SURRY The dusty roads running through the cotton and peanut fields tell the story of a hot, dry summer in Surry County.
“It’s not very fun this year, watching everything dry up,” said farmer E. McDonald “Mac” Berryman, 70, in late July before a little rain came his way. “We had excellent potential. Spring was good — up until June 23.”
Dates stick in your mind when your work depends on water falling from the sky and it doesn’t.
“I wouldn’t really encourage anybody to farm the way things are,” he said of the only job he’s ever known. “Long hours and a lot of work and little money — and you put it all back into the farm.”
And yet ...
Farming is what Berryman does and what he knows and what he loves.
“Don’t know how to do anything else,” he said.
But it’s really more than that.
He represents the 10th generation of American farmers in the Berryman family. His ancestors came to Virginia in 1630, and they’ve been farming ever since. His son farms with him, and he wants his grandchildren — the 12th generation — to have a shot at farming, too, if they’d like.
That’s part of his motivation for entering into an agreement to put one of his farms — Bacon’s Castle Plantation Farm — into a conservation easement that will allow his family to continue owning it but with restrictions that protect the 1,260-acre farm from development in perpetuity.
The easement, filed with Surry County in June, represents a major victory for those who want to see farmland and wetlands preserved, for Bacon’s Castle itself and neighboring Chippokes Plantation State Park, and for Berryman and his family.
“It’s a beautiful piece of land,” Berryman said as he showed me around the farm that he acquired along with his son and nephew in 2012 after renting and farming it for three years before that. He’s admired it for years and years. “You dream of working it one day, but you never dream of owning it. Everything just worked out for us.”
As for the easement, “We want to preserve the land. We wanted to keep it for our family and let them enjoy it and have the opportunity to farm. I’ve got four grandkids. I would hope out of that group somebody would keep the farming operation going. If you love to farm, this is probably THE farm to have in Surry County.”
In general, a conservation easement protects land from development. Some easements are donated by property owners. With others, such as in Berryman’s case, development rights are purchased from landowners through organizations interested in preserving the land involved.
The easement on Bacon’s Castle Plantation Farm was purchased from Berryman and his partners for $1.2 million with funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, Virginia’s Open-Space Lands Preservation Trust Fund and the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation.
What the money purchased were conservation-friendly restrictions on what can be done with the property, most notably that it cannot be subdivided, it cannot be developed for commercial or industrial use, and some of its woodlands cannot be cut. Berryman directed the proceeds to pay off the loan used to acquire the farm to reduce his debt burden while protecting the land.
Though Berryman and his family continue to own the farm, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, with a mission to protect open spaces, is the easement holder, meaning it is responsible for making certain the terms of the easement are maintained in perpetuity. (Berryman may sell the farm, but the new owner assumes the easement restrictions.)
Jason McGarvey, communications and outreach manager for the Richmond-based foundation, said that of the thousands of farms the organization has protected over the years, “This one ranks among the most significant.”
The farm’s prominent frontage along state Route 10, its water and habitat resources, its high-quality agricultural soil, and its proximity to Chippokes Plantation State Park and Bacon’s Castle, the oldest brick dwelling in North America that dates to 1665 (a few years after the farm was established) and is owned by Preservation Virginia.
“We are so grateful to Mac for placing the conversation easement on his property,” said Will Glasco, director of development for Preservation Virginia. “Having the farmland around Bacon’s Castle kept intact adds immensely to the visitor experience. It truly looks as it did in the 17th century.”
One of the biggest threats to a viable farm is breaking it into smaller pieces, McGarvey said, and the easement will prevent that. Another reason foundation officials consider the easement arrangement so significant is Berryman himself.
“We’re not talking about some wealthy guy who farms for kicks,” said Leslie Grayson, deputy director of the foundation. “He’s not a gentleman farmer. He borrowed a lot of money to buy the property. It speaks to how important this was to him. It’s something he wanted to do to preserve working agriculture in southeastern Virginia. He’s very proud of his family roots there.”
Chippokes Plantation was his mother’s family’s homeplace. Her family arrived in Virginia in the early 1600s. His father’s family came over at around the same time, but landed in Delaware — “I guess whoever brought them over went the wrong way up the Chesapeake Bay,” Berryman said — before working their way to southeastern Virginia in the ensuing decades. He believes some of his ancestors might have lived on Bacon’s Castle farmland — but not in the big house — in the 1700s.
He likes to tell people, with a laugh, “Our forefathers came over here in debt, and we’ve done well to keep it up.”
Berryman was born and raised and still lives at Elberon, a small community in Surry, and said he now lives less than a mile from where he grew up.
“That’s as far as I ever got,” he said dryly.
Including Bacon’s Castle Plantation Farm, Berryman farms upward of 5,000 acres in Surry (and owns about half of it) under the banner of Beechland Farms, making him one of the county’s largest — if not the largest — farmers.
Besides cotton and peanuts, they grow soybeans, wheat, barley and rye, but mostly they consider themselves peanut farmers. His son, Steve, who graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in agriculture, and his wife, Jordan, run College Run Farms, a pick-your-own operation place with strawberries and pumpkins and an adjoining farm market where they make and sell incredibly good ice cream.
Not content with merely preserving the land around Bacon’s Castle, Mac Berryman would like to make it available to the public through walking trails, kayak launches on Lower Chippokes Creek, and the rediscovered Road to Chippokes, which was a toll road back in the early 1700s used for carrying goods and produce to ships.
Part of the old road is on Bacon’s Castle Plantation Farm, and the rest is in the state park. Berryman would like to open it up so “people could walk from Chippokes to Bacon’s Castle like they did hundreds of years ago.”
The management of such public access is still in the works, and the whole thing sounds like a bit of a nuisance for a man who farms for his living. But Berryman said, “It’s just something I like to do.
“I like to meet people,” he said as we sat at a picnic table outside Bacon’s Castle. “So many kids today don’t have a chance to get out in the country. I think families would enjoy the trails. It wouldn’t be real fancy, but it would be nature. Most of it hasn’t been disturbed.”
And it’s going to stay that way now.
“Whenever you can permanently conserve farmland that is going to leave the land available for future agricultural use, it’s a good thing,” said Andrew V. Sorrell, coordinator of the Office of Farmland Preservation for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “And when it’s got a historical connection ... that’s even more of a showpiece.”