Jon Hickox’s patience is paying off.
The former remodeling business owner purchased a 21-acre plot of land adjacent to Manassas National Battlefield and Bull Run Creek in Centreville in 2008, just as the Great Recession threw real estate markets into turmoil.
Though he had not settled on a firm plan for the property when he bought it, he had experience with farm work and dreamed of someday starting a winery, though he had no idea whether that would even be possible since Fairfax County did not have any wineries at that point.
Hickox and his wife, Kim, took a chance, and four years later, after much hard work, nurturing, and perseverance, they opened The Winery at Bull Run, the second such establishment in Fairfax County after Paradise Springs Winery launched in Clifton in 2010.
Still family-owned, The Winery at Bull Run has been thriving ever since, and with that success came interest from both state and county officials.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Aug. 23 that The Winery at Bull Run will receive $100,000 from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund. Fairfax County matched that amount for a $200,000 combined grant.
“We’re going to turn that [investment] into great wine, but we’re also going to turn that into a lot of wonderful jobs in all facets, from tourism to wine-making to wine pouring,” Hickox said. “We’re very humble that we’ve been allotted this grant, and we’re going to make Virginia proud.”
The Commonwealth established the AFID Fund to support the state’s agricultural and forestry industries and to encourage Virginia-based businesses to use agricultural and forestry products developed in the state, according to Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Dr. Jewel Bronaugh.
AFID grants go to localities that apply on behalf of a new or expanding company that produces agricultural or forestry products.
To be eligible, applying localities must match the requested state funds dollar-for-dollar, and the funds must be crucial to the success of the benefitting company, which is expected to make new private investments or create new jobs, according to a summary on the VDACS website.
Localities can request a maximum of $500,000, but the exact amount and terms of each grant are determined by the secretary of agriculture and forestry and approved by the governor.
Though Northern Virginia is generally associated with government work and white-collar industries such as information technology, agriculture is crucial to the state’s overall economy.
Agriculture is Virginia’s largest private-sector industry, responsible for an annual economic impact of $70 billion and more than 334,000 jobs across the Commonwealth, according to VDACS.
Virginia ranks among the top 10 states in the U.S. for producing commodities like leaf tobacco, apples, grapes, peanuts, tomatoes, and turkeys.
“The entire state has a role to play in supporting our number one industry in the state of Virginia,” Bronaugh said. “Everyone has to eat, and everyone wants good, clean water and good, clean air, and agriculture certainly has a role to play in that.”
For Fairfax County, agriculture represents an opportunity to ease the region’s dependence on the federal government for jobs and economic development.
Fairfax County boasts 6,021 agriculture-related jobs, fifth most in the state, and the industry already brings $780 million in total economic impact, but county leaders want to invest more in the industry as they seek to diversify the economy.
The Fairfax County Economic Development Support Fund contains money for capital development projects, real estate purchases, and programming support for activities identified in the county’s economic success plan.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted on July 25, 2017 to allocate $500,000 from that fund toward agriculture and agro-tourism projects.
County officials see wineries like the one at Bull Run as critical to their efforts to support agriculture.
According to Bronaugh, grapes are Virginia’s 17th most valuable farm commodity.
Wineries also draw visitors to the county. The Bull Run Winery alone generated $5.5 million in retail sales with about 152,000 visitors last year, according to Fairfax County.
As Hickox notes, his purchase of the property that turned into The Winery at Bull Run kept the land away from developers, preserving its scenic value as well as its historical significance given the place’s proximity to Manassas Battlefield Park.
“This is, in people’s minds, probably as different as you can get from IT, but it is an industry that used to be, back in the 1950s, huge in Fairfax County,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova said. “…This sort of returns to our roots, so to speak, and provides an industry that, first of all, I think will be very successful, but I think it also provides pleasure and fun to people in Fairfax County.”
Hickox plans to use the $200,000 combined grant money from Virginia and Fairfax County to supplement more than $1.7 million that he is investing in the winery himself, primarily to buy new equipment that will help his business increase its output.
The Winery at Bull Run is supported by a 42-acre vineyard that Hickox owns in Rappahannock County, and he expects to yield close to 200 tons of grapes this year.
Given the size of that expected harvest, the winery needs new equipment in order to actually turn all of those grapes into wine, so it is currently in the midst of building a new, 8,000 square foot production facility that will include new tanks, an upgraded cooling system, and a more efficient press to crush and squeeze the grapes.
The winery’s current press can only process one ton of fruit at a time, but the new one will be able to process five tons simultaneously, Hickox says.
The Winery at Bull Run will quadruple its current output of roughly 13,000 cases per year after its expansion is complete, according to Fairfax County.
By expanding the winery, Hickox will also be able to hire more employees with 10 full-time workers and 28 part-time or seasonal workers expected to join the 16 people currently employed full-time at Bull Run.
“The timing on this grant and the finishing of that building and the equipment to process…all that vineyard fruit or grapes to come online at the same time is just absolutely perfect,” Hickox said.
Under the terms of the AFID grant, the Bull Run Winery must refund the money to the state and county if it fails to uphold its commitment to invest $1.7 million, create 10 full-time and 28 part-time jobs, and purchase $436,820 in Virginian agriculture products over three years.
The winery will make annual reports to Virginia and Fairfax County to certify the results of their investment.
Fairfax County expects to recoup its investment within four years through increased sales and business tax revenues from the winery, according to a press release from the county.
“It’s an important piece of our economic success,” Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith, whose jurisdiction encompasses The Winery at Bull Run, said. “It brings people in with their tourist dollars, he’s providing jobs here, [and] it’s keeping the land free and undeveloped, so all of those things are important.”