Guilty confession: I got “D’s” in U.S. History. I just don’t get all wound up about battlefields, or ye olde anything. It may come as a surprise, then, that I recently paid a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, a registered historic landmark and living museum on the Virginia Peninsula. Why would I do such a thing, given my very unpatriotic educational record, and tendency to be freaked out by period costumes worn in public? Two reasons: love, and cows. Rare breed cows, to be exact.
I grew up on a small ranch where we raised horses, mules, goats, rabbits, and chickens. My dad is a large animal veterinarian who once observed, in all seriousness, “Laurel has a way with cows.” It’s true I was a bit of a bovine-whisperer in my youth, although I wasn’t too stoked when Dad felt it necessary years later to impart that information to my gleeful college roommates. I did, however, manage to convince my parents to let me raise a Jersey heifer for a 4-H project, so at least my talents weren’t wasted.
My love of dairy animals led to my current position as a contributing editor for a consumer cheese magazine, and I frequently write about humane livestock management. When my boyfriend moved to rural Virginia for work last year, I suddenly found myself looking for local story material to pay for my visits from Seattle. That’s how I discovered CW’s Rare Breeds program.
CW’s Coach and Livestock department started the program in 1986, as a means of “preserving and showcasing” heritage livestock and poultry breeds similar to the ones used to help establish the agricultural economy of the colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries. While authenticity is in keeping with the CW’s educational objectives, there’s a bigger reason behind the breeding program: preserving genetic diversity in livestock, and preventing the extinction of the historic breeds still in existence.
The advent of modern agriculture has led to the development of a few select breeds of livestock and poultry, designed for maximum output, in order to meet global demand for commodity products such as eggs, milk, and meat. Many heritage animals retain genetic traits such as disease resistance, tolerance to climatic extremes, mothering traits (sometimes lacking in modern breeds, who are often separated from their young at birth), and physical characteristics that make them better suited to specific geographical environments. Some of these breeds are so scarce, their estimated global population is less than 2,000. The Rare Breeds program has been so successful, the American Livestock Breed Conservancy has declared it an “outstanding historical, agricultural representation. Colonial Williamsburg is a pioneer…in conservancy and breeding.”
Richard Nicholl, director of Coach and Livestock and founder of the Rare Breeds program, has a more simple way of explaining it. “We’ve distilled our meat, poultry, and dairy industries down to just a few hybrids. If something happened to one of those breeds, it would have a serious global impact upon our food supply and food costs. Here, our job is to give life to the Historic Area, and provide education. I want children to be able to walk up to a fence, and be encouraged to pet an animal. We’re so totally disconnected as a society about the source of our food.”
Last month, Boyfriend and I spent a few days in CW, so I could talk to Nicholl, and take a tour of the state-of-the-art stables- something that’s available to the public through CW’s “Bits and Bridles” tours (book them at the main ticket office, when you purchase your visitor’s pass). Nicholl, a native of England, grew up working on various farms. While an agriculture student, he visited an uncle in Virginia who raised carriage horses. Nicholl’s fascination with the animals and heritage of horse-drawn transportation eventually led him to his present position, although he’s also the Chairman of the Driving Committee for the Federation Equestre Internationale, and a Course Designer for the sport of Combined Driving.
While Nicholl’s passion is for horses (the farm currently has two rare breed animals in residence: an American Cream Draft, and a Canadian horse used for carriages and riding), he’s equally devoted to the flock of 45 Leicester Longwool sheep- one of the only breeding herds in the U.S.-and his Devon Red cows. The farm also breeds heritage chickens such as Nankin Bantams, Silver Spangled Hamburgs, and Dorkings (I wonder why that name was lost to antiquity?).
The Rare Breeds program came about when Nicholl and his staff were trying to improve the crossbred flock of sheep they had at the time. They acquired a Leicester ram, although in 1986, finding heritage livestock was no small feat. Nicholl specifically wanted existing breeds that were also native to the region in the 18th century. He tracked down a Leicester breeder in Australia, where the animals are used for milk, wool, and meat, and had the ram shipped over. The next acquisition was a Red Devon cow, a breed that originally arrived with the Pilgrims, via Southwest England. Small, hardy, handsome cattle with russet hides, Devons were a multi-use breed, used for draft, milk, and meat. When CW’s first cow was purchased from New Hampshire, there were less than 100 Devons left in the U.S., and they were extinct in England.
Today, the program has approximately 20 cattle, which are variously used for public demonstrations on plowing and (occasionally) milking. Says Nicholl, “We’ve lost many of the dairy breeds of cattle to extinction, but the Devon is increasing in popularity-another rancher in our area is now using them for their grass-finished beef. This is a great example of the importance of the Rare Breeds program. It’s been very successful, as well as popular with visitors.” Nicholl is quick to point out that having too many animal species in the program is problematic. “It’s hard to let go; you can’t save every breed. We don’t have pigs now, but we encourage Mt. Vernon to raise them. It’s not sustainable to have too many animals.”
Some shops in the Historic Area sell wool from the sheep, and there are scheduled kitchen demonstrations of 18th-century food preparation, as part of CW’s Historic Foodways program. Some of the demos, including meat cookery and ice cream, butter, and cheesemaking, feature mutton and milk from the farm. It’s ye olde observation only, but fellow dairy dorks will enjoy The Cheese Shop, a family-owned, modern store in Merchant’s Square, adjacent to the Historic Area. There are over 200 domestic and European offerings to choose from, including Virigina farmstead cheeses from Caromont Farm, and Meadow Creek, as well as artisan bread from Richmond, a beautiful array of condiments, made-to-order-sandwiches, and other picnic fixings.
If you’d rather have a restaurant meal, skip the touristy taverns, and eat at the Fat Canary, which adjoins The Cheese Shop (and is owned by the same family). The restaurant is a pleasant, contemporary, casual-to-fine-dining spot with a patio and hopping bar. The food is mostly of the Southern American genre, with an emphasis on regional ingredients. Boyfriend and I had a very nice dinner that included a starter of housemade mozzarella with Virginia ham, roasted tomatoes, and pesto, and crispy Virginia soft-shell crab with roasted chili butter. If you’re still in need of a cheese fix, the Williamsburg Lodge offers “Wine, Wit, and Wisdom” classes, which are essentially cheese tastings punctuated by lots of wine and banter between their executive chef, wine and beverage manager, and sommelier. Not for serious oeno- or turophiles, but entertaining.
The Rare Breeds program is funded through the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; Donations can be made here. Be sure to reference the program on the form.
Go here for a Devon clotted cream recipe, a traditional English treat that really needs to be embraced Stateside, like the cows who inspired it.
My trip to Virginia was sponsored by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and Greater Williamsburg, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.