First, I want to say a bit about historic preservation and farm stays, then I will profile Smithfield Farm/ Smith Meadows Meats in Clarke County near Berryville, VA. I’ve decided to break my write up from Smithfield into two parts. It’s an incredible place, and I think two posts will better do it justice.
Old barns and farmhouses are expensive to maintain, and their owners unfortunately but understandably let the buildings deteriorate when the economics of restoration don’t add up. Hosting guests on the farm is one way that some farmers are able to restore and preserve historic buildings on their properties. Smithfield Farm, listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2001, is a remarkable example of historic preservation made economically viable through an on-farm bed and breakfast. Armstrong Farms, which I profiled early January, is another example of wonderful historic preservation made possible through agritourism.
Smithfield Farm has belonged to the Smith family for eight generations – in 2016, the family will celebrate 200 years of continuous ownership. Throughout most of this time, the property has stayed a working farm. While the bed and breakfast goes by the farm’s traditional name of Smithfield, the grass-fed meat and egg farm operation is called Smith Meadows to differentiate it from Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer and processor. This distinction is well deserved – contrasting sharply with most large-scale meat producers, Smithfield Farm raises animals on plenty of fresh pasture, strives to treat their animals humanely, and practices rotational grazing and natural pasture management.
By the 1980s, when innkeeper Ruth Smith Pritchard inherited the farm, the Smithfield manor house had been sitting vacant for nearly 40 years. Though Ruth’s father, Robert R. Smith, had been ill, he protected the house by keeping the roof on and the windows closed. When Ruth was 8 years old, she announced to her family: “One day Smithfield will be mine!” It turned out that Ruth was right though nobody knew it then; they assumed the farm would go to Ruth’s brother. He, however, did not want to take over the farm or restore the house, and the monumental task fell upon Ruth. The house was in bad repair, but Ruth, who was then working in real estate, made up her mind to restore it and open a bed and breakfast. And she desperately wanted to return the land to a profitable working farm.
Throughout the farm’s long history, it had traditionally been passed to the firstborn son in each subsequent generation, following the law of primogeniture. But the women of Smithfield Farm have really been responsible for holding onto the farm in its most difficult times. As one story goes, Ruth’s great-great-grandfather, Edward Jacquelin Smith, suffered from a mysterious mental illness that was diagnosed as “melancholia.” He cosigned a note for a friend, and neither of them was able to repay the debt. As a result, Edward fled to Missouri, which at that time acted as the gateway to the western frontier. In Edward’s absence, his wife Elizabeth Bush Smith decided to plant 500 acres of wheat, an important crop in Virginia during that era. The wheat was exported to Europe, and with the money from the sales, she paid off her husband’s debt and kept the farm. When Edward was told that his debt had been paid, he came back to Smithfield, where he lived to be over 90 years old. Elizabeth, unfortunately, died only a few years after paying down the debt.
Ruth’s father Robert Smith was a conventional farmer who originally grew hay, grain, corn, and other row crops, some of which were used to feed his cattle. A local senator and farmer encouraged friends and neighbors, including Robert, to plant apples throughout the area, resulting in thousands of acres of orchards. Over time, Robert transitioned 350 of Smithfield’s acres into apples. Now, Smithfield mostly grows grass for animal pasture, though 40 acres of apples still remain.
During the area’s apple boom, the farm was doing well, hiring up to 16 orchard workers. But the apple business was unreliable. As Robert would say, “Apples are good one out of three years.” Because of the weather, he said, “you make good money one year, and you lose it the other two.”
Before World War II, many local people were employed working the orchards. During the war, with a shortage of young men, German POWs were enlisted as orchard workers. When the servicemen came home from the war, however, they wanted something different. Ruth says that change helped to signal the demise of apples, and most of the orchards in the area have since gone over to housing.
When Ruth took over the farm in the 1980s, she decided that she wanted to get away from apples because of the chemicals treatments required. And she didn’t have the equipment for row crops. Having to rely on her neighbors for their machinery meant that her crops were last to be put in the ground and the last to be harvested. After trying row crops for two years and losing money each year, she decided that she couldn’t do it anymore, especially without any control over her prices.
Still, Ruth was determined to hold on to the farm. Searching for possibilities, she started going to sustainable agriculture seminars and reading about alternatives to conventional farming. In 1990, before Joel Salatin and Polyface Farms became famous via the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the film Food, Inc., Ruth and her late husband Ed Pritchard heard Joel preach his “grass farming” gospel at a conference. Ruth describes his talk as a turning point. He said, “You can do this! You can raise your animals on pasture and sell direct to the customer! You don’t need to take sale barn prices!” With that, Ruth was inspired to try out a new way of farming. She and Ed invited Joel to come look at their farm to see if his way of farming might be tenable on their land. His prognosis was that they had it even easier than he did.
To be continued…