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Couple Plans To Give Away 35-Acre Virginia Farm Through An Essay Contest

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Since 1996, Randy Silvers has been running Rock Spring Farm as a horse farm, but the essay contest winner could turn the place in to whatever sort of hobby farm he or she would like.
Rock Spring Farm
Since 1996, Randy Silvers has been running Rock Spring Farm as a horse farm, but the essay contest winner could turn the place in to whatever sort of hobby farm he or she would like.

Randy Silvers and Carolyn Berry live in Essex County, Virginia, at Rock Spring Farm: an 18th-century horse farm that Randy and his first wife rebuilt and restored in the 1990s.

Rock Spring Farm is in the tiny town of Hustle, about 35 miles southeast of Fredericksburg. But as Randy and Carolyn take me down a horse trail in the property’s hilly hardwood forest, it’s clear you won’t find a whole lot of bustle… in Hustle.

“Sometimes you hear the woodpeckers hitting on the tree,” Carolyn says.

“Yeah,” adds Randy. “At night you can hear, we call them ‘the peepers,’ the little frogs, going, ‘Peep! Peep! Peep! Peep!’ This is the noise pollution we get in Hustle."

Randy and Carolyn married in 2009. They’re both widowed, in their 60s, and Randy’s rheumatoid arthritis is making it harder for him to maintain the farm’s house, horse trails, multiple barns and pastures.

Carolyn Berry and Randy Silvers hope to find an ideal new owner for Rock Spring Farm by holding an essay contest. (Courtesy Eric Shimelonis)

So he and Carolyn are getting ready to move on. But, Carolyn says, whoever takes over had best enjoy rural living.

“Someone who is used to the 7-11 around the corner, and the Starbucks at the other corner, may have a little difficulty adjusting,” she says. “Because we’re 20 minutes from Port Royal, and we’re another 20 minutes from Tappahanock.”

In other words: “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

But she says when she and Randy decided to give up the farm, one thing was certain: they were not listing it with a real estate agent.

“Not that we have anything against real estate agents,” she explains. “But [Randy] didn’t like the idea of strangers traipsing across the property, and pointing out what they might consider a flaw.

“Because his heart and his soul, his life is this,” she adds. “He built this basically from rubble to what it is.”

So instead, they’re hand-picking their successor in a rather unconventional way: They’re holding an essay contest.

Writing essays for fun and profit

As Carolyn explains, each applicant has 1,000 words to express how he or she is “somebody who loves the land as much as we do,” and is “as passionate about their hobby.”

Carolyn and Randy’s hobby is horses. Their three horses pull the antique carriages Randy builds in the property’s woodworking shop. But Carolyn says the next owner could use the farm for anything: “Whether their hobby is raising alpacas or sheep or goats or chickens or a rescue operation for horses or dogs,” she says. “This place has so much potential for somebody who has imagination and drive.”

Carolyn got the idea for the contest from the Center Lovell Inn in Maine. The original owners gave away the bed-and-breakfast through an essay contest back in 1993.

“I remember the event on the news at that time and thought, ‘What an interesting, novel way of selling, you know, a piece of property,’” she says.

And actually, the woman who won the place in ‘93 just held another essay contest to find her successor.

It’s becoming a bit of a trend, really. Pay the requisite entry fee, stay within the word limit, and you can enter contests to win everything from a coffeeshop in Massachusetts, to a log cabin in Indiana, to a goat dairy in Alabama.

And lest you worry about the legality of these contests, Carolyn Berry already made sure they don’t violate any gaming laws.

“Because writing an essay is skill,” she explains. “So this is a skill-based contest. It’s not a game of chance. It’s not a lottery. It’s not a raffle.”

And the beauty of it, she says, is it encourages contenders who might not otherwise have a shot at owning a place like Rock Spring Farm — which, by the way, is valued at $600,000.

“A lot of people want this who most likely would never be able to afford this,” she says. “We couldn’t afford to buy this right now.”

But she and Randy Silvers hope this contest will help them afford a whole new set of things. They’re crossing their fingers that they’ll receive 5,000 applications, at $200 apiece, making for a total of $1 million. That would be enough to pay off the farm’s mortgage, give the IRS its chunk, start a college fund for the grandkids, but a new place to live, and have money left over for Carolyn and Randy’s everyday expenses.

“And we’re hoping that it’s enough that he doesn’t have to work anymore,” Carolyn adds.

Because, after all, Randy has put his blood, sweat and tears into Rock Spring Farm. Like his mother before him, he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and now he’s struggling to care for the place.

“I can’t swing a hammer like I used to,” he explains. “I can do it for about five minutes and then I’m in such pain I can’t do it anymore. And I don’t want to have the farm fall apart and then get rid of it. I’d rather have the contest now, while the farm is in good shape and I’m in good enough shape to keep it up.

The winner of the Rock Spring Farm essay contest will win a 35-acre farm, including a main house built in 1996. (Courtesy Rock Spring Farm)

Impartial judging

Randy and Carolyn are accepting essays through mid-October, at which point they’ll hand off the best 25 to a panel of three judges: a horse enthusiast, an educator and a hobby farmer.

To stay impartial, Carolyn says, they’re keeping submissions anonymous. A trustee is collecting the entry fees and removing all names and addresses before the couple reads the essays.

And when they do, they are, of course, keeping an eye out for the basics. As Carolyn puts it: “Does it have an intriguing beginning? Are the words spelled correctly? Are the sentence structures right?”

But what matters most, she says, is “it’s the heart of the essay that needs to grab us.”

And Randy says so far the submissions are overflowing with heart.

“You just start seeing the people in your mind,” he says, “Trying to imagine what they do, who they are…”

“…And how this is going to impact their life!” Sandy continues. “I mean, this is going to be a major impact on somebody’s life!”

To say nothing of the impact it’ll have on Carolyn Berry and Randy Silvers. They’re not announcing the winner until November, but already their emotions are bittersweet.

“You heard the birds out there chirping,” Carolyn says, her voice growing softer. “It is hard to even think about moving from here. But the balm for that is knowing that the people who are going to be living here are as passionate about it as we are.”

“Yeah,” agrees Randy, “Even simple things like cutting grass. And I think, ‘Well, you know, this might be the last summer I cut grass here.’ Or listening to the quiet.”

Randy pauses and sighs.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” he goes on to say. “But the people that do win this will be following in their own dreams but also carrying on a legacy that this place has started.”

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