Ditchley Cider Works keeps sustainable farming tradition alive
by Megan Schiffres
Ditchley Cider Works is a modern, sustainable hard cider and meat producer that blends seamlessly into the historic property. Surrounded by timeless views of the picturesque Northern Neck scenery and waterfront, the cider works offers both traditional and experimental varieties of hard apple cider, in addition to a selection of artisan meats.
Ditchley’s 162-acre property at 1571 Ditchley Road near Kilmarnock includes stunning vistas of natural landscape and neat rows of cider apple trees in 48 different variations, which are spread out across 15 acres of land. The terrain also features a small private beach on Prentice Creek, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
The land where Ditchley Cider Works now operates has been in continuous agricultural production since 1687 and was once a plantation, later owned by philanthropist Jessie Ball duPont. Co-owners Cathy Calhoun and her husband Paul Grosklags bought the property from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund in 2014, on the condition that they preserve its natural splendor by placing it in a conservation easement.
Calhoun and Grosklags are both veteran Navy engineers, and according to Calhoun, they opened the cider works to keep busy after retirement from working in Norfolk. Calhoun, who grew up on a ranch in Texas and had been home-brewing for decades, says she was no stranger to the farming lifestyle when they decided to enter the hard cider business.
“I had been a home brewer for a lot of years doing both beer and wine and a little bit of cider. When we decided we wanted to stay here, Virginia Tech was starting to do quite a bit of research into hard apple cider and making predictions that it was going to be a very large industry coming back and that Virginia was well poised to participate in that,” Calhoun said. “That’s what piqued the interest and then we did our research and decided it made sense.”
The cidery opened for business in the fall of 2018, and thus far offers three hard ciders made completely from apples grown in their orchards. The Rivah, a light citrus hops, is slightly carbonated and made from a Hewes Crab and Sops of Wine apples. Blush, which is created using wine yeast fermentation, is a sweet blend made from Geneva and Redfield Crab apples. For a more heavy cider in the winter months, the G-8 is the perfect full-bodied and apple crisp beverage for heating up and enjoying on a snowy day. According to Calhoun, they are currently experimenting with two new hard ciders including one made with peaches and one made with a combination of apples and pears.
Since purchasing Ditchley, Calhoun and Grosklags have preformed extensive renovations and restorations to the historic buildings still standing on the property, including the Georgian manor house which was built in the 1760s and the caretaker’s house which was built by Jessie duPont for her staff. The caretaker’s house has been converted into a tasting room and short term rental with four bedrooms on the second floor and the manor house is also available for short term rentals by individuals or groups. Next year, they plan to refurbish a 1968 Sears Roebuck cottage located near the waterfront into a three bedroom short term rental for wedding parties and other events.
Ditchley Cider Works also is a working farm where cattle, pigs, ducks, geese, and turkeys roam its natural landscape. At Ditchley they use sustainable farm practices to maintain the landscape and mitigate natural threats to their crops and animals. Instead of using pesticides, the farm uses runner ducks to act as a pest management system by scouring the farmland for insects.
“They are that good with controlling bugs, but they don’t fly, they just run on the ground, so predators can pick them off pretty easily. That’s why we have the geese,” said Calhoun.
By raising free range white weeder and Toulouse geese alongside ducklings, the two species form permanent bonds because they each think the other is part of their family. The geese then protect the ducklings from predators by herding them into a group.
“If a hawk or any type of predator tries to come after them they’ll give a warning call, the ducks will come running, the geese circle around them and will protect them,” Calhoun said.
Turkeys also contribute to the protection of the ducks because their superior hearing and eyesight mean they can see predators coming much sooner than the geese can. “The turkeys are what we call our long range radar warning system for the birds. So the turkey sounds off and then the geese sound off and then the ducks come running,” said Calhoun.
The Large Black and Tamworth hogs on the farm clear overgrown areas of the property for future orchards, and consume any food waste left over from the cider making process. The Belted Galloway cattle also contribute by keeping the grass mowed by grazing its open pastures and wooded areas.
