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Sneads move from construction to agritourism
By SEAN CLOUGHERTY
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (May 6, 2014) — Facing the effects of a collapsed housing market, custom home builders George and Roxanna Snead were ripe for a career change.
“It really was a blessing in disguise,” Roxanna said, walking with her husband among the barns on their Braehead Farm. “It gave us the opportunity to ask ourselves, ‘what do we want to do with the rest of our lives?’”
George’s family had operated Braehead Farm since 1937 when George’s grandfather, Emmett C. Snead, bought the property, and now it is the only farm in the city of Fredericksburg.
As a city industrial park surrounded it, the farm has been reduced from 200 acres to about 90 leased and owned acres.
George’s father Emmett Jr., ran the farm until his death in 2002 and the farm was then tilled in row crops until George and Roxanna began to think about changing the operation.
**‘Stick with what you know’**
As an amateur winemaker, George had bottled his first vintage in 2010 and with compliments from friends on its taste, the couple began to consider converting the dairy farm to a winery and vineyard. They hired a wine consultant to evaluate the farm for growing grapes and making and selling wine and after a two-day process, Roxanna said “his conclusion was you ought to stick with what you know and that’s farming.”
That set the couple on a fast track to breath new life into the farm with a retail market for produce, pick-your-own crops, educational tours, birthday parties and other special events.
“We just went for it. It all made sense because we had the population around here.”
George had grown up on the farm and did some farming after college before working in the landscaping industry and then as homebuilder, so he said he felt well-grounded in what it would take to grow vegetable crops. Area farmers including his brother Emmett Snead III who grows produce in Caroline County, and Extension crop meetings have been immense help as well, he added.
Roxanna said she didn’t have much farming experience but sees a lot of similarities to what it took to manage their Snead Custom Homes and sell real estate.
“I’ve never had a store before but I’ve always been in business,” she said.
After cleaning out and renovating the many barns and sheds on the farm, they opened Braehead Farm to the public in April 2013 at the start of their strawberry season.
Behind the market is a farm-themed playground with picnic areas, and two of the barns are refurbished to handle group events.
A herd of beef cattle replaced the dairy herd and the Sneads got a few Vietnamese potbelly pigs, a few goats, and a few rabbits to have for visitors to see.
Roxanna said while taking her twin sons on a school field trip, seeing another student’s amazement at the sight of a goat crystalized the farm’s main mission for her.
“Our big thing is we really wanted an educational program,” she said. Field trips at Braehead cover pollination with George who is also a beekeeper, manure composting and strawberry growing and picking.
Bringing school children back to the farm also revives a Snead tradition as George’s father enjoyed hosting school groups dating back to the 1960s.
The Sneads also work with Woodpecker Farm in Woodford, Va., to host a summer equestrian camp that helps both farms, Roxanna said.
This year they plan to grow about 25 different crops for the farm market and converted the farm’s milk house into a commercial kitchen to sell food from on busy days and during special events.
Last year, they hired a local caterer to cook food off-site and sell it at the farm but saw the potential in doing it themselves.
“When people get here they want to eat or they leave,” Roxanna said.
Being the only farm left in the city has is advantages, the Sneads said, mainly its proximity to Fredericksburg’s growing population, which is more than 27,000.
But there have been challenges in getting the business going too.
Roxanna said the city council has been supportive of the Snead’s efforts to remake the farm but there were still zoning issues to wade through and some permits are still pending for the farm.
“They don’t know what to do with us because we’re a farm in the city,” George said.
There’s also city taxes on admissions and meals the farm have been a subject but Roxanna said it’s all been manageable.
And even though they’re in the city limits, George said they still have some rural issues.
Deer still feed on strawberry and other plants and coyotes prey on the farm’s free-range chickens, he said.
After being open a year, the Sneads got a possible glimpse of what the farm’s future may hold when they held Easter egg hunts last month and anticipated attendance based on how their fall festival did last year.
But very soon into the event, Roxanna said it was clear they underestimated the response.
“We were overrun. We had no idea that many people knew about us back here,” she said. “Now that we’ve been found, we’re holding on to that tiger’s tail.”
Though not without its challenges, the Sneads said remaking the farm has been great for the family, including George’s mother, Jane Snead, who still lives on the farm.
“This is basically her farm, we just run it for her,” Roxanna said of Jane Snead. “She loves that the farm is open to the public. She was so excited to see life in the barn again.”