by Robert Boucheron
The state’s smallest county by population at fewer than 2,400 residents, Highland County lies in mountains west of Staunton. It has no industry, no major town and few of what the travel-and-leisure crowd would call attractions. What Highland does have is pastoral landscape, traditional family farms, a maple sugar festival each spring and Betty Mitchell.
Originally from Lunenburg County, Mitchell and her husband, a former Richmond attorney, moved in 1995 to a Bluegrass Valley farm dating back to 1860s where they raise sheep. Sensing a need, Mitchell put her skills to work on behalf of the Highland Center, where she is now the nonprofit’s executive director. In 1998, the center moved into the old Monterey High School, in the county seat.
Built of local limestone in 1922, the historic structure houses a senior center, a business incubator, community events, artist studios, a ballet school, an electric motorcycle shop and a weekly farmers market. Mitchell has at least a finger in all of these pies. A tireless networker, writer of grant applications and coordinator of volunteers, she also is an instigator of two programs that extend beyond Highland.
One of them is the Allegheny Mountain School on Bear Mountain. It completed its first year in 2011 with nine student fellows, men and women in their 20s. Living, working and learning cooperative-style in a group of cabins from May 1 to Nov. 1, they focused on high-altitude food crops, sustainable methods or permaculture (agricultural systems that modeled on relationships found in nature), foraging in the woods and low-energy storage options like root cellars and drying.
The students kept chickens, milked goats, gardened in a two large plots and a hoop house (a greenhouse with a plastic roof wrapped over flexible piping), took field trips, built a shed and a stone wall, and documented their work in blogs and photos. The students will take their skills to a community garden or similar site next year, to train others in homesteading and producing food.
The second program, the Alleghany Highlands Agricultural Center, will serve four counties. With $1 million in private investment and a government loan of about $500,000, the new building, stockyard and slaughterhouse are designed to meet USDA standards. Scheduled to start operation in early 2012, it will create five jobs and put more money in the pockets of local farmers, who now send their cattle, sheep and other livestock to Lexington and Harrisonburg.
Meat packing will be customized to each farmer’s order, with a goal of 600 animals in the first year. Chris Fuller is the general manager, with butcher and chef experience in New York, Connecticut and Colorado.
“Highland has long been recognized for its high quality grass-fed beef and lamb,” Mitchell says, “and our farmers have decades of experience in sustainable methods. The new school and Ag Center will share these assets and market our products to a wider audience.”
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