After growing up on a Michigan dairy farm and working as a staff member for the U.S. Congress, Tyler Wegmeyer of Hamilton, Va., found his calling as a full time farmer.
Not far from Washington, D.C., he farms in historic and affluent Loudoun County, Va. He developed a unique business model to bring people out to his farms where strawberries and pumpkins are his primary crops.
As a result of his success as a strawberry and pumpkin farmer, Wegmeyer has been selected as the state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other individuals as finalists for the overall award that will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 18 at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
He started on a small scale and now farms 250 acres with 225 acres of rented land and 25 acres of owned land. He says his main goal is to bring people out to his farms to teach them where their food comes from.
Prior to farming, Wegmeyer graduated from Michigan State University and worked as a staff member for Congress. He started as an intern and eventually worked on farm bills for congressmen in both the House and Senate. During his travels for Congress, Wegmeyer visited with farmers while keeping possible options for his own farm in mind. Once he started farming, he put some of those ideas into use on his own operation.
Last year, his yields were 21,000 pounds of strawberries per acre from eight acres of drip irrigated strawberries. He grew 85 acres of pumpkins and gourds with about 25% of that land drip irrigated. Pumpkin yields vary by variety and he plants 50 varieties.
In addition, Wegmeyer grows corn that yielded 160 bushels per acre from 30 acres and soybeans yielding 60 bushels per acre from 90 acres. He also grows an additional ten acres of drip irrigated vegetables and sweet corn.
He estimates that 30,000 people come to his strawberry fields and 40,000 people come to his pumpkin patches. His goal is that people who visit his farm will leave with a positive image of agriculture.
In addition, Wegmeyer runs a community supported agriculture (CSA) enterprise that provides fresh vegetables to 50 families who pay an annual subscription.
He markets wholesale strawberries to local grocery stores, other marketing outlets and to local schools. He handles retail strawberry and pumpkin sales by farm stands and u-pick. “Our wholesale pumpkins are marketed up and down the East Coast direct to grocery stores, store warehouses and local markets and nurseries,” he says.
As a young producer, his first challenge was finding land to rent. He eventually focused on small tracts on busy highways close to dense populations.
Social media is important for marketing his crops and promoting agritourism. He also uses print advertising, roadside signs and messages sent to local schools to bring people out to his farms.
He uses new technology such as tablets and smart phones to take payments, track inventories and map fields. This technology and the use of plasticulture is visible to his customers. “We are unapologetic in saying that the latest modern agriculture technology is of benefit to them and the environment,” he says.
One of his locations offers a fall festival each year. It encompasses a corn maze, hayrides, animal exhibits, pumpkin cannons and activities to attract children to the farm.
Wegmeyer is active in New Jerusalem Lutheran Church. He serves on the boards of local Southern States cooperatives and Loudoun County Heritage Farm Museum. He’s a member of Loudoun Chamber of Commerce and served on the board and as president of Loudoun County Farm Bureau.
He has been a member of Virginia Farm Bureau’s Entrepreneur Advisory Committee and serves as a board member of the Virginia Strawberry Growers Association.
Nationally, Wegmeyer has been a member of a Bayer Crop Science sustainability program. He has been an American Farm Bureau Federation farmer representative, and has been a lobbyist for American Farm Bureau.
“Being able to see firsthand how advocacy affects legislative and regulatory decisions, it became very real to me that people needed to understand better the importance of agriculture in everyone’s lives,” he says. His experience and his geographic location helped him to grow his farm in a way that would bring people out to his farm so they could learn where their food comes from.
“We use modern agricultural technologies and practices with science-based principles to grow crops with precision that leaves the land better off than when we found it,” he says.
He says his goal is to “Create an awareness through education to enable not just our farm, but all of agriculture to win in the court of public opinion, and as a result, allow us to have policy and regulations that can sustain us into the future for generations to come.”