The cider works also includes an educational outreach program for schools, camps, and clubs interested in learning about sustainable farming practices. Their education specialist and special education teacher of 37 years, Pam Brown, has developed activities and demonstrations that enforce student Standards of Learning for each grade level that visits the farm.
“Every time you get a successful harvest or somebody says they really like your product or somebody has a big smile when we bring 57 little four-year-olds for preschool for a farm tour, you realize just how having a facility like this open to the public can help keep the traditions of farm life and what it takes to put food on the table, up there and visible for the next generation,” Calhoun said.
Ditchley Cider Works sells free-range, grass fed beef steaks, roasts, ground beef, and special cuts through their Meat Club, which also offers pork roasts, pork chops, artisan sausages, and bacon. Turkeys, geese and duck eggs, are also seasonally available for purchase. The cider works does not currently have regular visiting hours, but members of their meat and cider clubs are kept informed on their open house dates and gain access to their special events.
Ditchley is one of the Northern Neck’s most historic plantations, and was granted by the royal governor of Virginia to the colony’s attorney general, Col. Richard Lee, in 1659.
The property became a plantation when it was inherited by Lee’s son, Hancock, who built the first plantation house on Ditchley in 1688. Hancock lived in that house with his first wife, who was the daughter of the speaker of the House of Burgesses, Mary Kendall, and later with his second wife who was a descendant of William Brewster, leader of the Plymouth colony. After Hancock died, the plantation was left to his son Richard Lee II, who was the first to call the property Ditchley, after the seat of the Earl of Litchfield in Oxfordshire whom Lee mistakenly thought he was related.
The main portion of the Ditchley Manor, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places, was constructed by Richard II’s son, Kendall Lee, in 1762. Then, in 1789, Kendall’s son William sold the property to his nephew James Ball. The property briefly returned to the Lee family in 1920 when it was sold to one of their descendants, Cora Lee Carter Keane. A little over a decade later, Keane’s heirs sold the house and 63 acres of the property to Alfred duPont and his wife, Jessie Ball duPont.
Jessie Ball duPont, a noted philanthropist and teacher from the Northern Neck, undertook an extensive restoration of the house and grounds. She extended the house to include a kitchen and butler’s pantry, added four indoor bathrooms, and constructed a caretaker’s house for her staff and servants.
At the time of her death, Jessie Ball duPont’s personal fortune totaled over $50 million dollars, which was used to establish the Jessie Ball duPont Religious, Charitable, and Educational Fund. The fund owned the Ditchley property until 2014, when it was purchased by Cathy Calhoun and Paul Grosklags.
Upcoming Events at Ditchley
Ditchley Cider Works sells their products at farmers markets or during large seasonal events that they host on their property.
In order to attend events hosted by Ditchley, customers have to first join their cider or meat clubs so they can be updated on where the business will be selling its products outside the farm, and to gain access to the events that are periodically hosted at Ditchley.
Through October, Ditchley Cider Works will offer tastings and growler refills from 8 a.m.-noon on Saturdays at the Williamsburg Farmers Market in Colonial Williamsburg’s Merchants Square. They will also sell bacon, sausage, and a limited number of duck eggs at the market.
Ditchley also plans to partner with Dug In Farms to hold tastings and fill up growlers at the produce stand at 155 Fleets Bay Road, White Stone.
On Saturday, October 19, members of the Ditchley cider and meat clubs can visit the cider works for an open house from 3-6:30 p.m. Visitors will have a chance to taste ciders, fill up growlers, and explore the grounds of the farm during this event. Beef, pork and artisan sausages also will be available to sample and purchase at the open house.
On Saturday, November 23, Ditchley Cider Works will be among the vendors participating in Taste by the Bay at the Tides Inn in Irvington. Sponsored by the Lancaster by the Bay Chamber of Commerce, Taste by the Bay also offers wine, craft beer and restaurant tastings, art, music and other vendors. Purchase tickets at tastebythebay.com.
Customers interested in joining Ditchley Cider Works’ meat or cider clubs can join by visiting ditchleyciderworks.com.