Touring WNC’s Family Farms – How To Do It Without Leaving the City

This past weekend (June 26th and 27th), my mother and I participated in the 2010 Family Farm Tour organized through the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP). The annual tour presented 37 farms (actually only 36 because one we went to had a sign out saying they could not participate) all over Western NC, in 6 counties. Tour times were between 1-6 pm Saturday and Sunday.

It was sunny and HOT both days, but the people at every farm were gracious and friendly. When we thought to ask how they thought the numbers compared to 2009, everyone indicated that more people were coming in 2010 so that is a positive sign that this event is growing. YAY!

On Saturday, we started off at Round Mountain Creamery in Black Mountain. I wanted to go to a goat farm since I fell in love with goat cheese after trying it and loving it on a trip to Ireland with my mom in 2009. We received a comprehensive and fun tour of the machinery and processes of this Grade A operation, including visiting with the goats. There are over 300 goats on the farm and there is a complex system of separating the goats based on age, health, milking output, gender, etc. We were allowed to get up close and personal with the baby goats and I decided that one day, I’d love to have a couple as pets (maybe pygmy goats – not the kind at this farm – since they are miniature goats). I was quite impressed with the cleanliness of this place, given the amount of barnyard animals, but I guess that’s why they are certified as Grade A and must be inspected regularly and maintain mountains of paperwork. At the end of the tour, we sampled at least 6 different flavors of goat cheese and I had my first taste of goat’s milk. I loved it all! Goat’s milk is not heavy like whole cow’s milk which I think is too thick (I drink 2%, 1% or skim). The goat’s milk is close to 2% and just right. At this point, we found out that Round Mountain has just started selling their cheeses in EarthFare which was very exciting for us since there is an EarthFare just a couple of miles from the Inn. I believe they also sell as one or more of the Asheville-area tailgate markets which is great for anyone not wanting to travel far to purchase some of their products.

The second stop of our journey was the Wake Robin Farm all the way up in Marshall (I probably picked one of the farms furthest from where we were coming from). But, I wanted to visit this farm since they make brick oven-baked breads, cinnamon rolls, granola, and gluten-free products. Plus, we thought that this would be a good place to eat since we had purchased goat cheese and milk and, other than crackers, what better companion to cheese, than bread? After driving through rural countryside and winding roads, we started down the gravel driveway towards the farm, but quickly realized that the driveway was long, winding and not conducive to a parade of cars driving in both directions. There was literally no place for cars to move over for oncoming traffic (the driveway was a good 1/2 mile long) so going in and coming out, we (or other cars) were forced to back up all the way out of the driveway to allow cars to get through. This difficulty made the getting in and out frustrating and somewhat ruined the experience.  My mother felt that this farm with its access issue should not be on the tour for the simple reason that it was quite difficult to get in and out and once in, there was very little parking room for cars and people could easily get blocked in.  However, the bread was delicious and they also sell their products at some of the Asheville-area tailgate markets.

After leaving Wake Robin Farm, we stayed in Marshall and headed to the Bee Tree Farm and Vineyard. By the time we got there, it was almost 5:30 (tours ended at 6:00) so we didn’t want to stay too long. There was no real tour of anything and my mother thinks the farm is more of a commune with a yurt and tipis. The farm does make fruit-flavored wines, tomato and pesto sauces (good on some of the bread we bought), and fruit preserves. Since I don’t drink wine, I wasn’t interested in buying any, but I did try some strawberry wine (too winey for me and I didn’t taste any fruit at all). We did buy some tomato sauce and saw berry bushes and the small vineyard on the way down the driveway toward the parking area.

So, on day one, we were able to visit only 3 farms. It probably could have been more had I planned better, but I had no idea how long it would take at each place. I definitely planned better for day two.

On Sunday, we chose farms that were closer in proximity to each other, and thus, we were able to see 3 farms in half the time it took on day one. We started out at Holler Ministries in Fletcher. I wanted to visit this farm because they offer egg/chicken shares for purchase. The farm is close to the Inn and I was excited to see that I could purchase a share of organic, grass-fed chicken eggs. A share is a dozen eggs a week and it’s possible to purchase chickens from the farm in the future if I decide to keep egg-laying chickens at the Inn. The Ministry also runs a summer Christian youth mission camp and they have an African-style village set up for the camp. This camp is training for service in Third World countries. Our tour provided us with a better understanding of how an African Village is set up. It really puts things into perspective for those of us in modernized countries. Holler Ministries also operates a community garden and they donate extras to local people in need. This particular farm was started in the 1930s by the current owner’s grandfather and we got to see a couple of buildings that his grandfather built by hand 80 years ago. It was nice to see this property still operating by the same family.

After leaving Holler Ministries, we traveled to McConnell Farms in Hendersonville. This farm has just about everything you can think of from fruits and vegetables to nursery plants. It’s a huge operation and they sell to various Asheville-area tailgate markets as well as onsite at their own retail place. The memorable part of this farm is the fresh-made ice cream! Of course we had some and it was so delicious and creamy. I ate some blackberry chip ice cream and Mom had old-fashioned strawberry ice cream. Here, my mother was talking to the owner about fig trees since they grow them, but he actually referred her to another grower whose trees (Celeste) would probably do better where we live. At about this time, we could see a storm coming so we jumped in the car and headed to Stepp’s Plants.

Stepp’s Plants is located in Flat Rock and along with plants and flowers, they also grow fruits. There were no nursery plants available because they sell 80% annuals and their season is in the spring time. We went on a short tour of their crop fields where we could see raspberries just about ready to harvest and blueberry bushes. While here, it did start raining so it turned into a short visit. We did find out that they participate in Hendersonville’s Garden Jubilee in the spring which we have attended so we’ll be sure to check them out next year.

After leaving Stepp’s we headed over to Fields of Gold Farm in west Hendersonville, but they were closed. So, we decided to end our tour at this point and headed back home, stopping at my favorite sushi restaurant, Umi, in Hendersonville for a late lunch.

The one farm I did not get to visit was the Maple Creek Farm in Burnsville (about an hour from the Inn).  Maple Creek Farm is the only commercial maple syrup producer in NC. Hopefully, I can find some of their products at a tailgate market. There are several tailgate markets around Asheville, in addition to the WNC Farmers Market. The closest to the Inn is the Asheville City Market – South which is approximately 3 miles away. Some of the farmers on the Farm Tour probably sell their goods at this or any of the other dozen tailgate markets around the city and Buncombe county.

So, for $25, my mother and I spent some fun bonding time while exploring the mountains and farms of Western NC, learning about the bountiful foods, plants, and animals that contribute to the surrounding communities. I am thrilled to have been a part of the tour because I got so much more out of the experience than just the tour itself. To see what is going on around this part of the state makes me proud to live here and I plan to continue doing my part to help sustain the way of life provided by WNC farmers. So for anyone who wants to support the local farmers without driving all over the place, just visit one of the local farmers markets and “take the tour” there. You’ll be glad you did.

To learn more about WNC’s ASAP initiative, visit: www.asapconnections.org. Or, to find farms and take your own tours or for a listing of tailgate markets and hours, go to www.BuyAppalachian.org.

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