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Basketball Legend Seeks USDA's Help to Transform Family Farm Into a Sustainable Agricultural Enterprise

Posted by Tamara Ward-Lucas, Communications Coordinator, USDA Office of Communications in Animals Farming Conservation Equity Forestry Initiatives Rural USDA Results
May 31, 2024
Basketball legend and businessman Ralph Sampson inspects the corn fields at his family farm in McGaheysville, VA.

For basketball great Ralph Sampson, farming is his new game of choice. The new and beginning farmer is looking to resurrect his family’s farm and spur new economic growth on the ancestral land.

In the 1940’s, Sampson’s maternal grandfather George Blakey acquired the nearly 200-acre farm that borders the base of the Massanutten Mountain in McGaheysville, VA.

“Growing up my father worked on that farm,” recalled Sampson’s mother, Sarah Blakey Sampson. “Believe it or not, when the owner decided to sell it, she decided he should have it. So, she sold it to him for $5,000.”

Sarah Blakey Sampson, Ralph Sampson’s mother, talks about what life like growing up on the family farm.

Growing corn, cultivating vegetables, and raising chickens, horses and cows enabled the family of 14 to thrive off the land.

“We sold our milk to Shenandoah's Pride [Dairy],” said Blakey Sampson. “I often wondered how my parents survived with 12 kids but we did everything.”

Mountainous terrain, green pastures, and forests can all be found on the Blakey Farm. The picturesque site was the spot of several family gatherings for the many descendants of George and Josephine Blakey. But over the years, the farm lost its luster due to lack of maintenance as the Blakey children aged, moved or passed away, leaving no succession plan in place.

Ralph Sampson and Joyce Sampson sit on the steps of the house on the family farm.

To ensure the farm would remain in the family and receive the necessary attention to restore it, Sampson and other Blakey descendants formed an LLC. With agritourism in mind, their vision is to build a working farm where tourists can learn about agriculture, agricultural enterprise and more.

Sampson stressed the importance of preserving the farm history and legacy as well as address the lack of knowledge transfer and support for minority farmers. For the latter, he hopes to provide training and resources as well as leverage partnerships.

“We want to make this a site where people can come and understand agriculture business and all the other things that need to happen in agricultural space,” said Sampson while walking the land with Natural Resources Conservation Services’ (NRCS) Virginia State Conservationist Edwin Martinez and Area Resource Conservationist Wes Hedrick.

Sampson hopes to eventually expand his reach beyond the Shenandoah Valley by creating agri-hoods and agri-hubs around the country that help small farmers grow their businesses through education and mentoring.

Sampson hopes to eventually expand his reach beyond the Shenandoah Valley by creating agri-hoods and agri-hubs around the country that help small farmers grow their businesses through education and mentoring.

Ralph Sampson stands under a basketball hoop on the Blakey Farm in McGaheysville, VA.

On the farm, a tattered barn with a rusted basketball hoop holds memories of a favorite pastime during his frequent visits to the farm growing up. Sampson looks to renovate the structure into a museum with historical information to honor the ancestors who worked the farm and served the nation in the U.S. Armed Forces. Farm tours, wine tastings and other agriculture-related activities are among the nearly ten business plans Sampson has for the family farm.

Ralph Sampson talks about his numerous plans for the Blakey Farm.

The visit to the Blakey Farm is one of many farm visits where USDA provides technical assistance to set new farmers on their path to prosperity. According to Martinez, NRCS provides these onsite assessments to help farmers understand how farm management impacts the soils, crops, forages, forests and wildlife habitat on their land. NRCS can also survey the farm to identify areas where conservation may benefit their operation. The collective results will determine which USDA programs (technical and financial) the farm is eligible for.

NRCS Area Resource Conservationist Wes Hedrick discusses with Ralph Sampson the technical and financial services USDA provides to beginning farmers.

Under the elder Blakeys, the farm received assistance from USDA in the early 2000s through an NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides support to farmers in implementing conservation practices, including rotation of crops, cover cropping, nutrient management, pest management, prescribed grazing, and forage harvest. More recently, the family has been exploring conservation and preservation options on the property with USDA and non-profit organizations.

Small businesses, including small farms, are supported by several USDA agencies and offices. The Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU) is dedicated to connecting small businesses to the numerous resources at USDA and across the Federal Government.