Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA-10) toured local agricultural businesses Thursday to mark the relaunch of the bipartisan Agritourism Caucus, which she founded with Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC-7) in 2019.
“They adapted quite a bit during COVID, but they’re looking forward to getting back to more normal times,” Wexton said while stopping for lunch at Wheatland Spring Farm + Brewery. “But they’ve learned some lessons from COVID which they’re going to keep—things like a reservation system and online reservations were very helpful, and so they’ll keep some of that just to enhance the user experience.”
Agritourism is a sector that has taken a beating during the COVID-19 pandemic, but with fair weather returning and vaccination ongoing, Wexton said the 10th District has some success stories the rest of the caucus can learn from.
She said Loudoun and the 10th District have can share some best practices learned during the pandemic with the rest of the country, “because I think we’ve got a pretty great formula around here.”
That will be useful for other regions “especially as more districts are like mine, that have the suburban encroaching into the rural, and more and more family farms that are facing pressure to sell out to developers, to be able to use this property for agricultural purposes but also enhancing the quality of life for the people that live here,” Wexton said.
She also said the caucus can streamline the work of getting federal assistance or grants for agricultural businesses.
John and Bonnie Branding, Wheatland Spring’s founders, said they saw strong support even during the pandemic, and that Congress can help with some of the unusual things they do—such as growing their own grains for their beer, or the adaptive reuse of the nearly 200-year-old barns on the property for brewing and seating.
“I think people are attracted to authenticity,” John Branding said. “And I think there’s no amount of marketing or slogans or jargon that people won’t figure out eventually doesn’t ring true. I think people like real things, people like things on a human scale, especially now with everything in the world over the last year.”
And, he said, the includes recentering, thinking about what’s important to them, and connecting with the land. Bonnie said people visiting the brewery see the grain growing outside and ask if it’s used in the beer—it is.
“A lot of the businesses that we look up to, a lot of the owners that we look up to, are folks who are very responsible,” John Branding said. “They’re responsible for their community. Of course, they’re making a profit, but everything’s in balance so it’s not profit at all costs. It’s not exploiting the environment or the community or other things like that to make a profit. It’s about this balance, and I think people can sense that.”
During her April 8 tour, Wexton also visited Great County Fam and Bee’s Wing Farm in Bluemont.
According to the Census of Agriculture, agritourism-related income nationwide increased from $202 million in 2002 to $949 million in 2017, a nearly 370% increase. And according to Wexton’s office, Virginia’s 10th Congressional District is home to more than 230 agritourism businesses.
In addition to Wexton and Rouzer, members of the Agritourism Caucus include fellow Virginia Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA-7), Elaine Luria (D-VA-2) and Rob Wittman (R-VA-1) as well as Reps. Troy Balderson (R-OH-20), Salud Carbajal (D-CA-24), Peter DeFazio (D-OR-4), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-1), Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA-6), Jared Huffman (D-CA-2), Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ-2), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY-18), Jerry McNerney (D-CA-9), and Chellie Pingree (D-ME-1).