Part 18: Wessex Hundred, the Farm and its Environment
From my early years, my mother taught me to appreciate the beauty of trees, of green space, of fresh air. There was not a week in our childhood that my brother and I were not brought to the large public parks in Brussels and, later, in the large forest East of the city that had been the hunting grounds of royalty.
I also grew up in the Ardennes, the area of the famous ’44 Battle of the Bulge. There, my brother and I had plenty of opportunity to run around in the woods with our uncle’s German Shepherd.
One of the goals in acquiring the farm was to provide our sons, Patrick II and Terence, with what I consider to be a healthy and “quality of life” environment. It entails multiple chores which provide a good discipline and learning experience and in return also offers a sense of freedom.
Both Peggy and I wanted the farm to be productive but also to retain the character of a traditional working environment; neither the look of a toy farm, nor a sterilized agri-business projection.
We had enjoyed the experience of visiting various estates of European landowner friends who had adapted their property to the Twentieth Century by dedicating a portion to agriculture, maintaining wild life in protected forested areas, and providing the locals with walking trails with views over fast flowing narrow rivers.
Some fifty to sixty acres of our farm were selected for the vineyards with another ten to fifteen for the residences, the various structures of the winery, and the site of the hotel under consideration. That left well over two hundred acres. The decision was made to replant trees in areas between multiple ravines where the soil had been tilled for grain farming and was well eroded.
The first stage was accomplished in 1989. With the counsel and assistance of Bill Apperson, a forestry expert with the VA Dept of Agriculture, we planted 37 acres of Loblolly seedlings on the Southern part of the farm. Ultimately, over the years, some fifty thousand trees were planted, some for the forestry project, others as decorative trees around the houses or the winery, and others to provide as much shading as possible for the parking areas of visitors.
Our work team then created a walking “Nature Trail’ which is nearly two miles long and follows the edge of Pate’s Creek to a point overlooking the marshes, the parkway and the James River.
Then several other areas were selected to increase the total forested surface to some 75 acres. The trees have grown to forty or forty-five feet in height. Numerous Oaks have developed in that forest where my sons and I spent just about every wintry Sunday working to cut Honeysuckle, Ivy, Virginia Creepers, Poison Oak and other invasive parasites that can destroy a forest. Here are their views on the challenge that it represented.
From Patrick II
“Looking back on the time spent on the woods has given me a sense of perspective. Admittedly, there were numerous occasions when I spent time in the woods cleaning brush, cutting vines and thinning trees when I grumbled and wished I had stayed in bed. The job seemed insurmountable and the methods by which we were trying to achieve our goals were seemingly inefficient and time consuming.”
“Looking back on it, there was a great deal of warmth and joy that comes from physical exertion at the end of those mornings. It’s hard to believe that the 45 ft trees that now dominate those woods were once saplings that needed all the help they could get.”
“The woods down by the Creek are beautiful. It is one of my favorite places on earth; I never miss the opportunity to go for a hike to the creek along the nature trail.”
“Left alone, Mother Nature pretty much takes care of things. Leave a fallow field in eastern Virginia alone for a hundred and fifty years and you will end up with a peak hardwood forest full of Copper Beeches. You can accelerate things a bit by planting Pine trees, waiting for Oaks to establish themselves and cutting the invasive plants. It’s been fun to watch the natural cycle of rejuvenation over the past 25 years.”
“Pulling the old cars, appliances and bottles of toxic chemicals out of the ravines took some doing. I seem to recall one occasion when my father almost flipped over the backhoe when the soft ground (read landfill) gave way under the weight of the construction equipment. Fortunately, it only slid to the bottom of the ravine and we dragged it out with bulldozer.”
Another task was to reduce the tree density to favor the growth of the healthier trees to seven, eight hundred trees per acre.
Contact was made with the Department of Game and Wild Life, and their specialists came to bring young barn owls to repopulate the woods. Wild life has been abundant, and for certain species overly so. White tailed deer are abundant in Eastern VA.
Rodgers Huff, the then local president of United Virginia Bank who had been very familiar with the farm as he had leased portion of it from the previous owner, created a Hunt Club. The goal was for gentlemen to enjoy the sport while controlling the balance of wild life. For instance, by maintaining the correct density of the deer population, the wild life would have adequate food to grow to healthy size.
After the sad, untimely passing of Rodgers, Eric Capps, our Vineyard Manager, took the responsibility of the Hunt Club. As, later, he moved on to work for the VA Dept. of Environment, Ron Mosocco, our friend and independent accountant, has kept enhancing our hunt program. He arranges to donate meat through the program of “Hunters for the Hungry”.
We worked with the Science Department at The College of William & Mary to establish twenty foot deep, eight inch pipes to monitor the impact of the vineyard management and treatments on the water table. Since the Roman days, vineyards all over the world have been sprayed to control fungal development. Our interest was to find out if the fungal control had a serious impact on the water table.
Another hundred acres of land was left fallow, bush-hogged every year to rebuild its humus and favor good percolation of the soil. Even in Virginia, which receives about 24” to 30’ of precipitation, it takes ten years of accumulated clippings to build one inch of humus.
A less pleasant task was to progressively pull out the carcasses of the cars that had been simply pushed into ravines as well as the many pieces of Twentieth Century trash discarded in the wild. Cleaning the three hundred acre farm and caring for it has been a project by itself.
There is an immense reward in walking through healthy woods, looking at a pristine portion of old cypresses (their feet submerged in brackish waters with their knees coming up to give the root system the necessary breathing) or seeing rivulets of clear, cold water meandering at the bottom of the ravines demonstrating that the soil is now absorbing the precipitation. Soil and forests express a sense of life, of renewal. It is an enjoyment that we like to share with our guests and visitors.
(To be continued)
Patrick G. Duffeler
Founder & CEO