Farm managers care for land ‘like it’s our own’
WATER VIEW, Va. — After six decades of farming the same land, Ronnie Russell can recall a lot of crops planted, managed and harvested at Corbin Hall Farm, host farm of the 2021 Virginia Ag Expo.
But it’s the people that he’s worked with on that land that he prefers to reflect on.
There are the farm owners he’s managed Corbin Hall for — Rufus Harrell and later the Hurley family. There are the other farm employees from over the years, the Extension agents who helped solve crop problems and his family who operated the farm before he managed it and are taking over as he scales back his role.
“All this land will be here,” Russell said. “God has allowed me to touch the lives of other people. I think that’s the greatest thing He has allowed me to do.”
Corbin Hall Farm and its 2,000 acres occupy a peninsula in Middlesex County, with the Rappahannock River to the east, La Grange Creek to the west, and Weeks Creek to the north. The tract of land known as Corbin Hall was once part of “Buckingham,” which was over 4,000 acres granted to Henry Corbin by the King of England in 1676. Corbin Hall remained in the Corbin family for two generations before the land was sold to a series of owners and developers.
In the 1940s, John Jackson of Pittsburgh Steel owned the farm and Corbin Hall became known for its sweet potatoes. Later, Miller Lumber Company purchased the farm from Jackson and Miller & Hawkins harvested the farm’s timber.
Russell came to Corbin Hall when he was 13 after Harrell bought the farm in 1959. Then it had about 500 acres of open land. Russell’s father, Olden, and grandfather, Fletcher, had worked for Harrell in Chesapeake, Va., and came to Corbin Hall to sharecrop the land.
Russell recalled his father’s meticulous nature, especially in the pieces of equipment he rebuilt or fashioned from raw materials.
“He was precise and it had to be precise,” Russell said of his father. “I wish I had acquired some of his skill.”
Harrell was intent on expanding the farms crop acres and the Russells and others cleared more than 1,000 acres over the years.
Russell still bristles at the thought of picking up roots and pulling out trees and stumps to make more tillable land.
“Oh Lord, I can’t even tell you about the work,” he said, shaking his head.
Harrell began his business career in animal agriculture first starting Harrell’s Poultry Market in Norfolk, Va., and later, with his brothers, establishing Harrell Bros. Packing Company, a livestock butchering and packing operation, in Chesapeake, Va.
In 1955, he became interested in manufacturing liquid fertilizer for crops and after starting operations in Albemarle, N.C., he built Tidewater Chemical Corp. in Chesapeake, Va., in 1956. His business eventually expanded to 12 branches in four states and he became known as the largest independent fertilizer manufacturer east of the Mississippi River. His business interests also grew over time to include grain elevators and selling seed and chemicals for crop production.
“He was tough — he was from the Depression era — but he was fair,” Russell said of Harrell. “He expected a day’s work and he knew how to get work out of a man.”
Russell spoke fondly of the men who also worked for Harrell and who he worked alongside with at Corbin Hall.
Stanley Williams worked on Corbin Hall Farm for more than 40 years, going back to Jackson’s ownership and Russell said he was as dependable as they come.
“If I worked 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., he never left me in the fields,” he said. “Stanley was always a part of it.”
There’s also Roy Rouse who was Harrell’s driver, but did just about any type of work. Drive trucks, clean ducks after Harrell’s hunting trips and set fishing poles for Harrell.
“I bet he painted a million gallons with a brush,” Russell added.
County Extension agents have played a role in the farm’s success, too, Russell said. L.B. Wilkins turned Harrell onto the liquid fertilizer that led to Tidewater Chemical. Wilkins also lived on the farm and later worked for Harrell selling fertilizer.
W.D. Edwards Jr. and David Moore also brought a lot of new ideas toward better production to Russell.
“He was instrumental in a lot of the practices we were doing,” Russell said of Edwards and of Moore, he added, “He was excellent. He was here when we needed him and helped me figure things out many times.”
Since Harrell’s ownership, Corbin Hall has kept a crop rotation of corn, soybeans and wheat on about 1,600 acres and grazed a small herd of beef cattle. The cattle graze on land not as suitable for farming and in the 1970s, Russell planted grass around the creeks and waterways on the farm to fight erosion.
“They still exist today. It serves a better use as a set-aside,” he said. “There was so much sediment going into the creek. It just wasn’t efficient to be farming it.”
As a demonstration spot for Tidewater Chemical, the farm held enormous field day events for 18 years, showcasing the company’s fertilizer products and test plots from numerous seed companies. The events grew popular with the local and larger farm communities, garnering visits from USDA secretaries John Block and Earl Butz over the years.
After Harrell sold the fertilizer business in 1977, Russell said the state’s agriculture industry groups wanted to keep the field days going in some way. Working with the Virginia corn and soybean groups, they brought it back in the early 1980s in what would evolve into the Virginia Ag Expo.
Corbin Hall was ag expo host in 1994, 1998, and 2003, and Russell said discussion had come up in recent years about Corbin Hall Farm hosting again. He said as he transitions out of the farm’s management, hosting one more time felt fitting. A big part of going to the expo, no matter what farm plays host, is seeing friends and learning from each other, Russell said.
“You always pick up a few things, new products, new equipment, new ways of doing things,” he said. “You don’t see everyone altogether but Ag Expo is a good way to catch up with people and learn some new things.”
Harrell died in 2006, leaving Corbin Hall Farm to his wife Louise Etheridge Harrell, who Russell called “a great lady to work for.”
In 2016, she sold the farm to nearby businessman, Walt Hurley of Urbanna, Va.
Despite Hurley’s unexpected death only months later, his children, Rachel Hurley Kittrell, Sarah Grace Hurley, and Trip Hurley, are committed to his vision of optimizing the farm’s operation. They’ve improved many of the buildings on the farm and updated equipment to gain more efficiency.
“They have said that they want to keep the farming as is,” Russell said.
As for Russell, much of the farm management have shifted to his nephew Evan Perry, who lived near the farm and helped out a lot growing up.
“This was his first year as manager,” Russell said. “I just help Evan out with some of the decisions and things.”
After he graduated high school in 2006 Perry said he worked in a distribution center for a couple years but soon returned to the farm full-time in 2008.
“It just wasn’t for me,” Perry said of the warehouse job. “I wanted to farm, it’s just what I love to do.”
Russell said he’s loved farming, too, and believes it is what he was meant to do. Now, to see his family continue to operate Corbin Hall Farm, brings him great pride.
“When it’s your life and it’s your blood, as far back as we can go, our family was farmers,” Russell said. “We do it like it’s our own and I am part of it.”