Will and Becky Roberts, current owners of Rawhide Ridge Farm in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, initially met at a local cattle show at the Olde Dominion Agricultural Complex in Chatham. Becky, who currently works as an assistant principal at the Pittsylvania Career and Technical Center, was helping several students show livestock, and Will was a volunteer. While it took them awhile to start dating, they quickly discovered they shared a deep love of agriculture and helping others.
Like many young farmers, early on Will and Becky struggled with how to make farming pay, particularly with increasing costs in family healthcare. For some time to come, Will says he sees the couple having one spouse working on-farm and one spouse working off the farm in order to make ends meet.
But the couple is working hard at making their on-the-farm dream a reality. Will, a native of neighboring Caswell County, North Carolina, went to college with the hopes of working in forestry. When job opportunities weren’t available close to home, he began working as a farm manager for a beef and Boer goat operation in Pittsylvania County. “I didn’t have a lot of guidance,” he laughs, “it was basically a learning and growing opportunity.”
By 2012, through savings, business planning, and financial help from the Chatam branch of Farm Credit of the Virginias, the then-28-year-old purchased his own farm. It included two parcels of noncontiguous acreage amounting to just under 160 acres.
Creating complementary revenue
With Becky’s help, Will now runs a small beef operation of 34 cows, two bulls, and eight replacement heifers, alongside a haying operation. Including rented acreage, the Roberts farm about 500 acres total. Recently, in an effort to increase ag operation revenues and hopefully one day get Becky on the farm full-time, the Roberts started a fencing and custom gate building company known as Rawhide Fencing Services, LLC.
It seemed like a logical extension to the couple’s beef cattle operation, particularly since Pittsylvania County is one of the largest dairy and beef producing areas in Virginia. Plus, it offered the Roberts an opportunity to provide a service that is in demand to producers just like themselves.
“It was just me and one other guy for two to three years,” Will says of the fencing business, which has expanded within the last year to include custom gates. But today, the fencing side of the Roberts’ business ventures has nine employees, including Will and Becky. “They’re all full-time, save one,” Becky remarks. And today, the business has built fence for customers in 10 counties across two states.
Finding their niche
It’s been quite a growth spurt for a new business started by a couple with no more experience in fence building than what they learned working on their own parents’ and grandparents’ farms as kids. Will says he’s seen a particular demand for fencing assistance for Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) cost-share programs and indicates it makes up about 50 percent of Rawhide’s contracts.
Meanwhile, custom gate, panel and feeder work are also hot items, driven to no small degree, says Will, by the fact that Rawhide’s fencing customers have been so dissatisfied with off-the-shelf products. Currently, Rawhide is the only gate fabrication company in the state of Virginia.
Rawhide has no website or other online presence, gaining most of its clients through referrals and repeat business. “Nine out of 10 contracts for soil and water conservation work have been with repeat customers,” says Will.
Will says Rawhide makes the most income from its fencing work, but it has the best margins on gate fabrication. Currently, the Roberts’ company is putting up 70,000 to 90,000 feet of fence annually. Will and his crew do all different types of fencing – fixed knot woven-wire, board fence, high-tensile fence. “I’ll do anything but chain link,” he says.
It’s the couple’s willingness to do just about anything that keeps their fencing business growing. Both are actively involved in the local agricultural community, too, serving together on the county’s Agricultural Development Board as well as being District 10 representatives for the Virginia Farm Bureau Young Farmers.
With the farm, the fencing business, and all their volunteer work, Becky says the couple keeps running day and night Monday through Saturday every week. “We reserve Sunday for the Lord and each other,” she says.
Will is quick to admit that Becky is a rare sort, and it was only because she was already active in the local ag community and such a dedicated volunteer that she was able to work with the busy farming and fencing lifestyle Will was already establishing before the couple met four years ago. “We both already lived the lifestyle,” he notes. “And we also serve on a lot of the boards together.”
The Roberts want to grow the beef cattle operation in the coming years to include at least 75 brood cows, but Will says, with a laugh, he’s got to finish his own fence before he does that, noting, “It’s the fence builder’s fence that never gets built!”
However, their story illustrates the lesson that creatively looking at additional revenue streams around the farm can help rural folks achieve the dream of working on the farm full-time.
Web pointer: Keep your fences standing strong for years to come when you implement solid braces (http://bit.ly/1UDIr4t).
Deborah Huso is a freelance writer living on a small farm in Barboursville, Virginia. She is a contributing editor for The Progressive Farmer.