By: Terri McClung
This is the ninth in the series of interviews conducted by the Alleghany Highlands Economic Development Corporation about small business entrepreneurship in our area.
The Alleghany Highlands Economic Development Corporation offers entrepreneurial services, one-on-one business planning assistance, training, mentoring and operational assistance to existing local small businesses and startups.
I recently sat down with Joshua and Michelle Rucker of Glen Haven Farm located at 4301 Longdale Furnace Road, Clifton Forge, VA to get their view on the life of being a small business entrepreneur in the Alleghany Highlands. The Ruckers can be reached by calling 434.962.5822.
Glen Haven Farm hosts the Homecoming Festival which is an outdoor concert series and they also have “The Barn”, a renovated horse barn to do special events. www.thehomecomingfestival.com
The Barn can be used as a private venue rental for wedding ceremonies and receptions, and may be rented for corporate functions. There is also a River covered Pavilion to accommodate children’s birthday parties and family functions.
Other outdoor ceremonies may also be accommodated throughout the property.
They will be planting over 3 acres of wildflowers in the spring for local florists and will be growing hops for local breweries as well.
Michelle and Josh are transplants to the area; Michelle’s parents bought the farm in the early 90’s.
She attended AHS her sophomore through senior years. She then attended Lewisburg College in Lewisburg, North Carolina.
She later ended up getting into the family business later where she worked in Fredericksburg but later moved to Charlottesville.
She found a love and passion for radio and became a DJ there.
She then wanted to get into news and moved to Charlotte, NC where she attended Carolina School of Broadcasting.
Her father passed and she dived into her spirituality and soul seeking and found herself teaching Yoga.
She then moved to Asheville to teach children yoga, and is where she met Joshua.
Joshua was born and raised outside of Columbus, Ohio in a rural area named London.
He graduated early from Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and went into the International Guard spending six years as a propulsion mechanic while attending college.
He ended up getting an internship at Konecranes and has since worked all over the technology world, small to medium business, to large corporations, taught Microsoft classes and contracted with Apple technology.
He presently works with Amazon Web Service (AWS) offering cloud computing services.
After moving a few times he met Michelle in Asheville, who needed help with a website, later married, and moved to Charlottesville.
They wanted to move somewhere kid-friendly but business like, so the opportunity arose for them to move to the farm and so their story begins.
How did your interest come about in acquiring the farm?
Michelle: My mother was considering selling and we said no, we are thinking about getting out of Charlottesville and we had been reading about boutique crops.
We wanted to change our lifestyle; we did not want to be the suburbanite people. We were just not those people, so it just made sense to move to the farm and do all these things we have wanted to do, however things flipped.
What are your plans for the farm?
Joshua: So what we thought we were going to come here and do has adapted and changed.
You sit down and think it is 2017 so what do you do with a sub 100 acre farm.
There are only so many things you can realistically do to keep it sustainable.
A lot of those things have been consolidated into larger contracts and sustainable agriculture is a hot topic for very small boutique farms.
This place sits in a grey area, where it is not a 1 to 2 acre where you could do a micro anything and make it sustainable, it is right at that 50 acre kind of limit where whatever you are going to do has to be big enough to yield something.
Michelle: In this area most people with this acreage would have cows; corn is really a Midwest crop with a big industry.
You have to have that niche if you are going to be a farmer and we knew we did not want to do cattle.
We have actually been thinking about hops for some time. So we have delved in to learn more about it, which is initially what brought us here, so let’s grow hops.
What are your plans for agriculture and hops?
Michelle: So let’s jump on that bandwagon and grow hops since craft breweries are everywhere; there are not many commercial growers on the southeast, period, much less in Virginia.
Joshua: Our plan is to sell our hops so there is a future roadmap, of course, where we could be interested at some point having a very small brewery, which would serve the concerts we have and other events.
We are not looking at competing in that arena. There are a lot of big players coming in to this area; it is a really cool thing and very exciting.
