A decade ago, Michael and Heather White were living the city life in Fredericksburg. Today, they and their four children are living off the land on their sprawling 225-acre farm in rural Halifax County, surrounded by the rare heritage breeds of animals they raise.
The White family’s Vernon Hill farm is hard to miss. You’ll likely spot the Dutch Belted “Oreo” cattle grazing in the pasture before you see the sign for the farm or the farmhouse. The cattle are distinguishable by the single large white stripe wrapped around their otherwise black bodies, and they are one of the many rare and endangered breeds on the farm.
“This is definitely the way to live. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” Heather White said Friday afternoon as she walked around the farm tending to her animals. “My husband and I fell in love with the farm here.”
Heather shared that she grew up on a farm in Spotsylvania and always wanted to have a larger farm. She talked with her husband, a retired veteran of the U.S. Navy, about moving to a farm. The couple found Sapphire Farms on Lands of America and bought the farm in 2012.
One of the Whites’ main goals as farmers is raising heritage breeds to preserve the animals’ genetics. The family owns 25 Dutch Belted “Oreo” cattle. Only 200 cattle of that breed are registered in the entire world, Heather noted.
“I don’t want to lose the genetics of these cattle, so that’s why we have them,” Heather explained. “They’re survivors. They have been around for 2,000 years. There’s a reason…my girls can birth calves and have no issues. I used to have Jerseys, and they had to be grain fed. Dutch belted cattle don’t.”
All 25 of the Dutch Belted cattle have names — the calves bearing names with the same first letter of their mother cow’s name. Among the cattle is a rare red Dutch Belted cow named Gingersnap. The White Family also has a lead cow named Fernanda, and a breeding bull — an Angus named Samuel they acquired from a nearby cattle farmer, Mike McDowell.
“We cross our Angus bull with our girls to give us the meat,” Heather said. “Samuel teaches my little boys to act right. We’ll pick the best boy, and he becomes my next bull for the farm. He’s got to have the right stripe, the right attitude.”
The cattle are trained, as well. Heather calls them, and they come to her. In some ways, they are like pets, but they all serve a purpose on the farm. Some are dairy cows, while others are strictly for meat. The milk they produce is an important function of the cows, and the Whites sell the raw, unpasteurized milk to their customers. The family started raising dairy cows for health reasons. Heather was suffering from Rheumatoid Arthritis, and her daughter Zoie had developed asthma.
“I didn’t want Zoie on all the medications. The Mayo Clinic did a study saying that raw milk will cure asthma,” Heather related.
Now that she has changed her diet, Heather said Zoie has been able stop taking some medications. Heather’s Rheumatoid Arthritis symptoms also have dramatically improved, and she now only has the occasional flare-up of the autoimmune disease.
Heather added her cattle are grass fed, GMO free, and she and her husband are very selective about the medications they give them. In addition, she said although they don’t pasteurize the milk, it is safe to consume and her cows have never had an infection.
Along with the “Oreo” cattle, the White’s are raising several other rare heritage breeds on their Vernon Hill farm. They have midget white turkeys, two Shire horses — Ace and Devon – and large black hogs.
“Not many people have large black hogs,” Heather said. “We try to focus on breeds that aren’t being kept to keep the genetics in place. Our goal is to help people understand why the genetics are important to keep us healthy as humans…Once you lost a breed of animal forever, you might find 20 years down the road that gene (from the animal breed) is useful.”
Heather and husband Michael have traveled as far as Missouri and Kansas to get heritage breeds of animals to bring back to their farm, and have even had animals shipped in from California. Among the other free-range farm animals roaming Sapphire Farms are peafowl, chickens and roosters, and rabbits. The Whites keep between 200 and 400 birds on their farm, in a wide variety, among them Ameraucana chickens, which lay different colored “Easter” eggs and Maran chickens, which lay brown “chocolate” eggs. Then there is the midget white turkey with its striking plume of ivory feathers wandering the farm, blissfully unaware that he will be the family’s Thanksgiving dinner.
“We like eating what we raise and knowing what we’ve eaten,” Heather said. “We live off the land…we have a garden. We raise a lot of our own feed; this year we did wheat for the first time. We make our own bread.”
It’s a way of life that hearkens back to a simpler time. The food on their dinner table, for the most part, was grown or raised on their farm, and the family heats their large farmhouse exclusively with firewood pulled in a wagon by their Shire horses. But Heather says the family still indulges in 21st century luxuries. And like any other business owner of this day and age, the Whites have a website: www.sapphirefarmsva.com.
For more information about Sapphire Farms or to plan a visit, call 434-770-7945.