Alexandria family raises organic grain in Westmoreland County

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A tractor mows a cover crop of rye called “green manure.” (Courtesy Photo)
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By Hannah Himes | [email protected]

In the early 1990s, longtime Alexandria residents Fred and Cathy Sachs went searching for a weekend home they could enjoy with their two teenage sons.

They found a 150-acre piece of land that had not been farmed for many years in Montross, Virginia in Westmoreland County.

The family decided to repurpose the land into a sustainable farm, a goal that now, almost two decades later, is a reality with their organic grain business: Grapewood Farm.

“We’ve been really fortunate,” retired businessman and now farmer Fred Sachs said. “After all, we were just a bunch of city boys.”

The Sachs’ neighbors helped them begin the process by teaching them how to farm, but Sachs described getting into farming as “one of those incremental processes.”

A combine unloads organic soybeans into the Grapewood Farm grain truck. (Courtesy Photo)

“Every year we make mistakes,” Fred Sachs said.

But every year they learn more.

The Sachs’ land was initially inundated with grapevines and woods, a history acknowledged in the farm’s name. The land was cleared, in part, to make space for the new family home, which was started in 2000 and completed in 2002.

The farm now has 14 different fields and comprises more than 300 acres, of which 150 acres are used as cropland while the rest consists of the house, woodlands, ponds and outbuildings. Grapewood Farm received organic certification in 2010.

They are also involved in the Common Grain Alliance, a group that offers support and connections to farmers, millers and bakers in Virginia and surrounding areas.

The process to become a certified organic farm takes at least three years because it “involves building and enhancing the soil naturally, protecting the environment, treating animals humanely and avoiding synthetic substances,” according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The land must be free of those synthetic substances for at least 36 months before the certification can take place.

In 2016, Virginia had 165 certified organic farms, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Certified Organic Survey that was published in September of 2017.

The Sachses grow wheat, rye and soybeans and produce animal feed, bran and flour.

A sample of organic wheat is counted. The square area is measured out to calculate how many plants there are and to assess plants’ need for nitrogen. (Courtesy Photo)

They have been selling grain for about 10 years, but commercialized their flour, made in a stone mill on the farm, in the last year.

“We thought it was an opportunity for us to produce a flour from grain that was grown locally, in a sustainable manner,” Fred Sachs said.

Organic farming and organic grain, like the grain produced at Grapewood Farm, is healthy for the consumer and the environment, Sachs said, because it doesn’t require the same insecticides, fumigation or chemicals to elongate shelf-life that conventional grain does.

“We don’t use any of those unnatural products,” Fred Sachs said.

David Sachs, Fred and Cathy Sachs’ son, said modern industrial farming involves practices that the general public isn’t aware of.

“They’re not really aware of where their food comes from,” David Sachs said, adding that people want honesty in their food.

The farm is not just sustainable and good for the environment, David Sachs said. It’s also beautiful and a place for local wildlife to find food and make homes.

Cathy Sachs is a master naturalist and said they have created buffers around their fields that are equipped to provide seeds for birds and places for insects.

The farm is also host to a variety of trees and other animals, like wild turkeys.

“We’re very intent on creating habitats as well,” Cathy Sachs said.

A trailer full of organic soybeans gets prepared before it heads to a buyer. (Courtesy Photo)

Fred Sachs said they feel that they are doing something good in acting as stewards of the land.

“The enjoyment of being down there, I think it’s an unmatched enjoyment,” Fred Sachs said.

The experience is a family affair, and Cathy Sachs credits her husband and son with doing everything on the farm, though they do occasionally bring in some casual labor.

Their other son, Peter Sachs, and his family also visit the farm often.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a challenge that [my father] has set his mind towards that he hasn’t achieved,” David Sachs said.

Each year, David Sachs said, his father, who spends about three to five days a week at the farm, does more and more and takes a greater role in the day-to-day operating of the farm.

“But my mother, this whole thing wouldn’t be possible without what she’s doing, which is so much of the administration,” David Sachs said.

Cathy Sachs deals with “mountains of paperwork,” to maintain the farm’s organic certification, David Sachs said.

Every experience is a learning opportunity for the Sachses. Why did or didn’t a crop germinate? How did the weather impact the crop? Is the soil providing the correct nutrients?

There are any number of complications, but they all view the farm as a business and they work together to make the business successful and profitable.

Working together as a family unit is an unquantifiable reward, David Sachs said.

“How do you put a value on being able to figure out how to tackle an issue and then achieve it with your family?” he said.

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