MIDDLETOWN – The day after Kayla Lawrence, 28, got back from her honeymoon, she put in a full day’s work at the family farm.
And then again, nearly every day after that. Soon, she was lucky to get one day off a month. But now she’s looking at four straight days away from her responsibilities on the farm when she travels to Capitol Hill to meet with industry leaders and members of Congress.
Lawrence was named one of the U.S. Apple Association’s 2018 class of Young Apple Leaders at the end of January. She and 17 others young farmers will travel to Washington, D.C., on March 15.
Lawrence is only the fourth Virginia farmer to be named a YAL since 2010, and the only one from the area, outside of Winchester.
Jessa Allen, USApple director of membership and communication, said the Young Apple Leaders program “(grooms) our next generation of leaders in the apple industry.”
The chairman of the association’s board is a former Young Apple AL himself, Allen added.
Lawrence admitted that, despite 70 percent of the farm’s income coming from apples, her knowledge of federal policy around the industry is limited.
Part of that is because she’s only been back in Virginia for a couple of years. She left home at 18 to get her associate’s degree in science at Colorado Mountain College, met her husband there, moved to North Dakota, got an office job, and settled in for a few years.
Still, she said her inner compass never stopped pointing her home.
“I think I knew it was the goal,” Lawrence said.
“And she didn’t tell anybody,” added her father Eddie Richard, who runs the family farm.
“No, I didn’t tell anybody,” she said. “’Cause I didn’t want to get people’s hopes up. Like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m thinking about it,’ and then not come back. Like, how devastating would that be?”
Almost nine years after leaving home, in fall 2014, Lawrence called her dad and told him she and her husband Matt Lawrence were moving back.
Richard said he didn’t expect it.
“Didn’t see it coming. I’m still in a happy shock,” he said. “She was gone nine years … I was thrilled. And I’m still thrilled.”
The Lawrences came back home and got married on the family farm. They had their honeymoon in Ocean City, Maryland, then moved in with her parents and got used to farm life.
Besides handling livestock, it quickly became apparent that Kayla Lawrence’s specialty is retail. Rejuvenating Richard’s Fruit Market was a natural project for her — the basis of their business, the market is the main point of sale for everything the farm produces.
She changed what needed changing, but never removed what made the market special: she reimagined the store’s layout; she made the display of aprons for sale more inviting; her husband, who works at American Woodmark, built a wooden pie display from recycled parts.
Kayla Lawrence even spruced up the Richard family portraits on the shop wall, which extend all the way back to the first generation, who established the farm in 1878 as newlyweds.
Traditionally, ownership of the Richard farm has passed down the male line. It started with Harvey and Rose Richard, Kayla Lawrence’s great-great-grandparents, who handed the farm off to their son, who handed it off to his son, all the way down to Eddie Richard.
When her dad retires, Kayla Lawrence will become the first female owner of the Richard farm.
“It means the world to me, personally,” Richard said.
Richard sees this shift extending past his own family and into the greater agricultural industry. When he was younger, he was a member of the Young Growers Association, and he remembers that every farmer there was a man. Some women attended, too, but as farmer’s wives, not as future leaders of the industry.
Kayla Lawrence has big ambitions for the farm. Within 10 years she wants to bring on another employee in a managerial role, she wants to boost sales, and she wants to make that one day off a month guaranteed.
The Young Apple Leaders program, she said, is a step in the right direction.
“I want to learn as much as I can to help the farm,” Kayla Lawrence said. “To see what’s even out there, what’s going on, to see if there’s anything that could help us in the future, if there are policy changes that we can do … I’m hoping maybe I can go and learn something that can eventually help us out.”
Kayla Lawrence has heard from former YALs that young farmers forge lifelong friendships at the four-day event in Washington. Since being accepted in the class of 2018, she’s started researching the policy and legislation governing the apple industry, and she didn’t rule out one day becoming a major player on a national level.
But, for now, the family farm is enough.
“Anything’s possible,” she said. “That would be really cool, to be able to expand and be a leader, take charge and help other farmers — but this farm is my first priority.”