He met his wife Harriet while working in Congress and seeking part time work on a dairy farm. He contacted the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative and ended up working on a dairy farm in West Virginia. Meanwhile, people at the milk cooperative introduced him to Harriet, a Cornell University graduate hired to handle their communications.
Harriet works on the farm. “We are a great team. Our strengths complement each other,” says Tyler. Harriet also has an impressive off-farm career as executive director for the Nutrients for Life Foundation organized by The Fertilizer Institute.
On the local level, Harriet has been a Master Gardener from 2010 until 2014. She is president and has served as a board member of Lincoln Community League. She is also active in the Lincoln Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization, and has been a Farm Bureau School Education and reading program volunteer. She is a member of the National Agri-Marketing Association, and served on the board of Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Alumni Association.
Harriet is especially good at outreach and community involvement. She brings youth and families to the farm for school spirit nights and runs an expansive field trip program that draws thousands of children to the farm each season. “She reaches out to schools and is a great spokesperson for not only our farm, but for all of agriculture,” says Tyler.
Tyler and Harriet have three young school-age sons, Torsten, Tucker and Colden who also work on the family’s farm. Tyler and Harriet also welcome their own parents to their farm each year to help out during the busy seasons. Both of their parents retired from dairy farming.
“The bottom line in achieving our overall goal means that my farm, my land and my business will be able to be farmed by future generations, including my three boys,” says Tyler.
Robert D. Grisso, Jr., with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service coordinates the Farmer of the Year award in the state. Wegmeyer was nominated for the honor by Jim Hilleary, Extension agent in Loudoun County. Hilleary admires Wegmeyer’s work ethic and creativity in coming up with the idea for ‘satellite’ farms. Hilleary says each crop Wegmeyer plants is an invitation to stop and learn about agriculture. Hilleary says Wegmeyer is also a strong supporter of Extension.
As the Virginia winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Wegmeyer will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize awarded to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply and a smoker-grill from Hays LTI.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 27th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,040,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from Virginia include: Nelson Gardner of Bridgewater, 1990; Russell Inskeep of Culpepper, 1991; Harry Bennett of Covington, 1992; Hilton Hudson of Alton, 1993; Buck McCann of Carson, 1994; George M. Ashman, Jr. of Amelia, 1995; Bill Blalock of Baskerville, 1996; G. H. Peery III of Ceres, 1997; James Bennett of Red House, 1998; Ernest Copenhaver of Meadowview, 1999; John Davis of Port Royal, 2000; James Huffard III of Crockett, 2001; J. Hudson Reese of Scottsburg, 2002; Charles Parkerson of Suffolk, 2003; Lance Everett of Stony Creek, 2004; Monk Sanford of Orange, 2005; Paul House of Nokesville, 2006; Steve Berryman of Surry, 2007; Tim Sutphin of Dublin, 2008; Billy Bain of Dinwiddie, 2009; Wallick Harding of Jetersville, 2010; Donald Horsley of Virginia Beach, 2011; Maxwell Watkins of Sutherland, 2012; Lin Jones of New Canton, 2013; Robert T. “Tom” Nixon II of Rapidan, 2014; and Donald Turner of North Dinwiddie, 2015.
Virginia has had two overall winners, Nelson Gardner of Bridgewater in 1990 and Charles Parkerson of Suffolk in 2003.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Wegmeyer’s farm and farms of the other nine finalists during the week of Aug. 1-5. The judges this year include Clark Garland, longtime University of Tennessee Extension ag economist from Maryville, Tenn.; farmer Thomas Porter, Jr., of Concord, N.C., who was the overall winner in 2011; and Charles Snipes, retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist from Greenville, Miss.
Note to media: The judges will visit Wegmeyer’s farm on Aug. 4 from 2:15-5:15 p.m. If you would like to visit the farm during the final two hours of judging, please call John Leidner at 229-392-1798, or contact him by email at [email protected], or contact Wegmeyer by calling 540-751-1782.