When driving through Franklin County, the first thing you might notice is the landscape. It undulates. Hill after hill of fertile ground provides prime estate for farmers, ideal for livestock and crops of all kinds. What was once an entirely rural farming community has developed into residential areas considerably since the 60s. Even with recent developments it remains, like many areas in Southwestern Virginia, a picturesque pastoral. Within a radius of just a few miles are numbers of farms, many inhabited by people who have lived in the area for years, their families’ multi-generational residents of the county dating back centuries. Much of Franklin is comprised of people who have made their livelihood from working the land, coaxing sustenance from the soil to feed their livestock, their families, and the community.
One such place is Four Corners Farm, a family-run, chemical-free, producing farm owned and operated by Ian and Carolyn Reilly.
The Reilly’s use organic methods in every part of their farming process that aims to restore the land as it is used. The day’s work begins with feeding and watering the farm’s 350 chickens at dawn (a mix of Ameraucanas, Amberlinks, Barred Rocks, Golden Comets, and Black Australorps, to name a few), releasing them from the coop in which they have been sleeping, protected from hawks and foxes by their guard dog, Buster. Because of its wheels the coop is portable and is rotated to different parts of pasture every couple of days to keep from tiring the land, allowing the grazing areas to replenish naturally while the chickens feast on a fresh spot. The chickens also act as a form of tick control. Then there are the pigs rooting out overgrowth in the wooded areas, the cows contentedly grazing in the lower pasture, and the broiler baby chicks sweetly chirping in the brooder house. For the family who wants to give to the land as much as it gives, the daily to-do list can change in an instant and is always full.
Ian explains, “Farming creates a nice sense of routine with sprinkles of chaos thrown in to keep things exciting.”
Instead of being born and raised in agriculture the way so many in Franklin began, the Reilly’s began later in life after Ian spent years working in the IT field and Carolyn in marketing.
“We got into this because we were concerned about where our food was coming from,” Carolyn says. “We wanted to do something about it and make a difference.”
They packed up their lives in Florida and drove north to Virginia when they found 58 acres of farmland for sale on Craigslist. Committing their entire lifestyle to the enrichment of the land, the Reilly’s had only been in Franklin for four years when they were informed last fall of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and its drafted route through their pastures. The 42-inch diameter, underground, fracked natural gas pipeline is slotted to run for over 300 miles from the Marcellus shale in West Virginia to an existing Transco station in Pittsylvania County, Virginia.
“When you’re working with nature you never really know what will happen, but you learn to adapt,” Carolyn says, a lesson learned in their formative farming years. Their ability to adapt has proven essential as the pipeline plans have marched slowly but steadily forward, despite the well-researched resistance of landowners and local grassroots groups like Preserve Franklin, a group of county residents who have banded together to oppose the pipeline.
Past the lower pasture of Four Corners lies a stretch of Teels Creek that meanders through the farm’s property lines, then flows into Little Creek, which flows into the South Fork Blackwater River, the water supply for Rocky Mount. The route of the pipeline follows the creek closely along the Reilly’s property, at times drafted to be strung beneath the creek by way of what the industry calls horizontal directional drilling, a method of drilling remotely from above ground using a combination of hydraulic pressure with drilling equipment to create a subterranean path through which the pipe can be threaded. The company claims this method will have less environmental impact, while those who oppose the line have expressed concern due to the granite batholith signature to the region—since it is much more dense than other Virginia topography, they fear certain areas could require blasting in order to run the pipe through.
While the Reilly’s are concerned that the pipeline’s construction and maintenance would disrupt and ultimately limit their business’ productivity and livelihood, above all the hardest hitting impact is safety, a common concern among families along the route.
“This is where our kids play in the summers,” Carolyn says, gesturing to a calm bend on the creek that beckons with flat rocks and waist deep waters.
