Augusta County has more acres in farmland than any other county in Virginia, which will surprise no one who has taken the scenic drive through the western part of the county to places such as Middlebrook and Swoope and Spring Hill and has seen silos rising up like skyscrapers out of the landscape.
Here’s what might be a surprise, though: Augusta County has more remote workers than agricultural workers.
The pandemic has highlighted – and accelerated – remote work, but this figure isn’t pandemic-related. Even before the pandemic, the state’s biggest farm county had more remote workers than farm workers. The U.S. Census Bureau in 2019 counted 1,554 people working from home in Augusta County versus 806 working in agriculture (and forestry, fishing and hunting, as the official category is defined). Now, working from home isn’t quite the same as the stereotypical Zoom worker – the lone CPA doing accounting work from a home office doesn’t conjure up quite the same image as the cubicle refugee tapping away on a computer for some unseen boss – but the point is that working from home is a bigger category of workers than many people realize. The pandemic has only made it larger, and it’s a very desirable category of workers that’s being sought after by rural localities eager to reverse population declines. For our purposes here today, “working from home” and “remote workers” are the same thing because that’s how the Census Bureau counts them, even if that incorporates some oddities. The home-based taxidermist is in the same category as the keyboard cowboy (or cowgirl).
We’ve written about this before: I call your attention to an earlier column I wrote about the localities with the highest percentages of remote workers, and to our story by Lisa Provence about how Nelson County has topped that list with 11.8% of its workforce working remotely.
Today, let’s slice the data a different way, especially since we have some additional data to work with. More information is always a good thing.
The Farm Bureau says the counties with most acreage in farmland are:
Augusta County 290,911
Pittsylvania County 246,322
Rockingham County 228,542
Fauquier County 216,666
Bedford County 211,087
We’ve just seen how Augusta has more remote workers than ag workers, but that’s not unusual. The same is true for four of the state’s top five farm counties. (Rockingham is the exception.)
Augusta County 1,554 remote workers 806 ag workers
Pittsylvania County 1,008 remote workers 699 ag workers
Rockingham County 1,709 remote workers 1,929 ag workers
Fauquier County 2,814 remote workers 798 ag workers
Bedford County 1,632 remote workers 300 ag workers
Now, I can already hear folks back in my home county of Rockingham clamoring an objection. Wait a minute, Augusta’s not the top ag county! Rockingham is! Them’s fighting words!
That’s true. Augusta has more acres but Rockingham has more agricultural output in terms of dollar value. So the top 10 counties for agricultural income are, in order: Rockingham, Augusta, Accomack, Page, Shenandoah, Orange, Northampton, Amelia, Southampton and Pittsylvania. Of those 10 top ag counties, seven have more remote workers than ag workers. The three exceptions are Rockingham, Accomack and Southampton.
Rockingham County: 1,709 remote workers, 1,929 ag workers
Augusta County: 1,554 remote workers, 806 ag workers
Accomack County: 707 remote workers, 948 ag workers
Page County: 517 remote workers, 338 ag workers
Shenandoah County: 945 remote workers, 489 ag workers
Orange County: 852 remote workers, 372 ag workers
Northampton County: 418 remote workers, 376 ag workers
Amelia County: 220 remote workers. 181 ag workers
Southampton County: 344 remote workers, 368 ag workers
Pittsylvania County: 1,008 remote workers, 699 ag workers
Now, to some extent, this is comparing the proverbial apples and oranges – or perhaps in this case, apples and Apples. We don’t have figures for what the economic output of those remote workers are, so maybe those ag workers are contributing more to the economy than those working from home. The point, though, is that there are a lot more remote workers than we realize.
The agricultural industry is well-organized. I’ve already quoted stats from the Virginia Farm Bureau, and then there are industry groups for every farm product – a Cattlemen’s Association, a Turkey Federation, you name it. No commodity seems too small; there’s even an effort to organize the state’s maple syrup producers that Shannon Watkins wrote about earlier this year. Politicians show up at their events (if they know what’s good for them) and extol their virtues. Nobody wants to get on the bad side of the farmers. Remote workers, though, aren’t similarly organized. There’s a reason why once they were dubbed “lone wolves.” That means their numbers, and their importance to local economies, is understated.
So let’s now roll out another stat. This comes from Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia: “In 2019, 85 of Virginia’s 95 counties had more people working from home than in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting combined. Close to twice as many people in the most rural counties (outside metro or micro areas) worked at home than in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting combined.”
85 of 95!
Based on those figures, remote workers ought to be getting more political attention than farmers.
Now, some might argue that these figures don’t capture the true size of the ag industry because there are lots of part-time farmers not reflected in these full-time stats. However, there may also be a lot of part-time remote workers not captured in these numbers. We work with what we have and the point’s the same: Remote workers are underrated as an economic force.
