Fields of gold

Tree Hill Farm – perhaps Henrico’s most iconic, with its sweeping view of the Richmond skyline – awaits development as a mixed-use community. (Citizen file photo/Ryan McKinnon)

As the summer begins, corn, wheat, soybeans, herbs and fruit are growing throughout Henrico County.

Despite surrounding three sides of Richmond and being the fifth most populous county in the state, Henrico is still home to 117 farms and 12,891 acres of farmland. County residents and leaders have been debating the role of farms in Henrico for the past 50 years. While few will dispute the beauty of historic Tree Hill Farm or Varina Farm, there is a wide spectrum of opinions as to what role farms should play in the future of the county.

Nowhere else in the county is farmland as expansive as in the eastern district of Varina.

Varina constitutes half of the landmass of Henrico county, yet has only a small fraction of its residents. The district has found itself at the crux of conflict repeatedly throughout its 400-year history. Pocahontas and John Rolfe lived on Varina Farm, bringing about a peace between the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan Indians. Tree Hill Farm on Route 5 is where Richmond surrendered to Union Troops in one of the final battles of the Civil War.

And now, as developers buy up massive swaths of land in moves that will dramatically reshape the district, residents are debating not if, but how, when and where farmland will be transformed into neighborhoods and commercial space.

The fight for Varina’s future is, as they say in government, “multi-jurisdictional.” Residents, farmers, developers, county planners, cyclists and tourists all have an opinion.

Open-space appreciation
Stephen Gallmeyer, owner of Gallmeyer Farms and the Berry Patch, a pick-your-own strawberry farm in Varina, said that he wants to see the growth in Varina slow.

“I’m a farm boy. I appreciate open spaces, and I don’t need a 7-Eleven or Family Dollar on every corner,” he said. “And the majority of people I rub elbows with feel the same way, but you know, birds of a feather do flock together.”

For change-wary residents like Gallmeyer, the strongest argument against development lies to the northwest: Short Pump. To some, the traffic, chain restaurants and big box stores serve as an ever-present cautionary tale.

“I remember as a teen going out to Short Pump and the only thing out there was a transmission shop,” said Gallmeyer. “Now it’s like New Jersey!”

This anti-Short Pump mentality has become ubiquitous in certain circles. A banner advertising apartments in Shockhoe Bottom reads, “180 degrees from Short Pump.”

Varina activists have printed bumper stickers that read “Don’t Short Pump Varina.”
Pictured (from left) are Jawanza Smith, Brian, Jason Carter (owner of the True Professionals barber shop in Varina) and Mike Crawley.)

But not everyone in Varina feels this way. Jawanza Smith, 41, has lived in Varina his whole life. Standing outside True Professionals Barber Shop, on the corner of New Market and Osborne Turnpike, Smith said, “People are always saying, ‘Don’t Short Pump Varina, but those of us that live in Varina have to go to Short Pump if we want to do anything. After 9 o'clock, everything around here is closed.”

Across the street from the barber shop is where Richmond mayor Joseph Mayo surrendered the city to Union Troops on April 3, 1865. The city burned as Mayo surrendered, the result of fires set by Jefferson Davis and Confederate soldiers as they fled. Richmond’s surrender was one of the final events of the Civil War. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant one week later, on April 9, 1865.

Gesturing towards the historical marker commemorating the surrender, Smith, who is black, said, “If not for that battle we wouldn’t be Americans right now.”

It is not hard to picture the scene of the surrender. The historical marker stands at the front of Tree Hill Farm, one of Varina’s oldest and largest farms. Acres of corn, punctuated by an ivy-covered silo, slope down to the river. A long tree-shaded gravel driveway leads to a white farmhouse with sweeping views of the river and downtown Richmond.

Last summer Meg Ryan used the farm as the locale for filming Ithaca, a World War Two coming-of-age movie. Smith said that although Ryan and Tom Hanks using the farm to film a movie was exciting, it didn’t help anyone in Varina.

“We saw the traffic, but we didn’t see any revenue,” he said.

As he's gotten older, Smith has seen the number of African Americans living in Varina increase, but he thinks the conflict over development in the district is more along generational lines than racial.

“When I grew up here, it was mostly white and you had KKK stuff,” Smith said. “Now the demographics have shifted, but the traditional mindset of the people here has not changed.

“A lot of times a generation has to die off in order for things to change. It sounds cold, but it’s true.”

Tree Hill’s planned ‘new urbanism’
The development that Smith wants is coming. In 2007 Gray Land and Development Company purchased Tree Hill Farm and drew up plans to build a community that embraced the ideals of “new urbanism.” The design called for 2,770 new residences, a school, and more than 1 million square feet of commercial space. The project has been on hold until housing prices increase, and the farm continues to operate, but Tree Hill Farm’s ultimate fate is sealed. Farmers like Gallmeyer bemoan the changes.

