Sometimes “life happens,” and at those pivotal moments we’re reminded of our roots as the past collides with the present to shape our future. That was the catalyst for Donna Alt of Brookedale Farm as she and her brother were faced with running the family farm when their father passed away. Her roots took hold; she came home. And today, Brookedale Farm is flourishing.
“I was born into dairy farming, and it just gets into your blood,” said Alt. “For us, the farm was my dad’s place, and it was the natural choice to help it survive.”
However, the family dairy farm has evolved. While her brother still runs that side of the operation, Alt and her family have diversified their side to include a 10,000 square foot greenhouse and have become a booming agritourism destination in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. They were one of the first adopters of a corn maze, and they added an event barn for weddings and other activities.
It’s grown from there. They change up the attractions they feature with the yearly corn maze and enhance the property for those photo ops that come with weddings, reunions and the like. Alt shared that this year they’re featuring floral gardens and arbors to provide beautiful backdrops for those who come to share their memories there.
“You always have to stay relevant and be a little bit different, especially if there are a lot of similar operations in the area,” said Alt.
One of the more notable things that Alt promotes is not only a venue for her community to use, but a broad educational opportunity for local kids to come in and learn through school field trips in the fall.
“We really enjoy the school tours in the fall, as it’s an opportunity to break up traditional classroom learning. We really want to help address a growing disparity about where kids think food comes from and the importance of agriculture in our society,” said Alt. “We usually work with Pre-K to third graders, but we also bring in fifth graders to learn about agriculture with lessons in forestry and soil science.”
West Virginia Extension Master Gardeners, a program provided through the West Virginia University Extension Service, came in and helped the classes learn about soil health and the importance of soil. In addition, Master Gardeners have taught classes in Alt’s greenhouse.
“WVU Extension Service has been really helpful,” said Alt. “From our local agent, Stacey Huffman, to state-level specialists, such as Mahfuz Rahman and Dee Singh-Knights, who helped address our questions about managing plant disease and running our agritourism business respectively, everyone has really helped support us.”
She added that her biggest advice to beginning female farmers is to take advantage of these types of educational resources and use them to improve and evolve the operation. Alt has previously participated in WVU Extension Service programs for females that want to grow or start a farming business, such as Annie’s Project.
“You can always improve on something and become more efficient in what you do,” said Alt. “Once I found my focus, we’ve grown so much, and I love what I do so much — I think that’s the key to life. You have to do something you truly enjoy. The drive and passion to make it happen will follow.”
Not bad advice from a computer science major who returned home to run the family farm — quite successfully.
You can keep up with what’s happening on the farm through their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/brookedalefarm/ .