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When 70-year-old Whit Sizemore was a little boy, he climbed an apple tree to watch something amazing – the building of the Blue Ridge Parkway. He’d never seen the like of the bulldozers and steam shovels construction crews brought to build the road through his grandfather’s farm, where he lived with his parents, grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and two of his granny’s brother’s boys.
“It was a daily occupation for me,” he says of his apple tree observations. Sizemore and I are touring the old home site in his red pickup truck. He points to the spot at the bottom of a sloping field where the family drew cold spring water, and the place near the barn where they ground corn, wheat and buckwheat for themselves and neighbors with mills powered by the motor of an old ’29 Model A Ford. He waves a hand toward the all-but-obscured contours of a railroad grade, softened by time and the luxuriant growth of waist-high grass. The railroad ran to Galax, Va., seven miles distant, and was already gone when he was a boy, though his granny remembered it.
The farmhouse, where he and his parents lived in a closed off bedroom at the end of the porch – ”We had to wade snow to get to the main house,” he says – is gone now too, a victim of Hurricane Hugo. But the red chestnut barn, a granary and a chicken coop are still standing and in good trim. They’re just barely visible from the roadway – part of an agricultural scene parkway officials are striving to maintain in the face of an advancing army of development.
Until a couple of years ago, Sizemore owned the 23-acre farm near parkway milepost 209. But because he wanted to insure that rows of trailers or “vacation rentals” like those that have invaded nearby Volunteer and Orchard Gaps would never replace cattle on his rolling land, he sold the farm to the parkway, on condition he could lease it back for his lifetime. He runs 80 head of “mostly beef cattle” – Herefords and Holsteins – moving them now and again from parkway land to his own “if the grass outgrows the cows.” Once the cowpies dry out, he mows and rolls the hay in bales. In dry years, hay is a precious commodity and “you can’t be wasteful.” He doesn’t hold with overgrazed pasturage.
“I put down twice the lime and fertilizer the parkway requires,” he says, as we head up the road to look at his Holsteins, who have retreated to woods at the edge of the field to get out of the sun. The cows watch us calmly, tails flicking flies, black and white faces turned toward us, scarlet eartags identifying each by number. As the shadows lengthen, they’ll wade back into the field, heads and legs disappearing in the tall grass until they’re near motionless hulks in a wind-tossed green ocean.
Seventy three miles north of the Sizemore farm, near MP 136, Wyatt Wimmer inspects potatoes he’s planted on the 100-acre farm that his grandfather W.L. Wimmer sold to the parkway back in 1978. Neighbors grumbled about the sale. They hadn’t liked the road coming through, and they didn’t like what they saw as the Wimmers “giving in to the government.” But the parkway “has been awful good to us,” Wyatt says. It gave W.L. and his son Fletcher a 25-year lease on the land, a lease that Wyatt has renewed. With the help of his sons Willie and Wayne and his brother Anthony Earl, Wyatt continues working the farm, planting 10 or 15 acres in potatoes and pumpkins and devoting the rest to hay or pasture for 38 head of Black Angus beef cattle.
The row crops the Wimmers tend now are nothing to what W.L. once planted. He raised “everything you can think of” – cucumbers, squash, cantalope, cabbage – and sold what he grew to Claude Martin Produce, Roanoke Fruit, Mick-or-Mack, Kroger and other chains. As youngsters, Wyatt and Anthony Earl carried bushel baskets to and from the fields.
“I helped my grandfather when I was six, seven years old,” Wyatt recalls. “He gave me $5 a week. I thought that was big money.” Though the farmhouse has been vandalized since the family moved out and the barns and packing shed have fallen into disrepair, working that land “brings a lot of memories back” of the kinfolk and neighbors who labored on the farm in its heyday. Many of them are gone now, including his father, who died a few years ago of cancer, and his Aunt Gladys, who entertained him with stories from her girlhood – of carrying dinner buckets to the field workers and of the time that she tired of planting pumpkin seeds and threw the rest of them into a rotting stump.
“They all came up, and she had to go back and pull them up before her father saw them and found her out,” Wyatt says.
Farming’s been in the Wimmer family blood for as far back as Wyatt can remember. But he doubts that either of his sons will take farming up as a fulltime occupation – the elder already has a factory job – because “there’s no money in it.”
To show me what he means, he extracts a yellowed newspaper clipping. It’s a story about Bent Mountain cabbage, published in the Roanoke Times in 1979, with a photo of his father standing at the edge of a field holding a basketball-sized cabbage in one hand. “Fletcher Wimmer: ‘I like to fool with ‘em. I like to watch ‘em grow,” the caption reads. Wyatt likes to fool with them and watch them grow too, but that’s a near impossiblity now. A couple of years ago, deer totally destroyed his cabbage crop.
