Images by Andrea Hubbell and Sarah Cramer Shields, words by Megan Headley.
The sight of Will Richey chopping firewood outside his 1903 home in Esmont makes us feel like we’ve traveled back in time. He bounds up wearing a tweed waistcoat over a button-down shirt and a generous smile emerges from his full beard and out through a twinkle in his eyes. It doesn’t take long to realize that the 36-year-old renaissance man who spends his increasingly rare leisure time doing everything from reading Victorian literature to making his own cider, was born a good two centuries too late.
Scout, a Great Pyrenees, and Nanook, a shepherd, jump up against the fence for rubs and greetings. Behind them roams a menagerie of animals that have called the five-acre Red Row Farm home since the Richeys bought and created it two and a half years ago. The goal, to provide food for their family as well as to Will’s growing collection of restaurants, has become a work in progress with plenty of ad-hoc learning and messy surprises along the way.
Inside, we meet Will’s partner in life and farming, Lisa, who is a week away from giving birth to a sister for big brother Alston. Lisa graduated from UVa two years after Will (though the Grateful Dead follower-turned-poetry major is sure to point out that there were four schools and more than four years before that) and met when Will, who had gone on to manage the Tea Room Café (now L’etoile), hired Lisa as a hostess in 2002. During Will’s four years there, he became close friends with owner Mark Gresge, bonding over their shared interest in Virginia’s colonial recipes.
In 2005, after a detour through wine retail and distribution and an Escoffier-inspired catering company, Will focused his hunt on finding a restaurant to call his own. Lisa, who was selling ads for the Hook at the time, noticed the long lines at Revolutionary Soup every day. The lunch-only spot was already on its second owner and she knew that Will could meet the demand in a much more inspired and responsible way. He bought it and immediately began working local products like Twin Oaks Tofu and Timbercreek Organics beef and chicken into the soups. Will and Lisa married in 2006, added the Corner location in 2007, and had Alston in 2008.
In four years, Alston’s grown to be just as excitable and gregarious as his parents. He’s watching cartoons when we arrive and breaks the ice by shooting suction cup darts at us. During a tour around the house, he shows off his train set and a few jumps on his bed.
Faced with the ubiquitous childcare quandary, Will decided to stay home with Alston for the first three years of his life, while Lisa worked. He managed Revolutionary Soup remotely and started the Wine Guild of Charlottesville all while playing an admirable (and decidedly gourmet) Mr. Mom. Will made all of Alston’s baby food by steaming either locally-grown or home-grown produce and then passing it through a chinois, then progressed to toddler-ized adaptations of bistro classics like veal stew. Not surprisingly, Alston’s now omnivorous and, even though Will admits to how long and challenging those years were, he’s one duly proud poppa. He returned to work (opening The Whiskey Jar early this year) knowing that he’d spent the most formative years at home with his son. Now, Lisa’s left her job to stay at home.
Of course, with sheep, ducks, geese, guinea hens, chickens, pigs, rabbits, and 1⅓ acres of produce all under their domain, life may prove just as hectic. The pair dove into land- and animal-ownership head first and the learning curve’s been expectedly steep. “Once you own a farm, animals start to just appear,” jokes Lisa, who admits to learning most of what she knows about animal husbandry by watching YouTube. Last spring when the pregnant Border Cheviot sheep went into labor at 2am and one of the newborns wasn’t breathing properly, Lisa saved its life by donning a headlamp (they now have a pile of them by the door) and implementing an over-the-head swinging motion she learned on the internet. Pretty impressive for a New Jersey-born gal who grew up eating processed foods like Cracklin’ Oat Bran and Tastykake Krimpets.
Then, this summer, there was Barney, the “chummy” 700 pound Tamworth boar that they’d planned to castrate then eventually butcher (he was costing them $35 a day in feed); however, Barney must have caught wind of the discussion, because he took himself into the woods to die before the deed was done. Unable to move the carcass, they got rid of it “Revolutionary War-style” by covering it with lye and waiting for the flesh to disintegrate. Alston tells us about Barney’s skeleton. Will and Lisa laugh over how the stench of death coupled with the destruction caused by a 17 foot willow oak uprooted in the derecho kept them from entertaining at the house as much as they like.
And it’s an imminently inviting place to be, with evidence of their bygone tastes everywhere. There’s a wood-burning stove, convex mirrors, and two sets of inherited china bearing what Will describes as an “old lady aesthetic.” The kitchen, despite being the only room in the house they renovated, still feels like an old farmhouse kitchen. Old egg beaters mingle with shiny cookware on hanging pot racks and a white fireclay apron sink sits beneath a window that looks out into the pastures. Next to the stove hangs a painted tin lidded salt box for professional-style seasoning, and Lisa, an avid baker, uses her Kitchenaid for everything from bread dough to biscotti. Artisanal living in a modern world.
On the counter sits a bowl filled with freshly gathered eggs, a large slab of house-cured bacon, and a leg from a pig they called Blossom Dearie that they had cured by Kite’s for eight months. Will slices pieces from both for our meal–a spread of bacon, ham, eggs fried over easy, Byrd Mill grits, cream biscuits, toast made from Lisa’s bread, and homemade apple butter and cranberry sauce–that’s always defined the word “breakfast” for Will. “My dad raised us on this meal and it always set us straight.” Though this rendition is certainly more backyard-sourced than the one that Will and his three siblings grew up eating on the Maryland side of DC, it remains his comfort craving anytime he has at least 10 hours between shifts at The Whiskey Jar or when the couple needs a hearty meal after their morning farm chores.
We’ve exerted no such energy, yet the feast, complete with Shenandoah Joe coffee lightened with real cream and a glass of Potter’s Craft Farmhouse Dry Cider, warms us body and soul and we all head out for a wander around the farm.
The days on Red Row are getting sleepier, so the family’s newest (human) arrival couldn’t have been better timed. Water changes become the only daily necessity in the winter, and by early spring, they’ll have a farmhand living in a rental house on the property to help with the produce.
Alston knows his way around the land, gathering sticks taller than him, being sure to throw one at the feisty rooster of the bunch. Wilma, the 500 pound sow, wants a drink and allows her body weight to slide her towards her trough. She’ll be slaughtered this winter while the three younger Tamworths and the one Mangalitsa they’re raising for friends are still fattening up. The sheep show off their wool-free Roman noses and pricked ears. They’re winter-hearty, keep to themselves, and will lend their wool once Lisa finds the time for another project.
The guinea hens make an unignorable racket, but they’re good for keeping the parasite population down. Whenever the flock gets loud enough to send Scout into a middle-of-the-night barking bender, Will comes out with his rifle and fires a few rounds into the air–a spectacle he’s sure to repeat whenever Lisa’s family is visiting from New Jersey.
Before we leave, Alston shows us how he chops wood with his own little axe and then we hear him ask his dad to help him build a house with his collection of sticks. Will’s got the whole day off, so he probably had it finished by sundown.