest asparagus, plant hops, blend and bottle wine. “It’s been really cool.”
To get the school off the ground, 100WomenStrong awarded the New Ag School a $9,000 grant. The philanthropic organization donates grants to Loudoun nonprofits to support work in the areas of shelter, health, hunger, and education. This is the first grant for a post-secondary program.
Kirsten Langhorne, charter member of 100WomenStrong, said she and her husband come from the home-building industry which, like agriculture, often attracts smart, hard-working individuals who have not had mentors to teach them the ins and outs of running a business.
“Equipping these individuals with the skills to lead agribusinesses—think of what that can ignite across the county,” she said.
For more information on the New Ag School, email [email protected].