“You never saw a deer here when I was a boy,” he says. “We used to go down to a cabin my grandfather had in Sussex County to hunt in the fall. That’s where we got our deer. Now they’re everywhere.” He tried, unsuccessfully, to get the government to reimburse him for his loss. And what cabbage he does succeed in harvesting brings the same wholesale price – $2.50 to $3 a bag – that the story says his father got 25 years ago. “Think about it,” he says. “What else has stayed the same in that time?” Not the price of gas. Or fertilizer. Or farm help. Or taxes.
That’s one reason why the parkway’s farm scene is changing, where it hasn’t disappeared altogether. When the parkway came through the Virginia Plateau and North Carolina highlands back in the 1930s and 40s, it cut through farms that had never seen tractors, where snake rail fences kept the family cow away from pole-centered haystacks. Where corn was gathered in great shocks at harvest time and peach and apple orchards clung to the hillsides. Where whole families toiled together in the fields, the farmer behind a horse-drawn plow, his wife and children, each with a hoe in hand, hacking out weeds and drawing soil up around the stalks. Corn was hoed three times before it was laid by. Men swung cradles and scythes in long graceful arcs to harvest barley, oats, wheat and hay.
This is the farm scene that charmed parkway designer Stanley Abbott, who wanted – once sections of the parkway were finished – to “bring the cow, or the winter wheat, or the corn [back] up to the fence at the edge of the road.” To return land it had acquired along its right-of-way and in large recreational areas like Rocky Knob, Doughton and Moses Cone parks to agricultural use, the parkway devised a land-lease program. The program – one of the parkway’s most successful ventures – was developed by agronomist Bill Hooper, who came to work for the parkway after World War II. (His predecessor, Russian immigrant Daniel Levandowsky, served only briefly before the war.)
Today, the parkway leases more than 4,000 acres of agricultural land in nearly 500 tracts that range in size from quarter-acre garden plots to farms the size of W.L. Wimmer’s. While there are a handful of leases at either end of the parkway, most are concentrated in its central section, between Roanoke and Blowing Rock.
The land-lease program has always served two purposes: to preserve the roadside scene and to improve the land through good conservation practices. To that end, the leases come with strings attached. There are grazing limits, mowing, cover cropping and no-till planting requirements – even restrictions governing fencing materials. Despite these rules, finding lessees is not a problem, says BRP agricultural leasing specialist Tom Davis. He has a waiting list of farmers interested in acquiring leases, which are issued by special use permit for five years and can be renewed. Rental fees are $10/acre/year for hay or pasture land, and $20 for cropland. When a lease comes open, Davis advertises it in local newspapers, posts it at county extension offices, and notifies current permit holders and those on the waiting list. After interested parties apply for the leases, he meets with the most promising of them, shows them the land and discusses restrictions. He's looking for best fit between farmer and parkway needs.
“When we have several good candidates,” he says, “we just have to draw straws.”
“Agricultural use along the parkway has changed dramatically over the last 40 or 50 years,” Davis says. Today, about half the leased acreage is in hay, with another 45 percent pasture. The share for row crops has shrunk to less than 5 percent – a sea change since the land-lease program began. When the parkway came to the Blue Ridge, “corn was king” Hooper wrote. “Almost every mountain farmer relied on a large crop of corn for grain and fodder. Fodder, consisting of the leaves on the cornstalk, often provided most of the roughage in the feed of farm animals. Corn supplied bread for the table and, often enough, was a primary source of income in the form of ‘white lightning’ or ‘moonshine.’ Whether it was used for corn bread or corn liquor, too much of this crop was grown on slopes that should have been covered in grass or trees. Gullies and rills and exposed subsoil followed too much cultivation so that erosion was widespread and unrestrained.”
This was the flip side to the charming agricultural scene that the parkway was exposing through the “great picture windows” it had opened onto “a way of life hitherto heavily veiled from the eyes of the American tourist.” Poor agricultural practices had exhausted the soil, and the ravages of erosion – both on farmland and on formerly forested tracts that had been robbed of their virgin timber in the early decades of the 20th century – were glaringly apparent. “There was a serious demand,” Hooper wrote, “for skilled management to enlist the adjoining property owners in a scientific land use program on Parkway and adjacent lands in order to conserve soil and moisture, eliminate insidious erosion problems, and maintain the open fields which provide the distant vistas.”
