JANE LEW -- They arrived in the driveway in two white vans, disembarking -- folders in hand -- into the morning mist.
Dr. John and Sue Ann Spiker were there to greet them. The team of eight judges was making its first stop of seven on a three-day tour of contenders for the state Resource Conservation Farm of the Year.
Comments like "interspacing of forestry and agriculture plans," "economically viable," and "environmental showplace," filled the air.
Many of the visitors were quick to note the 360-acre Spiker Farm has plenty of pretty.
There's the wildflower-ringed swimming hole where the kids and 24-inch trout splash. The shag carpet of corn that spreads down the hollow. The sunflower giants with their heads hung low.
However, according to state Commissioner of Agriculture Gus Douglass, the Lewis County property's beauty is more than skin deep.
"Farms like these ... can be a benchmark," said Douglass, who served as a judge. "This is a goal for people who care for their land, or I guess you could call it love."
Spiker's love for the land was evident as he loaded the group onto a touring wagon whose hay bales his youngest son David covered with snowy-white pillowcases "for the ladies."
"When we bought it, there was a lot of broom sage, a lot of briars," he said of a 1978 purchase of what, surprisingly, turned out to be ancestral land from six generations back. "I look at this farm as not a liability, but an asset."
Spiker shared his tips on watering troughs (use giant tires), on manure (spread it thinly to reintegrate it into the field), on water pipes (take photographs before burying them so you always remember how they're laid out), on forestry (harvest rotating plots every two years so that all land is selectively timbered every 30 years), on hospitality (the Spikers open their farm for a variety of livestock and soil competitions and social events), on grazing cattle and sheep (rotating fields has increased the farm's carrying capacity by almost a third).
Douglass said it's planning like that that keeps West Virginia's small farms in the black.
"We hope that this (competition) does draw attention to the fact that West Virginia is one of the leading states in perpetuating the family type of farm," he said, adding that 90 percent of state farms are non-commercial operations.
"I really consider them cottage industry, little manufacturing plants," Douglass said. "You go from beef cattle in the field to steak in the market."
To keep their land especially viable, the Spikers supplement their farm income with auctioneering. Spiker, who closed his animal practice to spend more time with his family, can take care of his own veterinary needs. They are in the process of converting an 1800s house on the property into a bed and breakfast, as well.
Their children -- Jonelle, who works for Mylan Laboratories; John Bob, a West Virginia University student; Byron, a Lewis County High School student; and David, a Robert L. Bland Middle School student -- additionally help out with their personal expenses by managing their own small herds or flocks.
Spiker Farm represents the best of the West Fork Conservation District, which includes Lewis, Harrison, Doddridge and Gilmer counties.
Also in contention for the Farm of the Year award within the region is Danny and Donna Teter's farm in Randolph County. Other state contenders are Crazy Horse Corrals in Pocahontas County, Windon Farm in Raleigh County, Henderson Dairy Farm in Mason County, Logan Hills Farm in Brooke County and the Montcroft Farm in Preston County.
State-level judging is based on land use, commitment to a farm plan, protection of off-site resources and community conservation leadership.
The winner will be announced at the Oct. 4 state Conservation Partnership Conference in Charleston. Cash awards and a trip to a national conference are among the honors the winner will receive. Sponsors include West Virginia Conservation Awards and Recognition Committee, Soil Conservation districts, the state Soil Conservation Agency, the state Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Resources Conservation Service.
Regional Editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403.