When the pandemic hit, Jordan Labiosa’s Roanoke employer closed the office and told him and other employees to work from home.
The only problem: Home, in Labiosa’s case, was Craig County, where his internet service crept along at 2 megabits per second. For those conversant with internet speeds, keep in mind that the Federal Communications Commission has defined the minimum speed for broadband as 25 mbps.
Technically, Labiosa had internet service but in practical terms, he didn’t — certainly not enough to do his marketing job. He wasn’t alone, either. With schools ordered closed, Craig County set up hotspots in fire departments and other sites around the county, but sitting in a car in the parking lot trying to connect to the internet was hardly conducive to learning, either.
Conveniently, Labiosa was also secretary of the county’s broadband committee and knew that T-Mobile had 5G service in beta testing at some sites around the country. He used what internet service he had to send a message via Facebook Messenger to the CEO of T-Mobile to make the case for adding little ol’ Craig County to the list — an admitted “Hail Mary pass.”
Amazingly, just a few hours later, CEO Mike Sievert replied — and five months later Craig County had 5G service. Randy Walker wrote about this for Cardinal in a previous story. Now, as Paul Harvey might have said, here’s the rest of the story: Last week, Craig County held the groundbreaking for its first farmers market.
How does T-Mobile extending 5G service to Virginia’s third smallest county relate to a farmers market? Consider this a local example of the so-called “butterfly effect” — the metaphor that a butterfly flapping its wings can set in motion a tornado on the other side of the world. In this case, T-Mobile is a pretty big butterfly.
The short version goes like this: Because T-Mobile has service in Craig County, Craig is eligible for one of the company’s community grants — and so this week it received a $50,000 donation that will help the county construct a farmers market in New Castle.
This column could end here but this is about a lot more than a simple farmers market — it’s about the flowering of online businesses and remote workers in a rural county.
Whether because of T-Mobile or other service providers (such as the Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative, which is now stringing fiber), BroadbandNow.com says 92.6% of Craig’s population now has broadband access. That’s not only high, it’s slightly higher than the state average of 91.2%. By contrast, the state low is next door in Giles County, at 30.4%. Craig’s figure is higher than in Montgomery County, the regional capital of the tech industry in Southwest Virginia — 84.3% have access to broadband there, according to BroadbandNow.com. Craig’s figure is even higher than one major county on the edge of Northern Virginia: In Fauquier County, 73.8% have access to broadband. Something has certainly happened in Craig.
Here’s how that has played out.
Since the pandemic began, Labiosa has changed jobs. He’s now marketing director for a Nashville-based mental health company. “I couldn’t have done that without T-Mobile,” he told me. We’ve all heard anecdotal accounts of people moving to rural areas to work remotely. Later this year, the Census Bureau is expected to release its first post-pandemic report on the number and distribution of remote workers, but we know already that there’s been a Zoom-era migration out of metro areas and into many rural areas.
Whether those people are working remotely or not, we don’t know; we just know that they’re moving — and that Craig County is among the localities that has seen more people moving in than moving out. The Census Bureau says Craig has seen a net gain of 62 more people moving than than moving out since 2020. That may not seem like a lot of people, but in a county where the population is south of 5,000 it’s a veritable flood of newcomers. Deaths still outnumber births in Craig, but even when you balance all that out, the Census Bureau says Craig County’s population has inched upward by 0.3% since 2020. Again, that may not seem like a lot, but keep in mind that the 2020 census found that the county’s population had fallen by 5.7%, so this new influx of residents represents a turnaround in demographic trends. It’s hard to say how much of that growth is due to wider availability of internet service, but it’s certainly not a barrier the way it once was.
Those figures on newcomers don’t include Labiosa, since he was already here. Instead, he fits into a category that’s harder to measure: Here’s someone who could advance in his career without having to move out of a rural area — thank those new broadband connections for that. The implications of broadband go far beyond simply being able to download cat videos at a faster rate; they are also cultural. At 29, Labiosa is emblematic of the type of person that rural counties are trying either to attract or hold onto. He’s also advancing in other ways. He’s now chairman of the county’s Economic Development Authority and also the Republican nominee for the Craig City District seat on the board of supervisors, running unopposed.
