Southampton No. 1 in Century Farms

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 17, 2008

RICHMOND—With a big boost from Southampton County, state officials expect next week to certify Virginia’s 1,000th Century Farm.

In fact, according to Marion Horsley, a spokesperson at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences, a stack of certifications waiting to be mailed within a week or so will bring the total number of Virginia farms participating in the program to 1,009.

&uot;Southampton is going to lead the troops,&uot; she said. &uot;Unquestionably, they will be No. 1.&uot;

That’s good news to Bruce Phillips, whose two Sebrell farms were added to the program in 2007 and who has been a major force in marketing it locally.

&uot;I’m interested in maintaining Southampton County’s history,&uot; he said during an interview Monday in his circa 1740s farmhouse. &uot;If we don’t make people aware of what’s here, they’ll take it for granted.&uot;

Honoring history is what the Century Farm program is all about.

&uot;Agriculture has been the backbone of Virginia for literally centuries,&uot; Horsley said Tuesday. The VDACS program recognizes those farms that have been in operation for at least 100 consecutive years.

Those who qualify &uot;can have their farm sort of enshrined,&uot; she said. The state sends owners of qualifying farms an aluminum sign, a congratulatory letter and a certificate signed by the governor and the state’s agriculture commissioner.

Though being certified to join the ranks of Century Farm is largely a matter of pride of heritage for most farmers, in Southampton it has taken on an added level of urgency as citizens look for ways to fight off a proposed Navy outlying landing field.

Phillips said his own decision to seek the designation was made before the Navy ever announced its plans to study potential airfield sites in Southampton County. Nonetheless, that announcement last summer convinced Phillips and others to redouble their efforts to get as many of their neighbors into the program as possible.

There is no guarantee that a preponderance of Century Farms would deter the Navy from building its field carrier landing practice facility in Southampton. In fact, Navy spokesmen have said many farmers still would be able to cultivate crops, even within the OLF’s buffer zones.

But OLF opponents hope that the historic nature of these old farms will play a part in deterring the Navy from locating in Southampton, Sussex or Surry counties.

&uot;We’re trying to retain the rural nature of Southampton County,&uot; Phillips said. &uot;That’s why people want to move here.&uot;

Bruce and Gayle Phillips’ Sunnyside Farms encompass the old John I. Turner Farm and the Westbrook River Farm in Sebrell. Both have been named Century Farms.

His connection to the history of both the farm and the surrounding community is evident in every room of the restored farmhouse. Photos and drawings hanging on the walls depict the home and its inhabitants generations ago.

Scattered throughout the living area are cases full of Native American projectile points and other artifacts and fossils that have been found around the farm. Even more such archeological delights are stored in display cases, coolers, boxes and bags in his basement.

The finds are the results of decades spent walking around the farm with his eyes on the ground, Phillips said. It’s a perfect hobby for the former Virginia Wesleyan College history major.

&uot;If you don’t have a sense of your history, you don’t have a sense of where you’re going,&uot; he said. &uot;I’m proud of Southampton County. It’s a place you can be proud of.&uot;

Phillips said he is also proud of — and thankful to — the local folks who have taken the time to get their farms certified in the Century Farm program.

With 58 farms so designated as of March 31, Southampton leads the state. Rockingham County, which led in the count last year, has dropped far behind.

But Phillips isn’t ready to stop pressing yet. &uot;We’re shooting for 100,&uot; he said.

Horsley said more Southampton farms will be added next week.