‘Mooving’ up in the agriculture industry, dairy science alumna thrives
“I’m very proud of Erin for all that she has accomplished and for the young woman she has grown to be,” said Erin Saacke’s grandfather, Professor Emeritus of dairy science Richard "Dick" Saacke.
Like many young animal lovers wish for at Christmas, 9-year-old Erin Saacke wanted a pony.
Her parents said no but had another proposition: How about a cow?
While not the sleek, muscular, and agile creature that Saacke desired, a cow would suffice, she decided.
“It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” she said.
Saacke, now 25, is a graduate of the dairy science program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech. The cows she cared for as a child and young adult are the reason she chose this educational journey, one that has allowed her to experience the many internships and diverse career opportunities that the dairy science program offers its students and graduates.
An agricultural entrepreneur, Saacke has worked on several farms, including a start-up creamery where she mastered the art of cheesemaking. Continuing a childhood hobby, she is also the owner of a small beef cattle operation.
With her continued success in the industry, her family continues to support her next steps. One Saacke family member, in particular, has especially enjoyed watching her thrive: her grandfather Richard "Dick" Saacke, a retired and beloved dairy science professor who served Virginia Tech for more than 40 years.
Dick Saacke, 90, has fond family memories, a long and rewarding career, and a herd of successful grandchildren, like Erin, who continue to make him proud, he said.
A family connection
One might expect that a dairy science professor and cheesemaker drew inspiration for such career paths from growing up on a dairy farm.
This wasn’t the case for either Saacke.
A native of Newark, New Jersey, Dick Saacke’s parents owned a grocery store where he worked as a young man.
Maybe it was the meat, the produce, or, perhaps the milk that stocked the store’s shelves, but something there sparked his interest in agriculture. He earned degrees in animal science from Rutgers University and Pennsylvania State University and joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 1965. He devoted his career to excellence in research, teaching, and mentoring graduate students in the field of bovine reproductive physiology and artificial insemination.
Dick Saacke “retired” in 2001 at age 70 but kept an office and offered consulting for several years after, explaining, “You don’t have to just walk off a cliff.”
He admits he doesn’t miss the grant writing or the long committee meetings.
“I miss the kids in the class, the research, and the engagement with my colleagues more than anything,” he said.
Dick Saacke and his wife of almost 68 years, Ann, live in the same house they bought when they moved to Blacksburg in the mid-'60s. They’ve watched generations of students, including their children and grandchildren, walk across the Drillfield and the commencement stage.
Four of their five children are alumni. Each is married with a combined 13 children.
“I was in reproductive biology, which is kind of coincidental, you know?” he joked. “You can imagine the conversations we had around the dinner table on that topic.”
Of his 13 grandchildren, the only one to follow in their grandfather’s dairy science footsteps was his granddaughter Erin.
Coming full circle
Erin Saacke grew up on the outskirts of Richmond.
Between her legendary grandfather and her father, Ron Saacke, an agribusiness major and current director of the Virginia Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ag in the Classroom programs, she knew early on that agriculture would be a significant part of her future.
Exactly how significant became clear through a fascination with cows.
After her horse request was rejected, Ron Saacke suggested she work with cows to grasp the responsibility it takes to care for another living being. Coming from a business background, he wanted his daughter to understand that owning an animal is as much a financial commitment as it is a cute and cuddly pet.
So each summer, she borrowed a dairy heifer from a neighboring farm to get ready to show at the county fair. She worked to tame each heifer by haltering, brushing, and walking it. Other responsibilities included feeding, washing, and cleaning manure from their pens. These daily tasks built her work ethic, she said.
She found guidance and camaraderie in a local 4-H livestock club. She later learned to breed cattle through her first college internship. More skilled and confident in the craft — and with a little saved money in her pocket — she eventually bought her very first cow, a red and white dairy heifer named Hokie.
Her passion only grew from there.
With financial assistance from a loan from the Farm Service Agency, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she started a small beef cattle operation in her sophomore year of high school. She still owns the business, which has grown over the last 10 years to about 15 head.
The herd and the hard work they required solidified Erin Saacke’s decision to major in dairy science at the college level.
“At the end of the day, it was so rewarding,” she said.
And what better place to study than the university she had known all of her life.
Saacke possesses photos of her and her grandfather at the former dairy and cow fields across from today’s Virginia Tech baseball stadium. Her favorite photos include one of her grandfather with one of his bulls and another of her and her younger brother playing with calves.
She called the College of Agriculture and Life Science’s dairy science program both challenging and rewarding.
“From farm finance to management, working with professors and classmates, to different kinds of animals, it was such a well-rounded curriculum. It has helped me in every aspect of my life,” she said.
It was also intimidating knowing the reputation that the “Saacke” name carried, she admitted. One semester, she took the infamous course that her grandfather once taught: Physiology of Livestock Reproduction.
“I didn’t do as well as he probably would have liked,” she joked.
Beyond the classroom, she ate up every opportunity presented, she said. A highlight was her participation in the Dairy Challenge, an intercollegiate competition for students representing dairy science programs at North American universities. Established in 2002, the Virginia Tech team has placed at the top of the tournament for the past two decades.
She also took advantage of several internship opportunities. She held one each summer during college. One of the most influential was on a large dairy farm, where she made a connection that would open the door to a life-changing opportunity.
A ‘gouda’ experience on the farm
Saacke graduated from Virginia Tech in 2018 and her persistence — and connections through the dairy science program — paid off.
“My professors and mentors have been so supportive of me throughout this journey,” she said. “I was in the right place, at the right time.”
Upon graduation, the owner of a former 600-plus dairy operation reached out to Saacke with an exciting yet obscure job opportunity.
The established winery, Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, Virginia, was expanding to include a start-up creamery, Locksley Farmstead Cheese. He was going to lead the farm effort there and the company was looking for someone with interest and experience in dairy.
“He asked me, ‘What are you doing after graduation?’" Saacke said. “Although I didn’t know much about the creamery business, I knew enough about milk and the cows through my dairy science education and thought this would be a perfect fit for me to continue to learn and grow in the industry.”
Saacke said ‘yes’ and moved to Northern Virginia near the farm.
There, she learned first-hand, from a cheesemaking consultant of more than 15 years, the art of cheesemaking. It was not long before she was perfecting their 10 recipes. Saacke also learned that she enjoyed the sales and marketing aspect of the business, connecting shops and restaurants with the artisan cheeses.
“It was an awesome experience and exciting to see the value-added side of agriculture,” Saacke said.
At a crossroads with her career, she decided to step away from the cheese business and move back to the mountains and closer to someone very dear to her: Dick Saacke.
Back to her roots
Erin Saacke is now a sales manager for Homestead Creamery, a Virginia-based business that stocks freezers and shelves nationwide with fresh milk and ice cream. She’s also maintaining her growing herd of cattle – several calves were born this spring.
As she continues to grow and succeed in her career, her grandfather is rooting for her back in Blacksburg.
Whenever she’s in town, especially if a nice steak is on the menu, Erin Saacke will visit her grandparents and share in her latest endeavors.
“It’s special to be back so close to them,” she said. “I always enjoy sitting around the table talking with Grandpa. He always has such great stories from his experiences in the dairy industry. It’s nice to have those memories.”
Among the collection of memories Dick Saacke cherishes is a copy of an article written about Erin Saacke and her involvement with the Locksley Farmstead Cheese. He scanned it and shared it through an email.
“Yes, I’m very proud of Erin for all that she has accomplished and for the young woman she has grown to be,” he said.
Written by Mary Hardbarger