Sam Fox is not a gentleman farmer. But by all rights, the 66-year-old, once high-powered patent attorney could be.
Maybe even a city slicker to boot. Fox spent nearly his entire life in Washington, D.C., before retiring as managing partner at the end of 2000 from Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox, an intellectual-property law firm.
Today, Fox raises purebred polled Hereford cattle and harvests hay at his 187-acre spread outside Sperryville, Va., in the shadow of the Shenandoah Mountains. His crew of farmhands consists of his wife, Elizabeth, and a yellow Labrador retriever named Gus.
His hours are long, maybe even longer than those seven-day weeks he spent lawyering in the firm's early days. Now he starts at first light and runs into the wee hours during calving season.
At first sight. In 1988, Fox acquired the run-down, termite-infested stable and rolling land as an investment. He bought it the day he saw it. "Visually, it was just extraordinary," he says. Very quickly, he became "totally smitten with the countryside, the people, and the way of life," he recalls. "Pretty soon, I was looking for something that would allow me to be here and have something to do as well."
He succeeded. It began with a rebuilding of the courtyard-style stable, square foot by square foot, into a home. It evolved into a farming business in 1998, when he purchased four pregnant cows from a neighbor. "I had been spending a lot of money on this place, doing everything from the building to the fencing, and I thought there could be a way to turn this into a business," he says.
Knowing that Fox was in the country only on weekends, the same neighbor volunteered to keep the cows for him. He also became Fox's mentor on the ways of cattle farming and haymaking. Other neighbors have pitched in, too, to help him find his way in the country. "They know I am trying," he says, "and they don't think less of me because I don't know something."
Fox started by visiting the property every Sunday. Progress was slow. First, electricity was added, and next, a well was drilled for running water. Then he logged the one-hour, 40-minute trip from Washington for the entire weekend. Before he knew it, he was devoting every single spare minute to the farm. "Instead of taking vacations at the beach, I came here," he says. In time, Fox realized that he wanted to be able to work the farm and do it full time while he was still relatively young.
The learning curve has been steep. "I lost a calf the other day because I didn't realize the heifer was in trouble. Next time, I'll know," he says.
And the skilled carpentry needed to make the place livable was far more than he had imagined. "If I had known the extent of the work the place needed, I never would have undertaken it," he says. "I'm not born to this. I didn't work in the building trades. As I made my way around the building, stud by stud, I thought, at any minute, this whole thing is going to come down."
But the intrinsic rewards are many for this city boy: "I feel like I have built something really beautiful, and that's very satisfying to me. I'm proud of it." For Fox, it's proof that "you can make anything happen as long as you are willing to work at it."
He now owns 38 cows, four heifers, one steer, and two bulls. This spring, 32 calves were born, most of which will be sold at auction. About half of the land is in pasture or hay production, the balance wooded.
While the farming business is not generating profits, the operation doesn't need to do so. The Foxes' retirement savings are enough to cover the couple's living expenses. But this year, if the auction prices hold up, Fox hopes his operation will break even.
When you're following your passion, that's quite enough. "I never loved being a lawyer," Fox says. "I enjoyed managing the firm and loved the people there. But the farm, this is my real passion. Although I don't actually see myself as the owner here but rather the steward of the property—looking after it for the next people who come through."