Agriculture in Washington County: A Growing Industry
Agriculture-based businesses continue to power the economy of this thriving Southwest Virginia region.
Agriculture and agriculture-related products and services make up the No. 1 industry in Washington County, contributing more than $76 million to the regional economy. At the heart of this thriving industry are small family farms, family-owned agriculture supply stores and locally owned farm-to-table restaurants, such as White Birch Food & Juice in Abingdon.
Founded by Nicole Dyer, Michael Ferracci and William Denton, White Birch incorporates products from southern Virginia farms into its diverse food and drink menu, which includes cold-pressed juices and made-from-scratch entrees. For example, the restaurant sources its beef from Laurel Springs Farm, a family farm in Marion.
“Nicole’s the reason for this place. She was the visionary. She wanted to take local ingredients in the south of Virginia area and bring them into a restaurant and produce food for the community,” says Denton, who is now the restaurant’s sole owner. “When Nicole first started in 2014, it was just the juice side. She would go to the local farmers market to get the greens for the juices.”
“The local farmers don’t use any of the pesticides or chemicals that the big companies do. It’s all natural and organic. People are what they eat. If you eat clean and good – you know, natural foods – your body is going to end up feeling the same way.”
William Denton, White Birch
Denton says after starting the restaurant, Dyer began sourcing even more products from the farmers market. “It really helped [those farmers’] businesses boom,” he says. “The town also helped us with trying to get grants. Then we got some farmland and started growing our own vegetables.”
Denton grew up in a family that raised dairy cattle, so he knows firsthand the work that goes into maintaining a family farm and the benefits those farms add to the local food chain.
“The local farmers don’t use any of the pesticides or chemicals that the big companies do. It’s all natural and organic,” Denton says. “People are what they eat. If you eat clean and good – you know, natural foods – your body is going to end up feeling the same way.”
A local favorite is the Birch power bowl with quinoa, seasonal root vegetables, goat cheese with a maple sauce. Local sourcing doesn’t end with the menu. The works of local artists adorn the restaurant’s walls. A communal commitment to agriculture is just one of the advantages Washington County offers farmers.
“For me, I like the fact that Washington County has plenty of space,” says David McLeish, who, with his wife Debbie, owns the Dreamland Alpacas farm in Meadowview. “There’s plenty of land for your house and your farm. You’re close enough to what you need, but you’re not on top of each other. It’s peaceful and quiet here.”
The couple bought their farm in 2005 and spent the next 13 months fixing it up. In 2007, they purchased six alpacas to “eat the grass the horses weren’t eating,” McLeish says.
They quickly fell in love with their herd, which has now grown to 45 animals. The alpacas are bred for resale, and their fiber is milled and then used to weave hats, gloves, scarves, socks and other articles of clothing, which Debbie makes and sells. The McLeishes also open the farm up to tours and school field trips. David McLeish says it’s important to educate the younger generations about the role agriculture plays in their lives.
“There are people whom you ask, ‘Where does your clothing come from?,’ and they’ll say something like Walmart or Target,” he says. “We can bring them here and show them how we raise the animals, how we get the fiber and then how it goes through the other processes. When people come out, they see how sweet the animals are and feel how soft they are, and it’s such a joy to see all the smiling faces.”
When he’s not tending to the animals, McLeish manages the Abingdon Farmers Market. He says the market played a major role in keeping residents’ pantries stocked during the height of the pandemic.
“On a given Saturday morning, we have between 1,200 and 1,500 customers,” he says. “We managed to survive the pandemic because when the stores were running out of supplies, the local farmers were doing a great job of keeping stocked with fresh produce and meats. People learned they could come here and get what they wanted, and it has become a habit.”
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