Sitting on the wraparound deck of the Brightwood Farm cottage makes you feel like you’re up in the trees. The Robinson River winds through in the valley below, and the loudest sound you hear is the cicadas’ buzz. Inside of the cottage, large windows still let you enjoy the view and the vibrant green of the summer canopy. The cottage is a very cleverly planned 600 square feet, with every nook and cranny serving some purpose. Susan and Dean Vidal designed their guest cottage around an A-frame that the farm’s previous owners built in 1974. One of the Vidals’ ideas for the farm, from the time they moved there 10 years ago, was to share the beautiful farm they had found.
Because of their relationship with the previous owners, the Vidals didn’t want to tear down the A-frame, so they added on a kitchen and eating nook, a bedroom, two sleeping lofts, and the wraparound deck. Dean and Susan’s daughter, who is now a full-time green carpenter in Colorado, worked on the cottage addition and restoration with her boyfriend. They reclaimed American chestnut and maple from a barn to build the hardwood floors, and added green features like double-glazed windows, energy-efficient walls, and a clean-burning Jotul wood stove.
When I visit Brightwood Farm, a London couple is staying at the cottage. They tell me, “This is paradise for us. Right now our flat in London is so noisy, there’s always construction and drilling going on. Nobody can afford to move right now, so everyone is doing construction work.” They say their son, Oscar, at 17, “is usually on Facebook at home, but he loves it here.” When Susan and I walk up to the cottage, Oscar is running back from feeding the goats. He looks really happy. Susan tells me, “It’s not just the kids who love feeding the animals. The adults love it too. And collecting eggs!” Susan invites guests to help as much or as little as they like.
For breakfast, Susan gives guests a choice of a cook-your-own meal where she provides the ingredients, or a prepared continental breakfast. The ingredients, Susan says, are “really local things” -- Brightwood Farm’s own eggs and fresh berries in season, sausage and breakfast meats from the Vidals’ neighbors, muffin or pancake mix, and farm-made jam.
As Susan Vidal tells it, she and her husband Dean used to be “regular suburban people.” But after their children left home and they became inspired by a trip to French wine country, the Vidals agreed they didn’t want to stay around the congested DC Beltway forever (they used to live in Arlington, VA). The Vidals decided to buy a farm where they could grow wine grapes. A search around Virginia’s best wine-growing counties led Dean and Susan to Brightwood Farm in scenic Central Virginia, just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The farm sits on 100 hilly acres, with 35 acres of pasture where the previous owners raised beef cattle. Susan tells me: “Before, I worked as a cartographer. It was a great job. But farming is a much better fit for me than working in a cubicle. I always had trouble with that.” Dean, an engineer, still commutes to his job.
The Vidals also enjoy the help of a few interns who come to them through ATTRA (National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) and WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). The interns live on the farm -- either in a three-year-old insulated, four-season yurt with a woodstove, or on a tent platform.
Although the Vidals originally set out to make Brightwood Farm into a winery, they quickly realized that they wanted to do much more than just grow wine grapes. From the beginning, the Vidals have grown their farm through diversification -- their primary enterprises are now laying hens and berries. They also raise goats, sheep, vegetables, ducks, and donkeys. When I ask Susan how they learned to farm, she says, “We just kind of launched ourselves into it. We started everything small, and learned by doing.”
In the Vidals’ first few years of farming, they grew an acre of pumpkins following Virginia Cooperative Extension’s recommendations for pumpkin cultivation. Brightwood Farm was not organic then, and Extension’s guidelines involved regular spraying of synthetic fungicides and pesticides. As Susan explains, “The sprays kept the pumpkin leaves nice and green, but the fungicides dripped down into the soil and killed the soil microorganisms. Our yields decreased each year as soil fertility declined. You can kind of prop up the production if you keep adding more fertilizers, but we didn’t want to do that.” The Vidals transitioned Brightwood Farm to a certified organic farm in 2007.
