‘Getting back to our roots’

Wade Hawkins, owner of Pleasantdale Farm, leads a group of agriculture educators on his farm west of Woodstock on Wednesday. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK — Virginia educators learned this week that agricultural education transcends school walls.

Agriculture has changed a lot over the years, and as part of this year’s Virginia Association of Agriculture Educators’ professional development conference, teachers convened in Shenandoah County for the first time in recent memory to learn there’s more than one way to run a farm.

The four-day conference, taglined “Getting Back to Our Roots,” offered various meetings and workshops, but for Jay Jarrett, agriculture teacher at Stonewall Jackson High School in Quicksburg, seeing what makes each region’s farms unique is always a high point of the week.

“Today is probably my favorite day [at] all the conferences every year,” Jarrett said.

The last time the conference visited the Northern Shenandoah Valley, it was in Winchester, Jarrett recalled. Before that, the closest it came was Rockingham County.

Agriculture educators Victorian Harrington, left, of Chancellor High School in Spotsylvania County , and Sarah Smith, right, of Beverly Manor Middle in Augusta County, chat while looking over a herd of beef cattle on Pleasantdale Farm west of Woodstock on Wednesday. Rich Cooley/Daily

Last year’s conference was in Lynchburg, he said, and next year’s is scheduled for Culpeper.

Dividing into four groups on Wednesday morning, conference attendees rode school buses to various family farms and small businesses that typify what helps separate Virginia’s northern area of agricultural education from its other four geographical areas — central, eastern, southside and Appalachian.

Jarrett joined a group visiting French Brothers Dairy and Pleasantdale Farm near Woodstock and Kibler Farms on Middle Road near Edinburg.

He said it makes sense for the conference to come to Shenandoah, since the county has such a strong relationship with agricultural education.

Farms today are more technology based, so he expected teachers to come away with a greater understanding of how they might teach their students to modernize farms in ways they might not have seen before.

Agriculture educators Jesse Morris, left, of John Battle High School in Bristol, and Mindy McCrosky, of Abingdon High School, right, chat in the cattle barn at Pleasantdale Farm in Woodstock on Wednesday. Rich Cooley/Daily

Farming, he said, “It’s not the same as what your father did and your grandfather did.”

Randy Kibler’s family farm runs a cattle feeding facility, operating in various facets of a business that also includes cow/calf pairs and custom feeding bulls.

“We do it all,” Kibler said.

Using a trial and error method over the years to find what works best for the business and the livestock, he said he has taken to purchasing cows that were mismanaged or haven’t sold well.

“For $100, I’ll take the risk,” he said.

He also feeds his cows a diet of corn and byproduct that keeps corn to a minimum and provides as many nutrients as possible.

“What we do, it’s nothing set in stone,” Kibler said. “There’s no right way or wrong way to farming.”

“It all relates to the big picture and what’s right for me,” he said.

Thomas French, of French’s Dairy, offered similar advice when he said the job is about the cows, not the quickest way of making money.

“Everything we do is to keep them happy,” said French, who works with his father, two uncles and other family members. “We’re doing it for the cows.”

Ultimately, he said, that keeps the farm operating in the most efficient way for its 120 cows.

Work begins about 3 a.m., and the first dairy cow starts milking by 4:15 a.m. The process repeats each afternoon, he said.

Equipment is washed once or twice a day to keep it sanitized and keep the product clean.

“It’s a job to do it right,” he said.

Enjoying hearing the process of other farmers and what works for them, Grayson County Public School teacher Brittney Litton said she was glad for the experience.

“Everybody has their own different ways of doing things,” she said.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com