Now let’s see how the remote workforce compares to another major, and extolled, sector of the economy: manufacturing.
The numbers change but are still noteworthy: Virginia has 27 localities that before the pandemic had more remote workers than manufacturing workers. You can see from the map that most are in and around Northern Virginia and Charlottesville, with occasional localities outside Richmond and around Williamsburg. But you can also see that the dominance of remote workers over manufacturing is pushing out pretty far from the Northern Virginia core – into rural localities such as Clarke County and Rappahannock County. Likewise, we see remote workers outnumber manufacturing workers in counties outside the Charlottesville/Albemarle core – in Greene, Nelson and Fluvanna. You can consider those as part of the larger Northern Virginia market or the larger Charlottesville market, but then there are a few other rural localities nowhere near them where remote workers outnumber manufacturing workers: Cumberland County in Southside, Northampton County on the Eastern Shore, Northumberland County on the Northern Neck. Now, perhaps those numbers are attributable to those counties having a small manufacturing base, so maybe the real story there is lack of manufacturing rather than a big number of remote workers. Still, the numbers are what they are. In those localities, there were more remote workers pre-pandemic than manufacturing workers.
Cumberland County: 311 remote workers, 214 manufacturing workers
Northampton County: 418 remote workers, 376 manufacturing workers
Northumberland County: 374 remote workers, 175 manufacturing workers
Now, here’s where things get interesting: Of those 27 localities where remote workers outnumber manufacturing workers, 13 voted for Glenn Youngkin in November – as close to half as you can get with an odd number. If we discount the cities – since cities tend to be Democratic strongholds – then we’re talking 13 of 19 counties where remote workers outnumber manufacturing workers voting for Youngkin. Now, not all those counties are the same size, of course. Fairfax County is bigger than some minor planets, or so it seems.
My point, though, is this: Let’s not assume that remote working is a liberal vs. conservative thing as it’s sometimes portrayed. Maybe all these remote workers are liberals – we have no idea. There are certainly liberals in even the most conservative counties (just not many of them). But here we have a bunch of conservative counties where remote workers are already an economic force. Greene County and Hanover County voted 67% for Youngkin. Northumberland County voted 64% for Youngkin. Cumberland County voted 63% for Youngkin.
Some of you by now have guessed where this might be headed: Youngkin’s order calling state workers back to the office. I understand his instincts as an employer: Employers often don’t like remote workers. Supervisors like to see the people they’re supervising. Workers, quite naturally, often like the flexibility of working from home. (Disclosure: As editor of Cardinal, I’m a supervisor, but we all work remotely.) I’m surprised, though, that Youngkin has seemingly discounted the economic development benefits of remote work – benefits that many of those rural localities that voted for him are trying to tap into. In the Richmond area, Hanover – a good, solid Republican county – would benefit from more state workers working from home rather than in downtown Richmond.
As I’ve pointed out before, I’m not particularly concerned about whether a state worker is toiling away in a cubicle in the James Monroe Building or in their apartment in the Fan – or, for our purposes here, their subdivision in Mechanicsville. I hate to sound so provincial but as an advocate for Southwest and Southside, that distinction doesn’t really matter to us. I am concerned, though, about whether the alternative is for that state worker to live in Mecklenburg County or Montgomery County instead of Mechanicsville. If the governor promoted remote work, instead of discounting it, then maybe long-term there’s an employment opportunity for people in Southwest and Southside that didn’t exist before.
I also wonder what signal this sends to all those rural localities – almost exclusively Republican counties, and not just Republican counties but strongly Republican counties – that are trying to attract remote workers. Maybe the governor’s action will make no difference for them – I hope it doesn’t – but think of how much better it would be for them if the governor embraced remote work. Embraced it, endorsed it. Set out to make Virginia’s state government an example for the nation. That would give rural Virginia a powerful advocate at a time when lots of rural localities around the country are trying to do the same thing. Youngkin could stand up and make the case that Virginia isn’t simply open for business, it’s open for remote workers, too, and he’s led by example.
Remote workers alone won’t solve the economic challenges in rural Virginia but they are surely part of the solution, and we’d be better off if the governor could – and would – make the economic case for why rural Virginia is well-suited for them. It’s hard to do that in Russell County, though, if he’s not doing it in Richmond. It’s a goose, gander sort of thing.
Remote workers are also clearly a rising force. In fact, there are only 10 localities where remote workers trail both ag workers and manufacturing workers. One of those is Highland County, where the county’s economic development authority has launched a pilot program to promote the county as a place for remote work. Highland County voted 74.4% for Youngkin. Doesn’t sound like Highland should count on attracting any remote state workers, though.