“As a farmer, I look at it as pure beauty,” he said. “Anything that you would do to change it would change the beauty, and knowing they are slated for construction just breaks my heart.”

However strong Gallmeyer may be in his opinions about development in Varina, he developed a business model that is conducive to a district in which land one day will be a premium. In the early 1990s, Gallmeyer and his father shifted their business over from wholesale grain farming to strawberry fields and pumpkin patches, where customers came and picked their own.

The shift from wholesale farming to agri-tourism yielded more cash flow per acreage. It is not necessarily more profitable, Gallmeyer said, but it does allow farmers to survive on fewer acres.

Opening up one’s farm to the public does have its drawbacks. Gallmeyer is no longer just a farmer; he is now a marketer, host and event planner, utilizing social media to attract people to the farm.

“I’m out in the fields at least 12 hours a day working with the crop, and then my work day isn’t over when I get home,” he said. “I’m checking emails twice a day, and then I gotta reply to all of them. I’m up by at least six and strive to go to bed by midnight.”

‘Conservation subdivisions’
One of the many county leaders working to strike a balance between the Short Pump-envying crowd and the anti-development crowd is Nicole Anderson-Ellis, vice-chair of the Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation Board. Anderson-Ellis said that the debate cannot be boiled down to either all development or no development.

“One of the challenges that I think humans face is that we tend to compartmentalize. Here are the farmers and here are the bikers, and this is the county versus the city,” she said. “We tend to draw lines which can narrow our vision.”

Anderson-Ellis pointed to Virginia’s two biggest industries as indicators of Varina’s viability: agriculture and tourism. Her vision for the eastern portion of the county is to not only preserve the farms, but to harness the appeal of a farm to entice both new residents and tourists. Whereas many developers raze entire farms to build subdivisions, Anderson-Ellis is trying to sell the idea of a “conservation subdivision.”

“Rather than converting a 100-acre farm into 100 one-acre home sites, cluster 100 homes onto 25 acres and keep 75 acres of farmland,” she said.

A conservation subdivision sells itself on being situated amongst farmland without the 12-hour days spent in the fields.

“People want to live on farms, but they don’t want to be farmers,” Anderson-Ellis said.

She said that preserving the county’s farmland is essential to tourism that, in turn, helps support the county’s farms.

“Nobody’s going to ride on a bike trail that runs through a whole bunch of big box stores. People just won’t do that; they’ll just find a pretty trail somewhere else,” Anderson-Ellis said. “It turns out that the people who ride on bike trails spend a lot of money. So if you’re growing wine, or if you have some sort of ‘pick-your-own’ farm, or if you’re going to have a band on the farm, or a farm stand, you have the customers coming to you. What we’re talking about is what’s best for the community – both the farmers and their neighbors.”

She encouraged stakeholders to think about the bottom line. Many in the debate point to the tax revenue brought in by the hundreds of businesses in Short Pump, but Anderson-Ellis pointed out that, from a financial perspective, subdivisions are more costly to counties than farms.

“Subdivisions and houses – they need police, they need schools, they need a level of infrastructure that farmers don’t need,” she said. “Cows don’t go to school. Strawberries don’t commit crimes.”

County Budget Director Brandon Hinton confirmed Anderson-Ellis’ argument. The county spends far less overall in Varina (less as a whole, not less per person) than it does in the other districts because of the wide open spaces.

He also emphasized that when it comes to developing historic farmland, the county evaluates more than just the dollars and cents.

“While there’s not a whole lot of taxable revenue (in Varina), there is clearly a value to the county in terms of the unique identity,” Hinton said.

Varina District Supervisor Tyrone Nelson said that, in the near future, most of the development in Varina will be concentrated in areas that have been traditionally residential.

“The huge open land is what makes Varina special,” he said.

Nicole and Stan Schermerhorn
Living on a retirement account
Twenty miles north of Varina, Stan Schermerhorn sweated through another day on Lavender Fields Farm. Schermerhorn and his wife, Nicole, grow more than 250 different varieties of organic herbs that they sell to grocers like Whole Foods.

The current group of Schermerhorns are the fifth and sixth generations to farm on their land, which borders the Chickahominy River in the Fairfield District of the county. Previous generations raised cattle and grew watermelon, but Nicole and Stan specialize in herbs. Basil is their best seller, and neat rows of oregano, mint, and lavender line the greenhouses.

After an ineffective irrigation system resulted in several plants dying, Stan began doing all the watering himself. He sometimes waters up to 10 hours a day, often in greenhouses where the temperatures can approach 110 degrees in the summer.

“When the Bible says, ‘you shall not eat if you do not work’ it’s really true for us,” Nicole said. “We are living Genesis.”

When growing delicate herbs to be sold to quality-conscious consumers at high-end grocery stores, the margin for error is miniscule. One mistake can result in a loss of months of labor and thousands of dollars.

