Forty-two years ago, Susan Sink thought the farm she and her late husband Henry bought near Christiansburg spelled out a future of kids, crops, cattle and the American Dream.
Little did she know that Sinkland Farms would evolve into one of western Virginia’s top spots for agritourism.
Or that in the process of becoming a destination for family fun, ceremony, and education it would also morph into a case study for saving the family farm.
Sinkland’s 125 acres of rolling fields and pastures have seen plenty of cattle and crops over the years. But these days, it’s a whole different operation.
Over six weekends in the fall, an estimated 40,000 people will show up for Sinkland’s annual Pumpkin Festival.
Tractor-drawn wagons filled with families and friends will chug through a sea of orange and green dotted by some 15,000 pumpkins and gourds of every shape and color.
Nearby, you’ll hear the shouts and laughter of folks orienteering their way through a 10-acre corn maze. Or enjoying a cornucopia of outdoor games, activities and events.
In the summer, people will wander through fields bursting in yellow during the annual Sunflower Festival, where upwards of 200,000 blooms create irresistible photo-ops.
Dozens of couples will be married in Sinkland’s outdoor wedding chapel throughout the year.
And on any autumn weekday, excited kids will pour out of school buses for a real life, non-digital experience with cattle, horses, sheep, pigs, goats, poultry and crops.
Last year, some 8,000 kids from 100 school systems throughout western Virginia visited Sinkland Farms.
“I just want to have people come and learn and be entertained in a very unique way,” said Susan Sink, sitting at a sprawling kitchen table that serves as the heart of the household and the business. “It’s very important for me to show people what a farm is all about.”
Nearby sat Susan’s husband, Roger Williams, a courtly, matter-of-fact-like farmer with the leathery countenance and perspective of a man who has seen it all.
Looking east out the kitchen window is a view of the ridge that once cradled America’s famed Wilderness Road, where hardy pioneers once made their way west to settle the American frontier.
That historic road and all of the opportunity, twists, turns, grit and perseverance it brings to mind fits well with the story of Sinkland Farms.
Susan and Roger married in 2018, but they actually met in the early 1970s when Roger was studying agriculture at Virginia Tech and Susan was studying business and marketing at Radford University.
“From the very beginning, farming was in my blood,” recalls Susan, who grew up on a cattle farm in Rocky Mount before enrolling at Radford. While there, she dated Henry Sink, a Virginia Tech agriculture student she had known since high school back in Franklin County. Susan and Henry would marry in 1974.
Roger and Henry had met through Tech’s Dairy Science Club and become best friends. Roger went on to marry his wife Candace in 1974 and the two couples stayed connected over the years, visiting whenever possible.
“We kept up with Henry, but not so much with Susan,” Roger mused. “She was always gone.” That’s because Susan was off building a career as a professional fundraiser, traveling the world and connecting with people like Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and others who populate the world of high-stakes philanthropy.
After working in admissions for Radford in the ’70s, Susan went on to establish a major fundraising program for Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering. That led to a stint at the prestigious National Academy of Engineering in Washington, D.C. Several years later, The Nature Conservancy recruited her to work on major gifts – as in $5 million and up.
She eventually landed as vice president of development and communications for the D.C.-based American Farmland Trust, an organization that works to protect farmland, promote effective farming practices and help keep farmers on their land … a mission close to her heart.
Henry Sink went to work for the state’s Dairy Herd Improvement Association, then based out of Virginia Tech. That job took him around the commonwealth, testing dairy herds and helping farmers improve their productivity.
“Henry and I both knew we wanted to have a family and a farm,” she recalled, so they purchased the farm from a retiring dairy farmer on Jan. 1, 1980.
Meanwhile, over in coastal Suffolk, Roger was also working the family farm. Circumstances led to its sale in the late ’90s, but farming was in his blood and in 2001, he and his sons established a new 200-head dairy operation.
“It was a pretty good herd of cattle,” Roger says modestly, and it takes Susan to mention that Roger’s farm was ranked number one in the commonwealth for milk production year after year.
Roger is quick to point out that farming is a hard business. “The dairy industry is a fierce industry,” he said, adding it’s seen a lot of change and challenge over the past several decades.
Technological advancements and increased productivity led to oversupply. Changing federal subsidies and controls spelled uncertainty for many farmers. Add consolidation, unpredictable costs and weather to the mix and it got tough for many farms to make ends meet.
The solution for many is to just sell out, says Susan. “Farmers are aging, and most of the time their children have seen how hard their parents have worked for minimal return or less and they just don’t want that life,” she adds. “Land is sold every day for development purposes.”
Experts in the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service have been watching this trend evolve and supporting the synergy between Virginia’s two biggest industries: tourism and agriculture.
According to a 2017 Virginia Tech study on the economic impact of agritourism in the Commonwealth, about 1,400 establishments are now involved in some aspect of agritourism. That same study said it accounted for $2.2 billion in economic activity and supported 22,000 jobs in 2015.