“It is a safety concern, but it’s also the use of our land that concerns us. We use this. We use the creek for recreation, for our pastures. If they harm this creek, I don’t see how they can fix it.”
After previously sending a certified letter to Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC, denying surveying access to the company and any contractors the company could use in the process, the Reilly’s found blue surveying tape dangling from tree branches along their bend of Teels Creek. This discovery occurred simultaneously with the brush fire that pipeline surveyors started in Franklin when disposing of a still-lit cigarette butt. These back-to-back events sparked an emergency press conference added on to an already existing event scheduled for the Preserve Franklin group, a presentation from Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League’s Lou Zeller, “Activism: Why It Works.” 50 people from Franklin and surrounding counties gathered in Redwood Methodist Church in Rocky Mount in April to send a message of resistance and unity to local media.
In addition to full time work on the farm (a faceted job that includes but is not limited to: assisting with the animal and garden duties and managing the farm store; PR and marketing; education and outreach; farm classes, tours, and internships; not to mention raising four children), Carolyn works as a media advocate for Franklin residents, coordinating press coverage and meeting locations. Ian also offers his IT expertise and technical support at local meetings late into the night.
“I don’t suspect they sleep much these days,” says a visitor to Four Corners during their annual Easter egg hunt, one of the free events the farm offers to the community.
Four Corners has been keeping busy during the project’s pre-filing phase, recently hosting a “Flatline the Pipeline” event, a donation-based music and arts festival to raise awareness and funds, as well as presenting at Franklin County Board of Supervisors meetings, a challenge for residents who feel they have not been adequately heard. Each board meeting allows only one speaker to present with a 3-minute time limit.
Until recently, the Franklin County Board of Supervisors was the only Board out of the affected counties in Virginia to remain silent, holding off on issuing a formal resolution to FERC and to residents in opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Save for Supervisor Ronnie Thompson, some members of the board have supported the proposed pipeline as they believe it would provide economic benefit to Franklin.
Carolyn helped lead a rally outside of the county administration building before most recent Board meeting, demanding they request an extension from FERC on the period for public comment which recently closed on June 16th. Residents also called for the board to request a FERC Scoping meeting to be held in Franklin, instead of the previously scheduled meetings in Montgomery County. FERC held six public scoping meetings in the month of May- four in West Virginia and two in Virginia. The closest meeting location to Franklin County was over an hour away in Elliston, a weeknight challenge that many families in Franklin felt was strategically placed by FERC. FERC Chairman Norman Bay scrapped possibilities of extension by way of a letter on June 18th.
It was at the scoping meeting in Elliston where Carolyn elicited cheers from the crowd during her 3-minute presentation,
“Sometimes after I’ve been outside, whether working in our garden, exploring the land, or playing in the creeks with my four children, I come home and I find dirt under my nails or in between my toes, and I see this is a sign of a blessed life: dirt. My dirt. Mountain Valley Pipeline has no interest in my dirt, or the animals we raise, or the wildness of the woods surrounding our creek. Their interest is solely in moving fracked gas from point A to point B, and making as much money as they can doing it.”
In spite of the demanding schedule and stresses of protecting their farm, Four Corners still prioritizes stewardship. Not just in farming, not just in raising crops or cattle, but in husbandry, in nurturing the soil, conserving the landscape, the physical makeup and history of the community. Though the Reilly’s were new to Franklin a few years ago, in their battle against the pipeline Four Corners has become a symbol of community, a place where people can come to learn. The stewardship of their farm extends to fellow residents, fellow farms, hills, and hollows in Franklin, to protect, to claim accountability, to be responsible for something even though it is shared, because it is shared.
When asked whether she believes her voice has impact, Carolyn immediately responds, “They hear it. Whether it changes the outcome or not, at least you know you’ve done something that is worth the effort and is right. It’s the right and good thing to do.”
For more information on Four Corners Farm, please visit www.fourcornersfarm.com
Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC will be filing a formal project application with the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission in the fall of 2015.