Two summers ago, a delivery truck containing $40,000 worth of plants was pulled over in North Carolina. The truck’s paper work was not fully in compliance, so police did not allow the driver to finish his delivery. After eight hours in the intense heat with no ventilation, the plants began to wilt. Months of work was at risk of going to waste due to a paperwork error. Neither of the Schermerhorns could leave the farm themselves, so their nephew drove to North Carolina to rescue the stranded herbs and prevent a catastrophic loss of profit.

Experience has taught the Schermerhorns to operate under the philosophy that if they want a job done right, they should do it themselves. Nicole said limiting the number of outside helpers “contains the nightmare.”

Last year Stan tried to attend an herb festival at Maymont Park, but he received a phone call at 10 a.m. from the substitute waterer, who had overslept – putting thousands of plants in danger.

“Dealing with living things is the hardest part,” Nicole Schermerhorn said. “I didn’t want animals because of that, but with herbs it’s the same thing.”

Though some may romanticize the notion of a husband-wife farm, Nicole warned against going into farming with a spouse.

“Unless you want a divorce, don’t (do it),” she said. “You just have to change your expectations. We like to work.”

She said that there are times of the year when she and Stan don’t see each other for days. Christmas Day is their one official day off each year.

“Last week we took the afternoon off and went to the Dairy Freeze, and it’s all we’ve been talking about since then,” Nicole said.

The Schermerhorns' property slopes down to the Chickahominy River. A football-field length meadow shaded by beech trees stands between the house and the river. Its classification as a flood plain has left it untouched by the herb-growing operation. If the Schermerhorns ever applied for a liquor license, the meadow would be booked instantly by brides eager for an outdoor wedding.

Schermerhorn and his children dammed up a bend in the river, providing a shaded swimming hole. Decades-old markings indicating both flood levels and lovers’ initials scar the beech trees. The hole is an idyllic escape from the heat of the greenhouses, and it has doubled as a baptismal spot for the congregation at the Schermerhorns’ church, Calvary Chapel in Mechanicsville.

Despite the serenity of the swimming hole, the spiritual significance of being a place of baptism, and the ancestral carvings commemorating high waters and young love, Nicole is always hesitant to jump in. Snakes are not sentimental creatures, and Nicole said that she has seen far more snakes in this tranquil spot than she ever did growing up in Australia, the deadly snake capital of the world.

The Schermerhorns have resisted offers to sell their farm. They, like Gallmeyer, have invested their profits back into their farm, and the land that they live on is their retirement account. This is the predicament most farmers eventually face – how to actually retire from farming without selling to the developers who come knocking.
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Reynolds CC dedicates student center

Reynolds Community College recently celebrated the dedication of the Jerry and Mary Owen Student Center, named for longtime supporters of the college who have made numerous investments in it.

Jerry Owen served on the Reynolds College Board from 1984 to 1988, and he and his wife support the college’s scholarship fund and created an endowment for the Reynolds Middle College, which helps students earn a high school equivalency and transition into a degree or workforce credential program. > Read more.

Capital One sponsors ‘Coders Experience’

Capital One hosted its “Coders Experience” event in Richmond and a number of other state locations Oct. 14. The events attracted hundreds of middle school girls, who learned how to create their own mobile apps, hone problem-solving skills and gain software development knowledge. A second day of Coders Experience events will take place Oct. 21. More than 500 Capital One volunteers are participating in the 10 events. > Read more.

Hermitage band member named All-American

The U.S. Army All-American Bowl Presented by American Family Insurance Selection Tour will visit Hermitage H.S. Oct. 19 to recognize Truman Chancy as a 2018 U.S. Army All-American. Hermitage High School will honor Chancy before his classmates, bandmates, family and friends at the high school’s band room during band practice, and he will be presented with his honorary All-American Marching Band jacket. > Read more.

Crime Stoppers’ Crime of the Week: Oct. 16, 2017

This week, Metro Richmond Crime Stoppers is asking for the public to assist the Richmond Police Department in the identification of wayward artists that were using buildings as their canvas.

In the early morning hours of Sept. 14, four people were recorded on security cameras vandalizing multiple properties in the area of the 2500 blocks of West Main Street and Floyd Avenue. The suspects (pictured) were walking north on Robinson Street and spray painting the properties as they meandered along. > Read more.

Slipping through

Hermitage quarterback Jay Carney escapes defenders during the Panthers' 33-0 win against Godwin Friday night. Hermitage is 8-0 and has won its past four games by a combined score of 172-28. > Read more.

Henrico Business Bulletin Board

October 2017

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The Virginia Master Naturalists’ Riverine Chapter will hold an Open House from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at North Park Library. Find out if becoming a Master Naturalist is for you – talk with active Master Naturalists, see examples of volunteer projects and have questions answered personally. Master Naturalists are volunteer educators, citizen scientists and environmental stewards helping Virginia conserve and manage natural resources and public lands. Applications are due by Dec. 1. Training will start Jan. 11, 2018. The cost is $100 for materials. For details, visit or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Full text

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