Our goal is to find that operating model to be successful, to do a lot of research and development which is where I think the Alleghany Highlands Economic Development Corporation can assist.
What we are really excited about is the opportunity to be able to work with people that are into permaculture and sustainable agriculture.
Sustainable agriculture today has to meet society’s needs and must be environmentally friendly for the economy.
We cannot leave agriculture behind and still survive and be successful as a nation; it just doesn’t make sense.
What are your plans for breweries you might sell to?
Michelle: There is shortage of fresh wet hops on the east coast; everything is from dry pelletized hops coming from the west coast.
It is those craft beers made from wet hops we hope to sell to.
We want to get involved with Virginia Tech and Dabney and play around with those different strains of hops.
You have the Cascade and Chinook which are the two big ones you always hear about. We want to play with some Neomexicana strains.
We do want to provide fresh wet hops to Ballist and Flying Mouse. That is what I am excited about.
Joshua: The Neomexicana blend that Michelle mentioned, there is a specific gentleman, who is phenomenal and has an eye for finding heirloom hops that grow wild. Virginia is an heirloom hops state.
Before the Great Depression this area grew hops out of its heritage and stopped when they saw an opportunity to combine those contracts and essentially had the monopoly. At that time you only had 3 to 4 beers being made so you had it all coming from one farm.
Anybody that has used dried basil compared to fresh basil knows it is a very different taste, a very different palate and allows the artisans in this area to continue to develop their crafts as opposed to adapting to whatever is available to them at any given moment.
What is your vision of making this a family oriented farm?
Joshua: We came to Clifton Forge and one of the first things I noticed was Jack Mason’s was family friendly and are now starting their craft business, which is great.
But here it struck me, the place for a field party, an easy kind of feel, a place where all children are welcome.
Since spending that time in Asheville and Charlottesville there has been a change in this movement with places that serve alcohol and who are also family friendly.
So it was nice being able to take our son with us because he actually had a place to play.
What you get is this interesting effect where people aren’t interested in drinking to total excess, but where people are actually having a good time.
An example is Wild Wolf Brewing Company who have a children’s play place and that is the center of the campus.
Michelle: Now vineyards and breweries have a set up for children to play corn hole and games for kids and it is just fantastic. We want our farm to be family oriented where you are safe and out under the stars.
How do you generate all your creative ideas?
Joshua: Selfishly a lot of it comes out of what we enjoy. But at the same time other people enjoy it too.
If you are truly a spirit from the area, if you look around at the mountains, the rivers, there is a different feeling from this area than you would find even 150 miles north.
What we are trying to tap into is looking at this town which used to be an epicenter at one time and saying it hasn’t died, it has just become more dormant.
You are faced with a new problem with business today than you have had in the past; a lot is more riding on creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.
Those new pillars allow for people to still be successful in small batches.
You see a lot with Etsy and Instagram where people are now able to go be carpenters and make furniture again.
We are seeing a return to the tradesmen/craftsmen and we support it.
Like Floyd Fest, a great festival and I can’t speak highly enough of it, but it doesn’t work everywhere which is what makes it unique.
Michelle: As far as the bands, there is a specific target audience that we are trying to reach. And while I do not want to discount the younger generation, I think we are trying to target the generation 28 to 35+ crowds that have families, and some retired.
My background is music, wedding planning, yoga and working with radio industry. My musical category is just over the top and everybody in Joshua’s family has worked with music.
Tell me how you proceed with making all these ideas work?
Joshua: That is really complicated.
It alternates from manacle elation from being so excited that something is working out, to complete depression to where you ask yourself if you are crazy and if it is real.
I think anyone with an idea who is trying to make it work for a small business goes through these phases.
What we have seen today is when a community loses its faith you have some really bad side effects.
I think this comes from the lack of faith. I think this country is really founded on going out and taking something that appears to be impossible and just keep plugging away at it until it is completely possible.
Eleanor Roosevelt always said “we must do the things you think you cannot do”. Theodore Roosevelt also came to say “there is no effort without error”.