“Agritourism has grown because the public is three or more generations removed from the farm and the public is curious about how their food and fiber is grown,” notes Isle of Wight agriculture and natural resources Extension agent and unit coordinator Livvy Preisser, who works closely with Virginia agritourism.
Dixie Watts Dalton, associate professor of practice in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at Virginia Tech, says Virginia agritourism has been growing steadily over the past decade. There were about 500 operations in 2013 and over 1,400 in 2017. Data for 2022 is not yet in.
Dalton defines agritourism as “any activity carried out on a farm or ranch that allows members of the general public, for recreational, entertainment, or educational purposes, to view or enjoy rural activities, including farming, wineries, ranching, historical, cultural, harvest-your-own activities, or natural activities and attractions.”
Over the years, Dalton has watched Sinkland Farms grow from a pumpkin patch to a multi-faceted agritourism center. The estimated 40,000 people who attend Sinkland’s fall Pumpkin Festival is a big number, she says, especially since it is so far away from urban population centers in the “Golden Crescent” of the state.
Preisser says an estimated 7.5 million people visit agritourism operations in Virginia every year. She says about 40% of those are non-local.
“Agritourism is a perfect example of the ingenuity and determination of farm families to develop avenues for preserving the family farm when the profitability of traditional commodity marketing declines or presents too much variability and uncertainty,” said Dalton. “While agritourism is not for everyone, families like the Sink family have been very successful in researching needs and interests and developing on-farm opportunities to meet them.”
One of the many educational signs posted at Sinkland during festival time sums up the changing landscape for farming: “Every minute our country loses 2 acres of farmland to development – nearly 3,000 acres a day.”
“Farmers have had to think of ways to survive,” Susan continued. “Most farmers are like me. They are very passionate. They’ve put blood, sweat and tears in this thing called land. Agritourism is a pathway for farmers to be able to keep their land.”
Sinkland’s foray into agritourism began to evolve in the early ’90s. At first, Henry and Susan dabbled with a “you-pick” strawberry patch, grew some Christmas trees and sold sweet corn by the side of the road. But their “agricultural epiphany” occurred when a Virginia Tech extension agent suggested they grow pumpkins.
After all, the rich Southwest Virginia soil was especially well suited for them. They had also heard about a pumpkin festival on a farm owned by a retired Virginia Tech faculty member in nearby Craig County.
“We had no idea what a pumpkin festival would be like,” recalls Susan. So they drove out to Craig to check it out, expecting to find a few local residents sitting on the tailgates of their pickup trucks and listening to someone pluck a banjo. What they found were scores of suburban and urban visitors having the time of their lives.
“On the way back, I said Henry, ‘We can do this, we can do this,’ and we did!” recalled Susan. “We just ended up growing and growing,” she said, adding attractions and new elements like children’s events and petting zoos year after year.
But in 2007, tragedy struck. Henry was killed in a motorcycle accident near Myrtle Beach and Susan found herself a single mother facing a “get out” or “lean in” moment. No surprise for those who know her, she chose the latter and has never looked back.
She began to grow the wedding and special events part of the business, investing in facilities and advertising. She added more and more to the Pumpkin Festival, bringing in musical performances from groups playing everything from bluegrass and old time to Virginia Tech’s “Highty-Tighties” Marching Band.
Former Virginia Tech football player and “American Idol” star Dan Marshall, for example, entertained the crowds one recent weekend during the 2022 Sunflower Festival.
“I am the queen of bundling things,” she laughed. Pony rides. Trail rides. Catapults. Pig racing. Ax throwing. Children’s games. Cameos by the Hokie Bird and university cheerleaders. She partnered with a local brewery, brought in food trucks and bands and opened the reception center to weekend revelers.
Sinkland started hosting events for everything from sororities and fraternities to training and development workshops for companies in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. Virginia Tech and Radford University students began conducting practicums and internships in special events and hospitality management. The wedding business took off.
Sinkland became “established.” Crowds came. People talked. The online buzz began. ESPN even featured Sinkland on live national television during a halftime feature for a Virginia Tech football game.
Meanwhile back east, Roger was coping with his own challenges. His wife, Candace, had been diagnosed with cancer, which they successfully battled for 14 years before she passed away.
“Eventually, I worked myself back to Christiansburg and checked on Susan because I had never visited Susan after Henry’s untimely death,” said Roger before hopping on a John Deere Gator and sputtering off to take care of business. “That evolved and we found we were better friends than ever.”
Susan finishes his thought: “Yeah, he visited and we just kept on visiting.” They married and Roger sold his Suffolk farm and moved to Sinkland.
So where do they go from here? While Roger and Susan can each look back on a lifetime of hard work and are past the point where many consider retirement, they are plowing ahead, albeit with plenty of help from the family.
One thing that keeps them energized is knowing that what they are doing is fostering public understanding and appreciation for agriculture. Another is the continuing flow of gratitude from a grateful public.
Roger beams with pride while telling a story about a little boy and his mom leaving the Sunflower Festival last year, hand in hand. He watched as the boy looked up and said, “Momma, this has been the best day of my life!”
“We’re both going to work until we die,” Susan says. “That’s just what farmers do.”