Isle of Wight’s Alphin couldn’t leave the family farm

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 3, 2008

WALTERS-There is dirt under Rex Alphin’s fingernails. It’s a little part of the farm that he carries with him everywhere he goes.

Rough and calloused, his hands are the well-used tools of a man who has been working the land for most of his life.

Alphins have worked the 900 acres of Sunset View Farm for three generations, growing peanuts, cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat and raising hogs in the southern part of Isle of Wight County, where wide-open stretches of cropland crowd out the houses, developments and bustling activity of Hampton Roads.

Meeting a visitor to the farm, Alphin takes a break from the preseason maintenance that he’s been doing with his father and a farm hand. Brushing the dust from his hands and his jeans, he steps out of a March wind that literally howls as it blows across the vast open acreage.

Inside a nearby metal farm building sits a desk and a couple of dusty office chairs. The floor is rippled with sand where it has blown in through the tall roll-up door. There is a slight air of disorganization within this garage building, reflecting the fact that planting season is almost here and its owner has little time now for distractions.

For the past couple of years, though, Alphin has allowed himself to be distracted from the duties of a farmer once a week as a columnist for The Tidewater News. His musings on everything from love to life in the country appear Wednesdays under the heading &uot;Common Ground.&uot; The columns are, perhaps, a manifestation of the same creative urge that connects him to the farm where he grew up.

Whether it’s the miracle of a corn plant as it first springs through the dirt or the common experience of first love, Alphin says, &uot;You cease to appreciate it if you don’t put it into words.&uot; His columns deal with the simple moments and shared experiences of life in rural Isle of Wight in a way that plays into the well-worn stereotype of the simple farmer with simple tastes.

His appearance and simple grace reinforce the stereotype to a casual acquaintance. It doesn’t take long, though, for Alphin’s complicated nature to reveal itself.

This is a man who resolved to leave the life of a farmer, selling his house and packing up his belongings in 1982 to attend Bible college and pursue a life in the ministry. The land drew him back, but his musings on grace, love and righteousness reveal a person whose deep faith is backed up by academic training.

His columns, he says, give him a chance to take a &uot;back-door Gospel approach&uot; that explores the meaning and purpose of life through an examination of the life stories, the shared culture and &uot;the little surprises in life&uot; that are so familiar to people from rural communities.

&uot;There’s a common human experience that needs to be spoken to,&uot; he says, and he has attempted to do so for almost two years now as a columnist.

&uot;My life’s out there every week,&uot; he says.

Though Alphin admits he occasionally romanticizes about life on the farm, he says he was blessed to have a great family and to have raised children of his own at Sunset View. His parents still live in a home on the property, and Rex and his father, Bob, still work together there.

&uot;Every year, I’m thankful for another year we can farm together,&uot; he says.

&uot;It’s been a great blessing. After a while, you just think alike. I feel so blessed to be able to be here.&uot; Alphin describes the sense of legacy that comes from being the third generation to work the land on a family farm bought by his grandfather in 1930s.

&uot;Now, it’s passed on to you, and you think, &uot;What are you going to do with it?’ &uot; he says.

In an area that leads the state in Century Farms – those that have been in operation for at least 100 years – that's another sentiment likely to be widely understood.

&uot;I feel like I have a place here – not important or extravagant, but a place,&uot; he says. &uot;How do you put a price on it? I’ve tried to leave a couple of times, but my heart wouldn’t let me. I’ve got too-strong ties to the land and to this place.&uot;

Like the dirt under his nails, the farm will always be a part of him.