Loudoun’s farmers and rural business owners had the chance Thursday morning to have their most pressing concerns addressed on a national level.
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) attended events in Loudoun, Winchester, and Prince William County this week during the Senate recess to discuss issues centered on topics like health care, gun safety and agriculture. On Thursday morning, he visited Hillsboro’s Old Stone School for aRural Business and Economy Roundtable, then traveled to two Loudoun farms and ended his day at The Vineyards & Winery at Lost Creek.
In Hillsboro, Kaine, who in 2018 helped to pass the Farm Bill that defined hemp as an agricultural commodity rather than a controlled substance, sat at the head of a roundtable discussion with 20 rural business owners and was confronted with topics of a decreasing rural labor workforce and broadband service, health care and high land costs in rural Loudoun. Even timelier was a brief discussion of the town’s Rt. 9 road project, which has sparked resident outcry in recent weeks over the project’s proposed full road closures through town.
Hillsborough Winery, Brewery and VineyardOwner Kerem BakiaskedKaine how he thought the town should proceed with its road project, since, according to Baki, many area businesses continue to question the project’s benefit on the town. Baki related Hillsboro’s approach to the project as seeking to do it “faster, cheaper, better.”
Kaine noted that Baki had asked him to “weigh in on a local controversy” and that the answer should come from the local officials who the residents elected—namely, Mayor Roger Vance and Vice Mayor Amy Marasco, who are managing the project.
Kaine referenced his time serving as the mayor of Richmond from 1998-2001 while saying he understood that Vance has a tough job to do. He said that while being mayor wasn’t his favorite job, and that it “will kill you,” out of all the titles he’s had throughout his career, he would keep the title of mayor, since mayors are the most accessible to residents and prove that democracy can still work.
At the more regional level, a common concern among those sitting around the round was individual access to healthcare. Kaine said because of that difficulty, many people choose to go to work for larger companies and don’t enter an agricultural-based field, like farming.
Farmer Sam Kroiz, who his running as an independent for the Catoctin District seat on the county board, echoed Kaine’s comments, emphasizing that the decreasing number of farmers is a direct result of inadequate health care coverage being provided. “When you’re talking about health care, you’re also talking about the future of farming in our country,” he said.
Kaine assured the roundtable that he was “quite convinced” his Medicare-X plan would be the next step forward in providing affordable insurance to those employees. The bill proposes to leave the existing private health care system in place while allowing anyone to apply for a public health care option.
That discussion eventually dovetailed into a conversation on the issue of a shrinking rural workforce. Walsh Family Wine Co-owner Nate Walsh said that labor accounts for 70 percent of his total business costs, 90 percent of which is attributable to labor in his multiple vineyards, and that he was concerned about finding additional employees to tend the vines.
Kaine said he is cosponsoring the JOBS Act, which proposes tohelp students access training forthe nation’s millions of vacant jobs by allowing Pell Grants to cover high-quality, short-term job training programs.
Kaine said that another part of the answer to that concern is comprehensive immigration reform, which, he said, would not only ensure border security, but also help legal immigrants find employment. “We’re not going to have the workforce we need if we choke off immigration,” he said.
Aside from the need for laborers to work the land, a few business owners highlighted that the land first needs to be accessible. Long Stone Farm Owner Casey Wisch said that, while property is available in western Loudoun, it’s too expensive for many to purchase.
On the topic of overpricing, Catoctin Creek Distillery Founder Becky Harris said that unlike the tax on wine and beer, the distillery tax isn’t tiered, which means she pays exactly what Heaven Hill Distillery in Kentucky pays. According to its website, Heaven Hill is the sixth largest spirits supplier in the nation.“That doesn’t feel fair,” Harris said.
Harris urged Kaine to cosponsor theCraft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act of 2019, which would reduce the tax rate on distilled spirits from an even $13.50 per proof gallon to $2.70 per proof gallon for the first 100,000 gallons.
Kaine said that although the bill has positive impacts for smaller distilleries like Catoctin Creek, he’s heard that it would also greatly benefit larger producers.
Rural broadband was also discussed, as has been the case in western Loudoun in recent years. Kaine said that, while the federal government continues to invest in expanding broadband throughout the nation, it’s “moving slow.” He blamed congressional Republicans’ opposition to raising taxes or fees as a key hurdle. “If you’re not going to come up with funds, you’re not going to do it,” he said.
Marasco noted that Loudoun generally doesn’t qualify for direct grant funds because of its high household incomes. She said the federal and state governments need to look at rural communities in a more localized way.
Also participating in the roundtable discussion were Supervisors Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin), along with Loudoun Department of Economic Development Executive Director Buddy Rizer.