Loudoun’s New Ag School: Skills For Farming, Wineries, Breweries

Loudoun’s New Ag School: Skills For Farming, Wineries, Breweries

Two decades and multiple awards for wine making and production wasn’t enough for Doug Fabbioli. In partnership with Loudoun County’s government and some of its largest philanthropists, Fabbioli is investing in the next generation of agricultural leaders and producers.

On June 5, Fabbioli, philanthropy group 100WomenStrong and several county agricultural departments announced the launch of the New Ag School (NAS). An offshoot of the Piedmont Epicurean and Agricultural Center, the new school partners mentors with mentees to help teach agriculture workers best skills and practices for farming, producing and distributing products.

“We’re spinning up people who are making a living out here, are going to be stewards of the land and hopefully the next generation of caretakers,” said Fabbioli, the co-founder and winemaker of Leesburg-based Fabbioli Cellars. “This is where they can make a living and enjoy what they’re doing.”

The school is a new, interactive effort to foster leaders who understand, appreciate and take on the hands-on work needed to support Loudoun agribusiness needs now and in the future. NAS provides on-the-job exposure to all aspect of the farming and business management elements of agribusiness and agritourism.

Unlike other educational opportunities that tailor skills to one industry, NAS will teach skills for wineries, breweries, bed and breakfasts and farms, the major facets of Loudoun’s agricultural-based production. At its inception there are six mentors affiliated with the program and about a dozen mentees, with more expected to come as the program progresses.

NAS fosters growth with these mentor farmers and teaches them as future agribusiness leaders. Working side-by-side with their mentor, the mentees learn the sacrifice, and ultimate successes, farmers and rural business owners accomplish for themselves, their businesses and their community. It balances the real-world experience with a curriculum of five key topic area that that complements more theoretical knowledge.

“I’m able to teach other people and learn from others about how to be a better farmer and grow better products for the community,” said NAS mentor farmer Alex Bates. “I think we need more farmers, because we need more local food and food in general.”

Loudoun’s agricultural businesses and tourism industry have continued to grow rapidly in the past decade, increasingly become a centerpiece of the county’s overall plans on economic development. Loudoun County farm businesses make up 51 percent of the Northern Virginia’s agri-tourism venues and boasts an economic impact that exceeds $800 million. There are currently 1,400 farms and rural businesses including an influx of breweries, wineries and niche farms, many of which sell to a growing number of area restaurants that prioritize locally-sourced products.

Going forward, Loudoun’s government is hoping to continue promoting growth and spur future innovation. The Department of Economic Development’s agriculture department and the Loudoun Cooperative Extension, which provides technical information to agricultural and horticultural producers and landscape managers about recommended practices and techniques, have established long-term plans to preserve the industry. One of those key components is education, which both groups said is greatly assisted by initiatives like NAS.

“This gets beyond administration and the conveyance of what we want to do as a mission and gets more into one person touching the life of another person in a very human way,” said Extension Director Jim Hilleary.

Fabbioli and other Western Loudoun business leaders view NAS as not just an education tool but as an investment in preserving this key segment of the county’s rural character. As Loudoun undergoes a massive review of its guiding comprehensive plan, many in the west are hoping there are no significant changes to allow more housing or large-scale developments in their portion of the county. Instead of government mandates, Fabbioli said ingraining viable agriculture-based business in western county land will preempt future development that could infringe on its rural nature.

“It’s a way to save Western Loudoun through economic development,” Fabbioli said. “If we just say ‘keep the land’ it’s not going to happen. Houses are going to come. But by having a business, having investment in the land, then it’s an entity within itself.”

The program is bolstered by a $9,000 grant from 100WomenStrong, a Loudoun-based organization that helps the quality of life for county residents. Its members facilitate thousands of dollars in donations annually through targeted grants to non-profits working to assist the county’s citizens with their shelter, health, hunger and education. The grant to NAS will help cover the costs of tuition manuals for the school’s students.

“They’re changing the culture. They’re trying to make a difference,” said 100WomenStrong President Kirsten Langhorne. “If we can provide an education to all those people who become interested in careers outside the computer and technical classroom, think of what that can be like across the county.”

Fabbioli agreed. He began educational outreach efforts six years ago and since then he has seen the face of agricultural business transformed. NAS, and the community support behind it, is just the latest indicator of the growth in an essential industry for the county.

“This is a new program that really hasn’t been proven, but they’ve seen what I’ve been doing for years and it’s nice to have that support,” Fabbioli said. “There’s been a transition of understanding of what the western economy is. People get it now.”