Sandy Fisher stops his truck in the middle of a pasture, turns off the engine and leans against the steering wheel. He sighs contentedly. "Aren't they beautiful?"
Well, we are talking about cows. But Fisher, a progressive Goochland County farmer who has been devoted to raising grass-fed cattle for 35 years, wouldn't understand. If you told him you thought a sleek Thoroughbred racehorse more beautiful than any wet-nosed, piebald fat cow, he'd be crushed. And you wouldn't ever want to hurt Fisher's feelings. The 60-year-old soft-spoken farmer/owner of the successful and sustainable Brookview Farm is way too nice. And sincere. And crazy about his cows.
So you sit patiently as he ticks off the best features of each of the 50 Brahma/Hereford/Angus crosses standing motionless in a lush, green pasture. It's taken him 15 years to perfect the good points of the cattle in his 125 cow-calf operation. "Look at how square the rump on that one is," he says proudly. "You look for dark round eyes and a dark, straight back." All I see is one dun-colored very large mama Brahma with long horns. And she's starting to move. Matter of fact, they're all starting to move straight for the back of the truck.
For some reason I've never quite understood, cows have a passion for car paint, and these have started rocking the truck, jostling one another to get a lick at the tailgate with one long, pink-tongued wipe.
"I love 'em," says Fisher.
I need to be convinced.
It doesn't take long. The beef from Brookview Farm is the star performer in a 1,200-acre certified organic farming operation which has grown to include vegetables, pastured-poultry eggs, prepared food, fresh flour, catering services, and country fun for the 100 or more customers who drive 30 minutes west from the city out Patterson Avenue every Saturday morning during the growing season.
Fisher is cashing in on the growing consumer awareness of the quality of their food and where it comes from. During the past several years, conventional farming has increasingly come under fire, from water pollution reports associated with confinement hog and poultry operations, to contaminated and hormone/antibiotics-laced beef products and genetically modified food. Consumers are becoming more warier about what they eat, while small farmers are looking for ways to keep the family farm solvent without putting their fate in the hands of chemical companies, industry conglomerates, or selling out to real estate developers. With the market for organic produce increasing 40-fold between 1986 and 1996, and $6 billion a year spent on meat and produce labeled organic, consumers have told the marketplace they want to put good food in their bellies. There is a market for the products from small organic farms, but success requires hard work, ingenuity, the ability to diversify and a flair for retail.
Fisher learned that the hard way.
Fisher recounts how his beloved cows dubbed "VirginiaLean" have been bred to thrive on grass and grass alone. That means no grain, no feedlots and no associated antibiotics or growth hormones. What he has produced is a sturdy mutt of a cow, one that is hardy and lean. It's beef without saturated fat. It's comparable in protein and cholesterol levels to boneless, skinless chicken. Fisher believed for 15 years that everyone should eat more of his grass-fed beef.
Still, up until about two years ago, people weren't buying it. The beef may be good for you, but let's face it. Lean, grass-fed beef is a tough sell, both literally and figuratively, and makes up less than 1 percent of the beef market. Fisher loved his cows. He needed to find someone to love his beef.
In 1998, at the Virginia Harvest Celebration in Shockoe Bottom, Fisher met Pam Hicks, head chef of Ellwood Thompson's Natural Market. Hicks was the paired chef at the festival with her sister Amy who owns Amy's Garden, an organic farm in New Kent County. Hicks was happy at Ellwood Thompson's, teaching classes and preparing food. Her future looked bright. But Fisher had seen something that wasn't hard to spot in the young woman. Hicks is a whirlwind of energy and light and talk and charm, and she cooks. Fisher may be soft-spoken, but he's got a critical eye that goes beyond his cows, tested years ago when he married Rossie Reed of Sabot Hill in Goochland (much to the dismay of her distinguished family who felt she should marry a nice Virginia gentleman instead of a Maryland Yankee who spirited her off towork with ... yep, cattle, in Colombia, South America).
Clearly, Fisher knew a good catch when he saw one. So he pestered Hicks to come out to the farm.
"'Just come take a look,' he told me," remembers Hicks. "I told him I wasn't interested in changing jobs, but he didn't care. And you know, Fisher is so sweet, you just can't say no to him."
And here's where it gets interesting. For nearly 10 years, Hicks had been driving west out Patterson Avenue every evening to view the sunset. She found Dover Road in Goochland just by chance, and she'd park up at the top of the hill because of the gorgeous view. "I didn't know whose farm it was," says Hicks, "but it was my favorite place in the world."
Now, just guess. Sure enough, the farm turned out to be Brookview, and with an omen like that, how could Hicks say no? Drive into Brookview Farm any sunny afternoon
and you will pause for the view. Brookview is part of the original Dover Plantation, most of which was burned during the Civil War. But the restored white brick overseer's house and four brick outbuildings dating back to 1843 are still standing; they form the heart of the farm. Tranquil and peaceful on the outside, it's a place of inexhaustible energy inside. In the tiny Farm Market building where Hicks and her crew operate, you can watch the show from one saggy but comfortable blue chair parked up against the refrigerated cases packed with fresh basil, walnut, penne pasta, BBQ, and fresh Swiss chard-and-shallot summer quiche. It's a kitchen, a produce stand, a catering facility and a public information office rolled into one. In about 10 steps, you can maneuver from the apartment-sized kitchen counter around a big old country table that seats about eight, to the door with a chalkboard of prices, then a wall lined with baskets of heirloom tomatoes in yellows and orange, eggplants in pastel shades of violet to deep purple, and bell peppers in orange, red and bright green.
When Hicks arrived as manager and head chef of Brookview Farm, she focused on beef. Having spent eight months in Australia working with grass-fed beef, she knew how to make Fisher's VirginiaLean tasty. "It's more like venison than beef," says Hicks. "You turn around and it's overcooked. I tell people to cut their cooking time in half, and to use low heat when making stews." Hicks's expertise shows. Nonie Baruch of Goochland has become a fan of Brookview beef. "I love the beef. It has great flavor, and the BBQ they prepare is fabulous. It's the best I've ever had." Spend time at the farm on a Saturday, and chances are Hicks will cook up some of her famous "Brookview Burgers" for you to taste. Fisher makes more money on selling 12 cows retail than he does selling 100 of them wholesale. With a USDA permit to sell directly to restaurants, Fisher is poised to expand his market. But right now, it's the customers coming to the farm and to the Farmers' and Growers' Markets in Shockoe Bottom who are enjoying VirginiaLean by the mouthful.
To make ends meet6, Fisher always has run a diverse farming operation, from raising soybeans and corn ("We got tired of having a $22,000 chemical bill, so we decided to stop fighting Johnson grass and start cultivating it for hay and cattle.") to raising grass-fed cattle, and providing farm services such as liming and bush-hogging to area folks. Nine years ago while working at the University of Richmond, he was contracted to haul away truckloads of leaves and brush. Since then, he has created a compost pile of 2,000 tons of leaves a year. This saves him $16,000 a year in fertilizer and provides a warm windbreak for his cattle. Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2