By Whitney Pipkin
Photo by Paula Cole
Chris Miller thinks about progress in 15-year increments. That sort of patience is required to helm the Piedmont Environmental Council, a nonprofit created in the 1970s to preserve a singular landscape that spans nine counties in the shadow of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The organization, whose territory stretches from Loudoun County in a wide swath south to just beyond Charlottesville, for decades worked to save the natural spaces increasingly at risk of being transformed into suburbs.
But it became clear that keeping development at bay was not enough. Residents needed to develop a vision for a rural economy that could sustain these places—one that’s built on agriculture and food production.
“In the time I’ve been at PEC, Loudoun County has gone from about 80,000 to almost 400,000 people,” Miller says, citing growth that’s part of both the problem and the solution. “Those people are one of the best markets for local food, so we need a food system that’s more focused on meeting the demand of this population.”
The organization has since embarked on a handful of projects aimed at connecting the dots between those lands and the farmers, markets and infrastructure necessary to keep them productive.
We talked to Miller about all the agricultural irons PEC has in the fire—and why land conservation should matter to consumers of locally grown food.
Why focus on the Piedmont?
When I started working [at PEC] in the 1990s, the Piedmont was still that hazy stuff outside the beltway. Literally, growing up in Alexandria, I didn’t quite know what was out there, and I had no real working knowledge of its geography. Part of the fun of my job is learning how fascinating the stretch of land is and all the ways it’s played into American history.
Monticello, Montpelier, UVA [The University of Virginia], half of Shenandoah Valley National Park—they are all a part of this landscape. And it’s a huge area: 175 miles by 100 miles.
How did food production become such a big part of protecting these lands?
The folks who lived in the Piedmont liked it and were trying to keep it rural. They understood that, in a rural economy, agriculture and food production are part of that from the very beginning.
Then, in the ’90s, we ran into a crisis and that’s the competition between traditional agricultural practices and development. You can call it sprawl or you can call it community growth, but the reality is you had landowners starting to choose between farming and development. So PEC really focused on tools to help with conservation of the land.
From 1985 to the current time, we’ve been working on trying to conserve about 50% of the land base so we can have a rural economy. If you stabilize the land, then it allows for innovation and investment, and there’s a hope that you can transition from what was essentially commodity production on a global market to something that might be more economically and environmentally sustainable: a food system that’s more focused on meeting the demand of this growing population.
What obstacles remain?
Where we’re all stuck is not on the production. We’re good at producing grass-fed beef; we’re good at growing produce at a certain intensity. We’ve always been an orchard-and-vineyard kind of environment. But the challenge is how do you get that to the market? People have experimented with a lot of different things, but the challenge is that you don’t have an existing network of manufacturing and distribution to tap into [in this region]. We’re competing with Lancaster, PA; and New Jersey, where food manufacturing has been part of the economy for years.
The other big challenge is getting young farmers onto land. We have a program to try to link up innovative farmers with landowners who are looking for creative ways of using their property. But it’s hard. Landowners want a stable, reliable partner who mows the perimeter. For an innovative farmer, that’s not the big concern. They’re focused on improving soil and getting better production.
How is PEC working on those issues?
Our big contribution has been Buy Fresh Buy Local, which we started about 12 years ago as a guide (in print and online) to help people identify the farmers that are producing and then let them sell directly. That’s great for the local economy because, with any type of produce, the return on investment for the farmer goes way up.
Now, we are ramping up a project at Gilbert’s Corner in Loudoun County called Roundabout Meadows. The goal is to address food security in the county by using volunteers to produce food on this land that’s been conserved, similar to Fauquier Education Farm, where they use volunteers to grow hundreds of pounds of produce for local food banks in and around Fauquier County.
We think that if we do this in every jurisdiction where we work, we can help address the 10% of families that need a more stable source of local food.
What are some of the wins?
Everybody is starting to work together. It’s taken 15 years to get to this point, but we’re making a lot of progress—and I don’t see the local-food thing flattening out. I see it still growing.
The grocery stores are now competing with each other to offer local food. We’re at a point now where Wegmans is coming to us to identify local producers. Now, that’s what you’re hoping for, because they’ll figure out the manufacturing part. They already know how to do that.
They came to us three years ago and said we need 45,000 carcasses a year; do you know people who grow cows? We just put them together, and I think 10 or 15 contracts came out of that. That many carcasses a year is Fauquier County’s entire cow-calf production.
It doesn’t all come from one county, but it gives you a sense. The scale is meaningful.