Since 1855, Debbie Christie Gentry’s family has farmed in Sinks Grove, West Virginia. Debbie’s father, Jim Christie, started a dairy on the very same land as a 16 year-old boy, and turned it into a lifelong endeavor. When Debbie was young, she shadowed her father and her mother, Pat, during farm chores because, “it’s just the way you grow up and what you do,” she says. By the time Debbie was 13 years old, her interest and love of farming was engrained. While attending Warren Wilson College, a work study college that encouraged further agricultural learning, she met her husband, Tom, and the two returned to West Virginia where Debbie became a sixth generation family farmer at SamNana Heritage Farm.
Tom and Debbie manage a flock of 100 Certified Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World (AGW) St. Croix sheep on 62 acres of beautiful, rolling hills. As Tom says, “there’s not a flat spot on it!” The farm consists of a mix of hay fields, pasture, and areas of woodland. The old farmhouse built by Debbie’s great great grandfather and the old well mark the fact that the land has been farmed for centuries. St. Croix sheep originated in West Africa and were brought to the Caribbean Islands in the early 1600s. The breed adapted well to the humid and warm Caribbean climate and was valued for its meat and its manure, which was crucial to the fertilization of sugar cane crops. The St. Croix is a hair sheep and is a relatively low-maintenance breed because it does not require shearing. The St. Croix sheep also has a high resistance to parasites and, as an excellent forager, is well-suited for pasture-based management. “They are good mothers and good milkers, with a great disposition—and known for high fertility,” Debbie explains.
Debbie manages her animals to ensure they are as healthy as possible. “It’s not just buying animals and thinking you’re going to make money,” she says. “You have to learn every aspect about what’s going on in the environment to ensure healthy animals and healthy breeding, so that you can take care of animals in the best possible way.”
After learning about other AGW-certified farms in the area, Tom wanted to pursue the Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW label so that SamNana Heritage Farm could “portray that same level of high-quality and high-welfare farming.” Debbie recognized they were already managing animals in ways that aligned with AGW standards, and after finding their niche market in St. Croix sheep, they wanted to be able to use the Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW logo to promote their product in the marketplace. “You have to take legitimate steps to make yourself look really good to stand out in the marketplace,” she explains. Both Tom and Debbie understand that customers increasingly want to know about where their food comes from; they want to know their farmer, too. Debbie sees the pursuit of the AWA logo as a way to “rise to the occasion!”
SamNana Heritage Farm is a real family-run farm and Tom and Debbie get frequent support from their children and neighbors, especially when they work the sheep. As Debbie says, “it takes a community to be good farmers and good neighbors. We are lucky to be in a place where people are helping people be farmers.” Debbie and Tom have dreams of staying in West Virginia—continuing to work together toward a common goal, focusing on the farm, and “becoming the premier St. Croix managers and producers in the United States,” says Tom.
SamNana Heritage Farm offers on-farm sales of AGW-certified lamb to individuals, but their products are also available in various retail outlets in Virginia and West Virginia. Check the AGW Online Directory for details. For more information about SamNana Heritage Farm, contact Debbie and Tom at 304-661-1945 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.samnanafarm.com and SamNana Heritage Farm’s Facebook page.