I asked Labiosa for other examples of how 5G service has changed Craig County. He said he had jokingly told people that the new farmers market might be called “the T-Mobile Farmers Market” and that “a shocking number of people were OK with that.” More seriously, Labiosa started listing local businesses that have now been able to sell their products online. The owners of two such businesses were at the check presentation and groundbreaking ceremony — and both are farmers, which brings us to yet another confluence of broadband service, the economy and even migration patterns. In fact, both Craig County farmers who were recognized at the ceremony are relatively new to the county and now derive some of their income from online sales. Both also have brought children to the county, another demographic milestone in a county where the median age is one of the highest in the state (47.8, about 10 years older than the Virginia median) and the number of people under 20 has been shrinking. (In fact, the number of people under 50 has been shrinking in Craig.) The children of both farmers took part in the groundbreaking ceremony — there were especially loud cheers when 3-year-old Gratton Walker turned over a spade of dirt.
One of those new farmers is Jason Sarine. He was an air traffic controller in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and ran a small farm on the side, specializing in nursery items. Living by a busy highway, with new developments springing up all around, Sarine felt increasingly pushed out of central Pennsylvania. “I wanted to move to someplace quiet,” he told me. Searching real estate sites one day, he came across a property in Craig County. He drove down to check it out and bought it the same day. “I decided I didn’t like working for the government, so I decided to pursue something that gave me joy,” he said.
To say his new house was a “fix-it up” project is something of an understatement. “It was a wreck when we first saw it,” said his 12-year-old daughter, Zoey. “It had holes in the wall and birds in the attic.” It took about four months for Sarine to get the place in shape for his wife and three children to move; in the interim, he stayed at a hotel in Botetourt County and drove over the mountain every day to work on the house. In March 2022, they finally moved in, along with all their plants and animals.
It took two trips with a 26-foot U-Haul truck to move 6,000 plants. The eight peacocks were a different matter entirely. They had to be stuffed into pillowcases, with only their heads sticking out. “It’s like taking them hostage,” Sarine joked. And then there were the chickens, goats and a pony. “You name it, we have it,” Zoey said.
Now, with 35 acres north of New Castle, the Sarines operate the Humble Hen Farm & Nursery. Twice a week, they sell at farmers markets in Daleville in Botetourt County and Catawba Valley in Roanoke County, and are looking forward to a third location closer to home. “This is my town,” Sarine said. “This will be a real attraction.” However, the Sarines also sell online, so far to almost every state except Alaska, Hawaii and the Dakotas. He says he took a big pay cut to quit his job and move to Craig County to become a full-time farmer — “How often do you get an opportunity to pursue a dream?” he said. Right now, about 80% of his sales are online. That wouldn’t be possible without broadband in Craig County.
The Sarines’ story is colorful but maybe not that unusual. Throughout rural Virginia, it’s common to find people who have bagged a job somewhere else and set up shop here. The details vary but the general outlines are always the same. I suspect as broadband becomes more universal, we’ll hear a lot more such stories.
Another “come here” farmer (from Oregon) who sells online is Ty Walker, who, with his wife, Shannon, operates Smoke In Chimneys, which has brought back to life a former government trout hatchery. They process about 500 fish a week, selling to restaurants in the Roanoke Valley (including the Hotel Roanoke), in addition to raising beef and pork. The Walkers also sell at two farmers markets — Blacksburg and Grandin Road in Roanoke — and look forward to adding New Castle as a location. Walker points out the irony that for all the business they do, their trout currently aren’t available at any retail locations in Craig County. Another irony: Smoke In Chimneys sells online but the Walkers don’t have internet at home.
Shannon explained why: “We live between two mountains.”
T-Mobile can’t do anything about that.