Stop By The Farm
Visiting Farms In Western North Carolina
If too many of your vacations have involved crowds, traffic, billboards, and dubious souvenirs, farm tourism will be a welcome change of pace. When you tour farms, winding down dirt roads to get to your destination is part of the fun. Rural landscapes and remote locations are restful and inspiring. And when you return home, it will be with an abundance of artisanal foods, as well as a new understanding of how food is grown.
Western North Carolina’s biggest farm tourism event of the year is The Family Farm Tour, organized by the nonprofit organization Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. The tour is your invitation to visit 38 farms and gardens throughout six counties, ranging from century farms cultivated by the same family for generations, to certified organic farms, to urban gardens.
There are over 12,000 farms in the region, and dozens of them also welcome visitors throughout the year. Go to ASAP’s Local Food Guide for farms to visit. After you read about the small sampling of farms I visited – all of which are both on the Family Farm Tour and open to the public at other times, too – I hope you’ll be inspired to chart your own farm tour course.
Like many travelers in the area, I began in Asheville. Gladheart Farms, a Certified Organic farm, is located within the city limits of Asheville on property formerly slated for development. Owner Michael Porterfield purchased the land because he wanted to return it to agricultural use, and grow produce as close to his downtown customers as possible. I saw Michael running his tractor on biodiesel he makes himself, and toured the greenhouse and fields. I also bought a bundle of beautiful, crisp radishes (and barely resisted a fresh baked pie) at the farm stand.
Continuing on I-240 East, I headed to the outskirts of town, to the community of Fairview where cluster of family farms are located. Hickory Nut Gap Farm, a 90 acre, fourth generation family farm now run by Jamie and Amy Ager, is one of the best known farms in Western North Carolina. In fall, Hickory Nut Gap’s orchard, corn maze, and pumpkin patch may be filled with school children. But on the summer day when I stopped in, I only shared the farm with grazing cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens. I added summer sausage from the farm store to my lunch and took advantage of the picnic area.
Fewer than ten minutes away at Highlander Farm, Nick and Susan Nichols raise sheep and chickens. Call in advance, and they may demonstrate how to herd sheep with border collies. The dogs circle the sheep with heads lowered, moving in closer and urging the flock in the direction of their owners’ calls. I also visited the hoop house where the Nichol’s hens nest, and purchased eggs. In the evening, cooking the eggs, I saw evidence of the benefits of small, family farms I’d visited. The free range, pasture raised chickens’ natural diet produced rich, almost orange yolks.
The next day, I traveled north, over the Buncombe County line to Spinning Spider Creamery in Madison County. Make an appointment and you can watch owner Chris Owen herding goats down from the hill pasture, milking, and the process of piping milk through the facility and readying it for cheese making. An assortment of gleaming white shapes - racks of moulded chevre - stood draining on steel racks in the cool gleaming kitchen. Outside in the warm, bustling farm yard, Spinning Spider’s friendly herd welcomed my attention.
One mile down East Fork Road in the other direction is East Fork Farm. At East Fork, Stephen and Dawn Robertson raise lamb, chicken, and rabbits. Sheep grazed and new lambs skipped, sometimes tripping over their own long legs, in some pastures. Other pastures grew thick, green, and tall, benefiting from the farm’s rotational grazing practices. Stephen showed me a vacation cabin under construction. (If you visit, you may want to check and see if the cabin is ready to rent.)
Travel farther into Madison County on I-26, almost to the Tennessee line, and follow a small dirt road overhung with laurel to Philosophy Farm. The farm produces Angora goats and Cotswald sheep, which are guarded by Bear, the llama who greeted me when I arrived. There are also many vegetable, herb, and flower gardens at the farm. I browsed the raised beds learning about the plants and their properties from carefully hand painted signs. Owners Krys and Steve Krimi say this farm’s “primary product is beauty.” They’ve dotted their cove with handmade, rustic shrines. Inspired by their travels in India and Ireland, the shrines mark the spring that provides their water, the glade where cattle give birth, and other meaningful places, prompting me to reflect on the value of the farmlands I’d seen.
More than enough farms for a day of touring are also located in Yancey County, adjoining Madison County. Firefly Farm, near Celo, is set on scenic land protected by conservation easements. Owners Scott Paquin and Elizabeth Gibbs will show you the many vegetables they grow organically, fruit trees they’ve recently planted, their flock of chickens, and their herd of grass fed Devon cattle—a heritage breed. They spoke with me about seed saving. (Rather than buying new seed for everything, they preserve seeds from some of the vegetables and fruits they grow to plant again another year.) I bought vegetables for a salad and enjoyed another picnic, on the banks of the South Toe River.
In the Burnsville area, Wellspring Farm is home to Jacob and Moorit Corriedale sheep, Angora rabbits, Angora goats, and llamas. Jacob sheep, with their unusual, curled horns are as exotic looking as they are useful, and Wellspring’s llamas, with their long necks, expressive faces, and social nature, are great fun to watch. Wellspring also produces eggs, honey, and berries, and wool products, and there’s a shop in the 1930s farm house. Try out the spinning wheel, or arrange for classes in wool processing, spinning, and felting with owner Elke Amenda-Spirakis. If you come on a farm day, you can watch Elke shear the llamas.
Also in Burnsville is Maple Creek Farm, comprised of 106 acres of working farm and forestland. Maple Creek is the only farm in North Carolina to produce maple syrup commercially. Farm managers Richard Sanders and Molly Nicholie, who are revitalizing the old farm, specialize in educational tours for groups. But they walked me through the garden where they grow vegetables to sell at tailgate markets, let me visit with livestock, and gave me sample of their special, Southern maple syrup. Hike high up the ridge of property, and you’ll see the farm “spreading like wings across the bottom of the valley,” as the farm’s owner, John Swann, puts it.
From a vantage point like this one, it’s clear that Western North Carolina’s working mountain farms, though they’re affordable and low key, are lofty destinations in their own right.
Plan ahead. Always call in advance to arrange for a farm tour—farms are busy places and there’s no guarantee the farmer will be available to give you tour. Many farms charge admission. Some only give tours to groups, so find out how many friends you need to bring, or visit with a school, church, or other group.
By Rose McLarney, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project
By Rose McLarney, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project
added: May 27, 2009
updated: April 3, 2012