Everybody expects everything to be perfect because we portray our best selves to everyone else.
The reality is there is no greatness throughout history without failure upon failure and success is often determined as basically stumbling between failures without losing any sort of momentum.
So that is where we are, we are in a place where we cannot necessarily point to a specific metric that says we know this will be successful because of this.
However, what we are seeing happen and what we feel is going to be necessary is that you have to stand against odds.
More than anything it shows others around you that it is something worth doing.
People need things to do and we want to provide them something to do and also be productive and hopefully gives them something they can take with them when they go home. Something that makes them feel better, that helps carry them through that next day.
We just want to find that middle ground where you can still have that awesome free spirit. I see what I want, the creativity, the vision, but at the same time how do we take it and make it beautiful, something that is sustainable and makes business sense for the area.
We have a lot of issues in America right now, but not necessarily the happiness to match it.
As far as wedding venue this is something really important. What people take from that is something they will have forever, keepsakes, pictures, the experience, it may outlast the marriage itself.
Michelle: I love doing that; my wedding planning time. It is so fulfilling.
From our standpoint to be able to provide that, watch that, and give that is just so fulfilling.
Joshua: I feel it is important to invest in other people, invest in the experience they get to have. It honestly reciprocates back. It feeds us and makes us feel more fulfilled.
I will say after having worked in technology for over fifteen years now, from a very young age, probably earlier than I should have been working, I have done some amazing things and seen some really cool technology but at the end of this decade and a half, it is not especially fulfilling to me.
I am excited about the work I have done but algorithms; it doesn’t have that same feeling as that one person.
We could be stressing about the concert and all it takes is one gentleman, one lady to come up to us and say, “Oh my gosh, thank you so much, this has been wonderful, it is so great to have music close by”. It is insane and mathematically just outrageous because you are sitting there still frustrated looking for that crowd to come but internally keep thinking it is worth it to chug to the next thing.
Kids can run free here, there are event staffs, people to drive you home, people to help you, and sometimes there is camping onsite. You need to have a situation where kids are given boundaries and people feel like they are at a concert and provided that level of service.
Michelle: A lady once told me, “I love the fact that I can put my child in a bright colored shirt, I don’t have to watch him, I know he is safe, there are plenty of people around also watching, this is one of those situations where it takes a village to raise a child and I feel like my village is here.”
We have a child and we want to be able to go to those kinds of events and experiences.
That is important and when the sun goes down you can get up and dance and that is the atmosphere I want to create.
We have a long ways to go and a lot of infrastructural stuff we need to take care of over the next year or two to really make it what we want.
We are on the right path.
How do you advertise your business?
Michelle: We do a lot on Facebook. We advertise with WNRN, occasionally in Lewisburg, The Heirlooms Gazette, the Chamber and Virginia.org.
We do fliers, posters and a lot of word of mouth.
Vendors that have come have done quite a bit of advertising for us.
Joshua: We also use Eventbrite which takes care of our event management. It is another SEO platform where we can go and have affiliate links.
Our plans for the future are to stay locally invested with the community and get that cross promotional marketing as well.
We would like to be able to go and volunteer at some of their events and hopefully see that reciprocation.
We like providing a good experience for all those that attend.
Certainly one of the benefits we get from spending over 15 years in enterprise operations, when we run something here we think it through end to end. We have operational checklist, and we have volunteers that know what they are suppose to do.
Being able to plan for the worst and hope for the best. but to operate in such a way that these things go off without a hitch.
The worst thing we could have is someone having a bad experience because of an unforeseen difficulty.
To security, to making sure there is enough staff available, to people who need help, to making sure people get back to their cars, plenty of lighting, and making sure they have a safe ride home.
All of these things come together to provide an experience that is memorable.
Their most recent show was Saturday, October 7, 2017 with ZoSo. These lads are hailed as the greatest tribute band ever executing the music of Led Zeppelin.