The son of a North Carolina farmer, Hooper understood the exigencies of farming from personal experience. He’d lost his chance to become a doctor when a hailstorm destroyed his family’s tobacco crop the summer before he planned to enter Duke University. Instead, he studied science at what is now Appalachian State University and was working with farmers on soil conservation plans in Alleghany County, N.C., when parkway superintendent Sam Weems offered him the job of parkway agronomist. He jumped at the chance, and threw himself into the “scientific land use program” he developed – a program that improved parkway views, restored the land to health and provided a better life for mountain families – with missionary zeal. When crowds failed to materialize for his educational programs on soil conservation, he hired a local string band or showed a movie – a novelty then in rural areas – to start them off. He wrote “prescriptions” for leased parkway acreage that called for lime and fertilizer applications, contour plowing and crop rotation.
As time passed, the program worked just as he’d envisioned. When farmers saw production rise on their leased land, they applied the same practices to acreage they owned. Neighbors, observing the results, followed suit. Even parkway maintenance crews learned from the program and found better ways to heal construction scars and stabilize slopes. What we see out our car windows today, motoring through agricultural lands along the parkway, is Bill Hooper’s legacy. After he retired, he was interviewed about his parkway years.
“It was one of the most interesting things a person could have ever been engaged in, in my lifetime in that capacity, associating with those mountain people,” he said. He “supposed” he had worked hard, but “it was just a picnic always. There is no way to tell you how much fun it was to know these people, to visit with them and talk with them and to hear their particular brogue. I wouldn’t trade it for any teaching ever invented. No amount of money, no title or anything. All this was pure pleasure.”
ACQUIRING FARMLAND ALONG THE PARKWAY
The Blue Ridge Parkway continues to acquire land along the 470-mile pleasure road from willing sellers. It does so for two primary reasons, says Land Resources Specialist Sheila Gasperson, who handles the transactions: "to extinguish access to private property, and to protect the scenic view.”
When the parkway was built, it cut through many farms, making it impossible for landowners to get from one part to another except by crossing the parkway. In those cases, rights-of-way were reserved for landowners when they deeded over part of their farms to the parkway. These private farm roads are especially numerous from Roanoke south to the Virginia state line.
So long as the farms remain intact, traffic is limited on them. But when farms are sold and broken into smaller tracts, traffic increases, creating safety hazards. Additionally, the parkway’s boundary – which averages 800 feet (400 feet to either side of the center line) – is narrowest where it runs through Virginia’s agricultural lands, which means that “most of the scenery is privately owned,” Gasperson says. When farms along parkway boundaries are sold, whatever goes up on their open land – tract houses, vacation rentals, trailer parks or trophy houses – impacts parkway views and diminishes the parkway experience for travelers.
“I don’t go out looking for property to protect – or advertise that we are buying land,” Gasperson says. “Usually the landowner comes to me. We go out, look at the property, have it appraised and make an offer. Usually it’s the landowner, occasionally a realtor, who lets us know that a farm along the parkway is about to go on the market.” The parkway not only buys farms like Whit Sizemore’s, where the view is still intact, it purchases farms in areas where development has already occurred, to keep views from being further compromised. In Orchard Gap, it bought the farm across the parkway from a gas station that’s a prominent part of the view; in Volunteer Gap, it has acquired the hayfield across the road from recently constructed vacation cabins.
NEW NATURAL RESOURCE CONCERNS ON AGRICULTURAL LEASES
Restrictions on the Blue Ridge Parkway’s agricultural leases used to be aimed exclusively at soil conservation. Today, natural resource protection issues – water quality and habitat for threatened, rare and endangered plant and animal species – are becoming a factor in lease requirements. In May, when parkway agricultural leasing specialist Tom Davis and resource management specialist Bob Cherry took farmer Jim Brown up to look over an open lease on a hayfield at Moses Cone Park, the lease requirements they wanted to discuss involved something brand new: timing the mowing to protect wildlife habitat for butterflies and grassland birds.
The 37-acre field is divided into three sections – two large and one small – by a carriage road that leads to a nearby mountaintop and a side road to the gravesite of Moses and Bertha Cone. Concerns about grassland bird species – grasshopper, Savannah, Henslow’s and field sparrows, and meadowlarks and bobolinks – who nest in fields like the one on the Cone Estate and whose numbers are declining prompted the action. What Cherry and Davis are requiring of the lessee is to stagger mowing in the three sections.
The smallest was to be mowed by early June and left unmown thereafter, to allow summer wildflowers to regenerate and flower – for butterflies, who drink their nectar. Of the two large sections, one carries no restrictions. But the other can’t be mowed until August, to allow nesting grassland birds to fledge their young. Earlier mowing can destroy nests and kill nestlings. The restrictions are an experiment and may be lifted or changed next year.
“We have to balance farmer needs with natural resource protection, and sometimes they conflict,” Davis acknowledges.
Sometimes, however, they coincide.
