Donald Thayer was just 18 when his father passed away, leaving him in charge of their Washington County farm. His father also left him with a deep sense of stewardship. “He told my mom that he wanted to keep the farm in one piece,” Thayer says. “From then on I was always looking for a way to conserve it.”
Soft-spoken, dedicated to the farm, and a strong advocate for conserving agricultural land, Thayer was one of the first open-space easement donors in Southwest Virginia, and the first in Washington County.
In many ways, Thayer took a leap of faith, both in donating his easement and in speaking about it in the community. “Back when we used to have meetings with landowners to introduce them to the idea of easements, he stood out to us,” says Bill Wasserman, VOF’s stewardship assistant in the region. “Not only because he was the first to get behind the idea, but especially because, as someone who had already donated an easement, he spoke so eloquently about the importance of preserving farmland.”
Since Thayer’s 172-acre easement donation in 2000, VOF has helped conserve nearly 5,000 acres of land in Washington County. Thayer is modest about the role he has played. “I’ve encouraged neighbors when the opportunity came up,” he says. But both Wasserman and VOF easement manager Neal Kilgore agree that Thayer’s support of the program and credibility in the community have been a critical factor in the region’s success.
“It is always refreshing and inspiring for me to meet farming families that quietly ‘walk the walk’ while the fruits of their labor ‘talk the talk,’” Kilgore says. “The Thayers epitomize that combination of quiet leadership, hard work, and a sound land ethic–all of which earn them a lot of respect in the community.”
Now 84, Thayer is in his 30th year as minister at the area’s United Methodist Church, and he still actively farms with his son, Kevin. They grow hay and manage an average of 85 Angus cows and calves. “We’re enrolled in the EQIP program for rotational grazing, and people are always surprised when I tell them how well it works for us,” says Kevin, who is also president of the Washington County Farm Bureau Board and a member, along with his father, of the Smyth/Washington Cattleman’s Association and the Abingdon Feeder Cattle Association. “If you do it right, those cattle will just follow you to the next grazing area.”
Kevin teaches agricultural education at Patrick Henry High School and estimates that he’s had about 100 students out to the farm to work during his 28 years there. “I enjoy helping them take a hands-on approach to solving everyday problems. There are always different challenges for some of the same tasks. To me, agricultural work gives you the skills to be successful in anything.”
In 1996, the Thayer farm was designated a Virginia Century Farm by the Virginia Department of Consumer and Agricultural Services. “Nothing like a beautiful sunrise on the farm that the family has worked and resided on for over 100 years,” Kevin says.
Donald points out how much the farm has been a family affair. “My older sister, Ellaree, helped me milk and rake hay for many years. My wife, Eleanor, has given me support and run many a farm errand over our 56 years of marriage.”
“I’m pleased with the decision,” Donald says of donating the easement nearly 20 years ago. “Even if it eventually goes out of the family, it will still be farmland. That’s the most important thing.”