All in the Family

5/18/2013 7:00 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

Oakland Green Farm Dates Back to the 1730s



LINCOLN, Va. — In 1731, Richard Brown settled on what is now Oakland Green Farm near the Quaker village of Lincoln in what is now western Loudoun County — back then it was still in Fairfax County. He set about farming and raising cattle.

Nine generations later, Sara Brown and her mother, Jean Brown, are keeping the family farm going strong. After her father’s death in 2001, Sara Brown looked around for ways to keep the farm profitable and producing. She has continued the bed-and-breakfast started by her parents and with her mother has transitioned the cow-calf operation to freezer beef.

It seems to be working, she said recently, watching 14 of her expected 17 Angus calves get acquainted with a lush pasture just east of the Blue Ridge.

“The local food movement was just coming into its own,” Sara Brown recalled, “and I started thinking about how to keep the farm going, how to use the farm.”

She and her mother started selling sides of beef to family and friends and a host of former AOL colleagues rather than sending the calves to the Fauquier Livestock Auction. It was well received and they shifted the focus to retail beef — sides, quarters or cuts.

Sales last year, the third year of the retail venture, were 2 1/2 times better than the first year, Sara Brown said, “which to me feels successful.” Sales are at the farm and online. They also deliver when asked and set up shop at any available local event — farm day at the Philomont Recreation Center, strawberry picking at nearby Wegmeyer Farms, farm-to-fork dinners at local restaurants. If there are shoppers, they’ll be there.

At Wegmeyer Farms last year, she and her husband, Scott Maison, set up a grill and sold fresh-off-the-grill Angus burgers. And if the diner liked that fresh, juicy hamburger, there was a cooler full of freezer beef, ready to take home.

They won’t be found at the numerous local farmers markets on Saturday mornings: Sara Brown is busy cooking breakfast for the B&B guests.

Part of the appeal, both Sara and Jean Brown said, is the way beef is raised at Oakland Green: all natural. It’s not certified organic — that’s too expensive for a small operation like theirs — but the fields are pesticide and herbicide free and the calves grow up on pasture. No antibiotics are used, unless they are actually sick. No hormones. No ground-up animal protein.

“I finish them on grain because I like the taste, “ Sara Brown said, “but they eat grass their whole lives.”

“They’re still in pasture,” Jean Brown added. “They just have grain added to their diets. No feedlots here.”

And that, Sara Brown said, is all most people need to know.

Shoppers who have been brought up on supermarket uniformity discover that Oakland Green beef packages might vary a little in weight, and it also brings subtly different flavors depending on the time of year. Meat, like wine, Sara Brown noted, takes on the character of its environment, its terroir. “Everything plays into the flavor — the time of year, new grass in the spring, wildflowers in the pasture, hay in winter. I think it’s something people are going to recognize and interesting and good, just like heirloom tomatoes are a draw in the market,” she said.

Her calves get another real treat — fermented rye mash from Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcellville, Va. The distillery is certified organic and kosher, so the mash is top quality. Jean Brown drives to Purcellville twice a week and pumps 200 hundred gallons into a tank in the back of a pickup.

The calves like it so well, Jean Brown said, they all line the fence, mooing in anticipation when she drives back up the lane.

They got the idea during a recent drought. The water level in the pond had fallen below the intake pipe to the cows’ water tank on the other side of the pond fence. They had to let the cows and calves into the pond area, which is normally fenced off according to a conservation easement, but “within two weeks in there, all of them had parasites,” Sara Brown said, “and I was having to give antibiotics for respiratory infections: turns out clean water is not just good for the water, it’s good for the animals, too.”

But one little calf wasn’t coming around. “Here, give him some of this, it will help her appetite, help her keep weight on,” advised neighboring dairy farmer Mike Potts. Sara Brown did, and the calf recovered.

“I looked at the label — it was dried fermented rye mash at $25 a bag. I thought, I can get this for free,’” Sara Brown said.

Until she came back to the farm in her mid-20s, Sara Brown worked in writing, editing, marketing and communications for Fannie Mae and other large corporations.

But she already had farming in her blood (not even counting those eight generations of Browns before her) — she started raising steers for 4-H when she was 11, and after a few years moved into breeding her own “bred-by” calves.

When she took over the Oakland Green herd, one 14-year-old cow was still traced to her 4-H projects.

Oakland Green today is 200 acres, Sara Brown said. They lease 75 acres to the Potts family’s Dogwood Dairy, run their cattle on 70 to 80 acres, and the rest is “woods and gardens and stuff like that.” All but 14 acres are in a conservation easement.

Sara Brown built a cottage on the property in the late 1990s, and after taking over B&B duties, swapped lodgings with her mother. She, her husband Scott Maison and their two children live in the historic house — the original log section dates to the early 1730s, the stone center section was built in 1740, and the brick addition was erected in 1790.

The land can handle about 50 cattle, Sara Brown said, and this spring the herd includes 17 cows, with 15 babies expected, 15 yearlings, and six steers ready to be marketed. She sends steers, four at a time, to Horst Meats in Hagerstown, Md., which is USDA and humane certified, for processing four times a year. The carcasses hang dry for three weeks.

Turns out there’s a big market for the livers, Jean Brown said. “I asked Patrick [chef at Tuscarora Mill restaurant in Leesburg], what do you do to this liver to make it so good?’ And he said, It’s not my recipe, it’s your liver.’”

As far as breeding goes, Sara Brown wants a good, sturdy, meaty calf, but, “We cultivate the herd very deliberately for good behavior and pleasant temperament.”

A year or two ago, a previously amiable cow hauled off and launched Scott Maison about 10 feet through the air. “She couldn’t live here any more after that,” Sara Brown said.

She leases a bull for the summer and returns most heifers to her herd. That means she needs to change bulls every two years to avoid inbreeding.

And in an incredible piece of luck, a neighbor bought a bull from renowned seedstock operation Whitestone Farm and needed a place to pasture him for three months. The Browns were more than happy to comply and have kept nearly all the heifers that came from those breedings.

“He had a great pregnancy rate and 100 percent successful calving,” Sara Brown said.

Oakland Green sells nearly all of its meat in the county. Local restaurants that buy from the farm include Market Burger and Magnolias at the Mill in Purcellville, the Wine Kitchen and Tuscarora Mill in Leesburg and Market Table Bistro in Lovettsville. Great County Farms, a thriving agritourism venue in nearby Bluemont, carries Oakland Green freezer beef.

“It’s easier to keep a local economy thriving when your producers and consumers are in the same place,” Sara Brown concluded. “That’s a local economy. We have invited a customer base into our agricultural county. That customer base, the people who live in the East, are supporting the smaller farms like me and the Wegmeyers.”


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