Winchester Main Street Agriculture offers fresh perspective on fight for better food

By Josette Keelor

Area projects like Buy Fresh Buy Local have helped increase interest in locally produced foods, but more attention is needed to combat declining farmland, according to advocates of Winchester Main Street Agriculture.

Dee Cook, membership development specialist for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation’s statewide Main Street program, said Main Street Agriculture is not just a once a year thing. It’s a movement.

“It’s about the heartbeat of the community,” she said. “It’s about connecting farmers with consumers and businesses. It’s about strengthening the tie between farms and retailers. It’s about quality of life.”

Philip Shenk, senior district field services director for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, said last fall’s rally was a success, and he expects a bigger turnout this year.

“We were astonished that we had over 3,000 people come to the walking mall in Winchester to look at agriculture,” he said.

The goal of the movement is to build a sense of community between city and rural communities.

Cook said part of what program supporters are battling is a lack of understanding about the importance of farm fresh products.

“Local food matters because right now we are hemorrhaging the loss of farms in Virginia,” she said. There’s a generation gap in farming. Instead of children taking over farms for their parents, they’re moving away or seeking careers in other fields.

The next generation isn’t there to meet the nutritional needs of the public, Cook said. Part of what will help mend that gap is interested people pursuing jobs that will aid the cause — not only farmers, but teachers, scientists and agriculture lobbyists all can help, she said.

“Where will we get our food? It’s that simple,” she said. “Where will our children and their children get their food?”

“Farming matters,” she said. “Is there anything that matters more than food and water?”

Kitty Hockman-Nicholas, committee chair for the movement in Frederick County, has worked with Buy Fresh Buy Local, which she called “basically a publication.”

“But this is something that’s not going to stop,” she said. “It’s going to be continuing on and it’s on a larger scale. It’s actually an event.”

A third generation farmer on Hedgebrook Farm in Frederick County, Hockman-Nicholas said Main Street Agriculture combats the practice of shipping produce from 2,000 miles away. Buying food in the supermarket, people have to wonder where it comes from and how old it is, she said.

“When you go to farmers markets and farms, you know the answers to all those questions,” she said.

Likening the movement to a snowball accumulating power and size as it rolls downhill, Cook said the Farm Bureau is determined to make its message clear, county to county, beginning with Frederick County, where the movement held its pilot launch last year.

After Cook proposed the idea to the Main Street group in Richmond, she approached Shenk to partner with her on growing the program across Virginia and eventually nationwide.

“The valley’s really important to us,” Cook said. “You know this is where it all started and this is where we would like to continue to see it lead the charge. … Virginia will lead the charge.”

So far, the movement is gaining ground.

Last year’s rally was on the Loudoun Street Pedestrian Mall, Cook said. “It was fantastic. We had incredible press.”

She said she and other program organizers kept hearing the same discouraging words: It won’t work, and getting sponsors will be difficult.

“And we proved it all to be untrue,” she said. Sponsorship was so powerful the movement donated $4,000 to the area Agriculture in the Classroom curriculum program.

The Old Town Development Board in Winchester, the city of Winchester and the George Washington Hotel were among the lead sponsors, Cook said.

She said the first step people can make in supporting the movement is to become Farm Bureau members, for $40 a year.

“You don’t have to be a farmer to be a member,” she said. Anyone who demands food on their tables should be a member, she said.

“If you want local food on your table, sometimes you have to fight for it,” she said. She and Shenk said they’re one step closer to winning that fight.

Shenk said word is getting around that the yearly fall event will benefit farmers in a way that staying home on the farm won’t accomplish. He asked Frederick County and Winchester residents to “save the date” for Sept. 28 this year, because it will be even bigger and better than last year’s, with more vendors and entertainment for the whole family.

Hockman-Nicholas said the rally will include a “Touch a Tractor” event for children, giveaways, landscaping information and cooking demonstrations. She’s been working with Rep. Frank Wolf and Sen. Mark Warner to arrange for Sam Kass, assistant to the executive White House chef, to be there, too.

And Cook advised buying local. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s healthier,” she said.

“When all else fails, local food matters.”

The Winchester Main Street Agriculture movement is growing its website, but look for updates on www.facebook.com/WinchestersMainStreetAgriculture or visit the Virginia Farm Bureau at www.vafarmbureau.org.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com