Shepherding Their Resources

By Eric Pelnik

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Growing up as an Army brat, John Burleson was always on the move.

His father, who eventually rose to the rank of general, moved the family of two boys and their mom about 10 times. John lived in Texas, Illinois and even Germany. Constantly changing locations, John was never able to have a pet or a garden.

This might explain why in 1996, six years after graduating from Virginia Military Institute, John and his wife Sarah bought a farm that dates back to before 1800.

With this hilly 15-acre farm in the Kerrs Creek area, he finally had time in one place. There was time to form a relationship with not just the animals and nature, but also with a traditional home place.

Photos: Eric Pelnik

When they purchased the property it was called Lavender Hill Farm. For the sake of marketing, the Burlesons kept the name. It is on this farm that the Burlesons began to pursue a traditional rustic lifestyle. 

Today at Lavender Hill, they grow various edible plants, from figs to lettuce. They also care for sheep, chickens, quail and a few other species, such as a dog and a donkey.

Although both enjoy the lifestyle, John needs to take on a non-farm job to support the family. His main income is from his job as an independent contractor for wastewater engineering. Sarah manages the books for all of their sources of income, including John’s engineering work. John and Sarah also manage their home as a Bed & Breakfast, as it was used when they bought it. With the B&B, engineering job, and the selling of lamb, eggs, and quail directly to customers they know, the family keeps the little farm alive.

The family farm has been disappearing in the United States for at least a century. Although the small farm is celebrated in Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia” and pictured on food packaging in supermarkets, the reality is that much of our food comes from vast middle-America flatlands and regimented orchards under the sway of consolidated agribusiness. However, small farms have remained a part of Rockbridge County since its settlement in the 18th century. Today, according to the U.S. Census, the county has 805 farms, about the same number it had in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War. The average size of a farm in the county is 172 acres.

Despite being much smaller than average, Lavender Hill Farm has the feel of a larger farm or even a petting zoo. The sheep can be heard baaaa-ing at each other, as the bells around their necks mark their walking. The sheep’s white, red, and black coats create a wave of different colors as they move together in a flock. The barn smells of hay, and the chickens can be heard throughout the property. The Burlesons have more than 10 adult sheep and 20 lambs. Most of the family’s farm income comes from the selling of lambs. 

The lambs are sold for between $100 to $130. After a buyer is found, the lambs are sent to a butcher. About half the meat on a sheep will end up being eaten. This is usually around 50 pounds.

Other animals on the farm also contribute to the family. Each chicken usually lays five or six eggs a week. This leads to around 8 or 9 eggs a day when the chickens lay. These eggs are either eaten by the family or sold to friends. The quail also offer a source of food and income. Like the chickens, the quail is either eaten or sold to others. Sarah says that they rarely buy meat.

With a daughter in the local school system, a small farm, a B&B and an engineering job, John Burleson maintains a disciplined balance to support a lifestyle that seems ideal. “It’s good to us,” he says.

Sarah still jokes that John is just making up for a childhood without pets.