Such appears to be the case with grazing cattle and bog turtles, the smallest and rarest freshwater turtle species in the United States. After a 1992 biological survey of the parkway’s 1,500 acres of wetlands and bogs revealed the presence of bog turtles in some wet pastures, grazing leases on them were abruptly cancelled. But woody vegetation, kept in check by browsing cattle, quickly moved in. Some former wetlands dried out, destroying bog turtle habitat.
Biologists now believe that light to moderate cattle grazing benefits bog turtles because it reduces woody growth and prevents stream channel formation. Biologists from Virginia Tech are studying the role cattle play in maintaining bog turtle habitat. They’ve constructed 15x15-foot exclosures in wetlands on some parkway agricultural leases and will analyze how wetland soils and vegetation change when cattle are no longer present. Davis says the study should help the parkway determine optimal grazing densities to maintain – and even improve – bog turtle habitat.
The parkway has also been working with farmers to mitigate impact of cattle on riparian areas. In the past five years, Cherry says, “there’s been a big push, by us, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state agencies to get cows out of streams.” The parkway has begun building fences that will keep cattle 25-50 feet from stream banks, providing them with limited access – or water troughs – to slake their thirst. “We started with long stretches, where there is a half mile to a mile of stream running through pasture, because that’s where the impact is greatest,” he says. “But it all takes time and money.”
Additionally, the National Park Service has launched an initiative to inventory all plants and animals in all its units, including the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“The goal is to get 80 percent of plants and animals inventoried,” Davis says. “For the past two years, we’ve had a variety of contract biologists working all up and down the parkway inventorying plants, reptiles and amphibians, and small mammals. Vegetative plots have been established, some of them on agricultural leases.” The goal is to come up with up-to-date species lists for all NPS units that are based on “sound science.” What these inventories turn up is likely to affect the way future agricutural leases are written.
THE PARKWAY’S CHESTNUT RAIL FENCES: ICONS BECOME EYESORES IF NOT MAINTAINED
One of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s most distinctive design features is its wood rail fences. They define boundaries of large open fields; contain grazing cattle; emphasize long sweeping curves and the alignment of the roadway; and provide an accent feature in developed areas. The fences were originally constructed of chestnut – a wood with many virtues to recommend it. It was abundantly available, highly resistent to decay, and split easily into long straight rails of remarkable uniformity.
The parkway borrowed its fence designs from mountain farmers, who employed a variety of fence types depending on use and terrain. The overwhelming majority of the parkway’s wood fences are of a type known as “Virginia stake and rail” – double posts set into the ground and spaced 9 feet apart, with 10-foot long rails stacked between them. The second most common type, the “snake” or “worm” fence, was easily constructed by stacking rails in a zig-zag pattern. Cattle grazing in rough, uneven terrain were confined behind “saw buck” fences. And picket fences – each picket sharpened to a point – were erected to keep the chickens from flying up onto them and into the garden.
Parkway designer Stanley Abbott and the landscape architects who followed him valued the parkway’s wood fencing as a visual design element; parkway visitors hold the fences in similarly high esteem. According to a draft of a "Wood Rail and Wire Fence Management Plan" currently under review, “The 20 million visitors to the park consistenly rate views that include wood rail fencing to be superior. The absence of these fences and their poor condition drastically affect the visitor’s experience.”
Parkway officials recognize the importance of retaining the wood rail fencing and keeping it in good repair. But shrinking budgets and reduced maintenance staffs – and the disappearance of the once ubiquitous chestnut – have made that more difficult with every passing year, says BRP resident landscape architect Larry Hultquist, who authored the management plan. A good deal of parkway wood fencing has already been lost. An inventory conducted in 2002 determined that 114,288 linear feet (or 21.65 miles) of it remains – and that nearly a third of it needs to be replaced. To preserve “the original design intent of the parkway,” Hultquist says, approximately 85,000 linear feet of the fencing must remain in place and be maintained.
Some fence can be removed from areas where it no longer serves its original purpose – where reforestation has eliminated formerly open land, or where visible residential and commercial development has rendered the historic fencing anachronistic. Salvaged rails from those areas can be used to repair fencing where it is visually important. But the life expectancy for chestnut rails is about 30 years, and much of the current inventory has been in place far longer than that. Buying more chestnut for fencing is impractical if not impossible; when it can be found, it’s prohibitively expensive. Locust, the only viable natural substitute – it’s decay resistant and relatively plentiful – can be used for posts, but doesn’t split well into rails. Man-made substitutes currently on the market – recycled plastic wood and fibrous concrete made to look like wood – each have drawbacks that make them unacceptable. “Our challenge,” Hultquist says, “is how to keep maintaining our chestnut rail fences – a parkway icon – when there’s no chestnut left.”