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McDonald Farms able to trace roots back many generations

By JANE W. GRAHAM
AFP Correspondent

BLACKSBURG, Va. (April 18, 2017) — A lot of hard work, determination and a Scot’s savvy have combined through generations here at McDonald Farms in Montgomery County, Va., a leading Virginia beef cattle seed stock operation.
Bill McDonald is the seventh generation member of his family to run the farm. He said he’s looking forward to when his son Joseph, a Virginia Tech student, will be the eighth generation to do so.
Martha, whom Bill called the family historian, said the first documentation that has been found of the farm is 1763.
The larger McDonald family is one that has always been interested in its legacy and the mother and son said one relative traced the clan’s roots in Scotland and America back 29 generations. The land here came to the family as a Royal Land Grant from a King of England.
Martha said the first McDonald to own the farm, also named Joseph, fathered nine sons and one daughter. She noted that it was typical for the youngest son to inherit property since the older ones tended to want to leave for adventure elsewhere.
Martha’s husband Jim worked with his father, James Richard “Dick” McDonald while also serving as an Extension agent in nearby Tazewell County. He and Martha worked to transition the farm to Bill who wanted to keep the operation going. Bill’s brother Jim works outside of agriculture for a defense company but returns for special occasions such as the farm’s annual “Pick of the Pen” bull sale on the first Saturday in April.
McDonald Farms consist of 625 acres including the 500-acre home farm. Located just outside the town of Blacksburg, which is growing as Virginia Tech expands, the McDonalds said development pressure is a real threat to agriculture in this part of Montgomery County.
Mother and son said the farm appears to have been self-sustaining from its earliest times. They have found evidence of a grist mill, a tannery and a weaving room. The farm also provided gun powder for the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars, Martha said, getting raw material — salt peter — from a nearby mountain.
Bill said it even had a brand name, known as McDonald’s Sure Fire Gun Powder.
He said glass was about the only thing his ancestors had to order from off the farm. Some of those glass panes are still in windows of the home place that his parents restored before his father’s death.
The big house had been built in three stages. The first produced a two-story log structure, built in 1790. An addition came in 1820 and the third part added in the 1850s or 60s.
The present generation had to tear down the third part and rebuild, Martha said.
There had been a fire in it while her husband was serving in the military in Korea. Many of the materials used in this project come from another old house on the property, believed to have been built about the same time.
They also found evidence that the first separate kitchen had burned during an attempted renovation. While building a guesthouse, they found a huge amount of ash under the building.
The separate kitchen was typical of that time, Martha added. Kitchens where fireplaces provided heat for cooking were fire hazards so for safety reasons they were not connected to the main house.
Bill and his older brother Jim who both grew up in Tazewell, lived with their grandfather at the home place and worked on the farm as students at Virginia Tech. Bill said their grandfather had operated a dairy and ran a cow/calf herd, sheep, pigs and chickens on the diversified farm.
After he graduated, Bill worked part-time for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service as a cattle grader before becoming a full-time farmer.
Bill started building and improving the cattle herd on the farm in 1983 when he bought his first purebred Simmental bull.
He kept upgrading his cattle over the next decade and bought his first registered Angus bull in 1993. At that time, he saw a need to diversify the breeding stock he offers for sale.
He said his goal is to produce cows that work well in the Southwest Virginia and Mid-Atlantic cattle industry. He aims for bulls that sire easy calving cows, fast growing calves and desirable carcasses. He tries to produce good replacement cows and bulls with good temperaments.
He follows his dad’s teaching of the “three Os” — old, open and ornery. Animals in these categories don’t stay on the farm.
For a time, the McDonalds put some of their bulls in the Virginia Beef Cattle Improvement Association and sold them in the group’s two sales at Culpeper and Southwest Virginia.
He made the decision 15 years ago to hold the farm’s own bull sale and has found this a good way to market his bulls. Others are sold privately throughout the year.
Bill reported that he often hears about the good temperaments of the bulls he sells and from markets where their animals are sold.
The sale this year was the largest crowd to ever attend, Martha said. She planned a meal for 150 served by the Montgomery County 4-H Club. She said at least 120 attended.
Bill who says he is not an auctioneer but does his own calling at the sale. He keeps in mind that the average age of a person buying a bull is 60 and may not hear as well as someone younger.
“We want everybody to understand what’s going on at the auction, to feel comfortable,” he said.