Driving around, it’s easy to see the agricultural activity that surrounds us in Jefferson County, but it often seems at a distance. Of the 210 square miles that make up the County, about half of that land, 66,000 acres, is classified as farm-use. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture published by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are over 600 farms in the county. Almost half of these farms are commercial operations larger than 50 acres and many of the smaller farms produce for market also — part of a robust network of small businesses that contribute to the agricultural economy and cultural identity of the county. As part of a planned series of articles looking at the activities that have defined Jefferson County across several centuries, The Observer recently visited one of these operations — the Blue Spruce Farm in Kearneysville WV.
Blue Spruce Farm
Amanda Morro got hitched on horses early in life. Recalling her childhood growing up in England, living in Caversham, a village to the west of London and across the Thames River from Reading, she said her father was an administrator at a nearby facility (still in operation) for disabled children that features horses as part of its program. She got to see the boarding and riding school operations up close and talked her mother into buying her a riding pony when she was 13. It was just a hobby she shared with her best friend, but she did find part time work at a local stable. Eventually she went off to University and started an office career, but it was the horses that were always on her mind.
In 1990 Morro found herself in Northern Virginia and gravitated towards the race track in Charles Town. At first she just picked up work as an exercise rider, but soon she found her life revolving around horses again. She was eager to help out when anyone asked her to fill in as an extra hand, especially with foaling. Eventually she became known in the community as a go-to midwife for horses. By that time, she was living in Jefferson County near Charles Town. Word-of-mouth connections in the local horse community brought her together with a local farm owner who wanted someone to run operations on his property.
By the middle of 2017, Morro had been running her boarding and foaling business at that same farm for twenty years and had a solid team. She oversaw foaling operations while Stevie Craig, John Berry and Issac Barhona ran the boarding and training operations with help from a network of regular part time help. Then the farm was sold and she had three months to decide on a plan. Morro recalled, “I heard about Blue Spruce Farm in Kearneysville through the community. It was a great facility for horses, but very overgrown. The barns were well built, but everything was full of stuff. It would take a lot of work to get it in shape, but when I spoke with my team we realized it was either this or we quit the business. And that’s the thing, we’re a team. And we had a lot of help to put it back together. It was important that the owners wanted to keep it as a working farm too.” Today, looking across the multiple paddocks and the arrow-straight fences and into the well-ordered barns, it’s hard to picture the scene of three years ago that Morro describes, but her vision certainly shines through what the entire facility has become today.
Morro noted there are several other large breeding farms in the county, but she describes Blue Spruce Farm as the only facility in the Eastern Panhandle to operate both foaling and breaking at this scale. She points out that she has a lot of flexibility with the size of her current facility and the extensive network of veterinarians, hospitals and other support services nearby: “There are people we can call on to help out on a part time basis. We can buy local at Gowers Feed and also source all of our hay and straw from within the county. It’s something I thought about when we were deciding to continue, would I let all of these people down if we stopped.”
Morro describes herself as being “very fussy, a perfectionist. I like to see a happy horse, especially when they are in the field grazing and enjoying life. It gives you a sense of pride when you see it done the right way.” She also noted, “I’m very careful about the owners I work with too. A big part of responsible horse ownership is being able to afford the proper care and training. I know my owners take a lot of pride in their animals and I know where these horses come from. About half of the brood mares are from West Virginia, a quarter are from Maryland and a quarter are from Kentucky. We currently have 60 mares foaling a year, about half who board here and half who ship in to foal and wean.”
Describing the foaling process, Morro said, “we can take a mare two months before she is ready to foal, but we also have mares that arrive just before. After the foaling, we can keep the foals with their mares through the suckling period or we can send them back to their home farms. For the horses that board here, we typically wean between 6 and 12 months. I don’t like to wean too early, it’s less stressful. That’s also the time when we teach the babies to lead. Typically we’ll bring in a pair of mares and foals into the corral next to the barn for a few days before we separate them. So it will take us several weeks to wean each season’s group.”
“Once we wean,” Morro continued, “we’ll turn the colts and fillies into the field to play until the next year. Basically to just enjoy being a horse. The following summer, we’ll work with the yearlings to re-school them in a harness. If they are big enough by then, we’ll put on the tack [a saddle and other harness equipment] and teach them to drive. You need to be in tune with each horse. You work differently with a January baby than you do with a May baby. By the second year we are riding them for exercise. At that point, it’s the owner’s decision on when to take them to the track for training.”
Asked about her plans, she responded, “I believe all of us have a purpose, mine is to take care of lives, these horses. I get a little more cautious as I get older, we all do. It would be nice if we could find someone younger to bring into the program, but for now I try not to worry about the future.” A bit earlier she had described her own path: “It wasn’t something I planned, but it did fall into place.” She noted also the passion she sees in the horse business: “When you own a racehorse, it’s years of preparation to build up to a two-minute event. But the feelings you get when your horse races is worth it. It’s why we do this.”By Steve Pearson