True to their diversification strategy, the Vidals currently grow five kinds of raspberry and four varieties of blackberry. The Vidals grow diverse plant varieties to improve their chances of getting good yields despite attacks from insect and disease -- certain varieties might be more resistant to one pest, while another variety is resistant to a different pest. The Vidals also look for plant varieties that thrive without chemical inputs. In addition to the berries, the Vidals raise a diverse collection of vegetables. They grow some vegetables at Brightwood Farm, where they have a shade house that holds salad greens much of the year, and a hoop house for growing warm weather crops. They grow the bulk of their vegetables (which mostly go to restaurants) on 10 acres of a neighboring property.
Brightwood Farm is also a small winery, just as the Vidals originally planned, but the wines they make are different than what you might expect. Susan tell me, “We’re still working on the grape part. It’s a challenge doing grapes organically. In the meantime we started making blackberry, elderberry, and elder flower wine ... We do dry wines, so they’re not the run-of-the-mill fruit wines, either.” After Susan offers me samples of their wines, I can vouch that Brightwood Farm’s fruit wines are not only unusual, they’re also really delicious.
Dean Vidal makes all of the wine for the farm in 15-gallon batches in the state-certified commercial kitchen in the basement of their house. In the kitchen, the Vidals and their workers also make jam and process dried herbs for tea.
With their livestock, the Vidals choose specific breeds for their vitality and versatility -- heritage chickens for eggs and meat, easy-keeping Spanish meat goats, and they’ve recently started raising dual-purpose Tunis sheep. They look for animals that do well on average pasture, without needing much supplementary grain.
Brightwood Farm’s 120 laying hens live in a movable house that allows Susan to easily shift the hens to fresh pasture as soon as they’ve clipped short the grass in their current spot. Susan says, “We generally go for the older, dual-purpose breeds, because after they stop laying they become stew hens.” The Brightwood chickens’ breeds have wonderful old names like Speckled Sussex and Buff Orpington, some of which are rare breeds that farmers like Susan are trying to bring back from endangered status. Susan also enjoys raising her own chicks. She tells me, “We have to buy in purebreds some years because we have no way of selecting the best layers. But this year, I’m looking for broody hens that want to sit -- I’m looking for volunteers!”
The Vidals’ Spanish meat goats also have a remarkable lineage. Spanish meat goats, now rare, are descendants of the goats brought to America by early settlers, mainly the conquistadors and missionaries of the Southwest. These Spanish goats were abandoned or escaped their farms, and lived in the wild for many generations before being re-domesticated. As a result, they are easy keepers, and great moms - they have very little trouble kidding and nursing. Spanish goats’ mixed heritage also means the goats come in different colors. As Susan says, “It’s fun when they’re born ‘cause you never know what color they’re going to be.” The goats have a furry, friendly guardian dog, named Athena, to protect them from predators like coyotes. Each group of animals on the farm enjoys the protection their own guardian dog. Susan says fondly, “We couldn’t do it without the dogs!”
The Vidals originally brought donkeys to the farm to protect the livestock from predators. “But,” says Susan, “They were hard on the little goats.” The Vidals now rely on the three donkeys for fertility. “Since we’re organic,” says Susan, “We rely on non-commercial fertilizers. And, the donkeys like the guests and the guests like the donkeys.”
The Vidals sell their produce, wine, meat, and eggs at two very different farmers’ markets, Charlottesville (where there are around 100 vendors and Brightwood Farm sells wine, jam, and meat), and the more local Madison farmers’ markets (where there are only 8-10 vendors, and the customers mostly ask for vegetables.) The Vidals also sell to restaurants through a Virginia-based company called The Fresh Link, whose tagline is “Family Farms to City Plates.” Twice a week, the Vidals post information about what produce they’re offering to The Fresh Link, where the information is made available to restaurant chefs, who order the exact kind and number of heirloom tomatoes and free-range eggs they need.
If you go:
The Brightwood cottage sleeps up to four on one queen bed and two twin loft beds. Rates are $110/night weekdays and $155/night on weekends, double occupancy. Additional guests are $20/person, per night. The farm is two hours from Washington DC and 45 minutes from Shenandoah National Park. Farm activities (for guests who are interested) include feeding goats, sheep, and donkeys and collecting eggs. Guests are also welcome to swim in the Robinson River and walk on trails that wind through the farm’s “back 40.”
Dean and Susan Vidal
1202 Lillard's Ford Rd.
Brightwood, VA 22715