As agri-tourism grows across Virginia, a regional effort in the Shenandoah Valley is promoting the region’s abundance of homegrown products and services. The state’s first “farm trail,” Fields of Gold connects the public to growers, ranchers and producers and aims to boost economic activity for these small businesses. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
Marrying tourism and agriculture in the Shenandoah Valley is a natural fit, says Tracey Coltain.
Tracey Coltrain: People are become more and more aware of how important it is to know where your food comes and know your farmers.
Coltrain is the agritourism coordinator for Fields of Gold, an initiative launched by the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission. So far, they have about 190 members on the farm trail, from sites that offer tours and hands-on experiences, to farm stands and markets that sell locally produced goods.
Coltrain: We have farm to table restaurants; we have farm lodging - you can go and spend the night in a barn; we have horseback riding; we have lavender picking in addition to pick your own fruits and veggies and the eggs and meats and things that tend to be more traditional.
Fields of Gold brings these local businesses together in an interactive website that helps visitors discover them and then customize trips based on interests or location. Broadview Ranch, a bit south of Lexington is one site on the trail where you can buy directly from the farmer. On this 2000 acre family farm, Carol Atwood continues five generations of ranching.
Carol Atwood: Part of our mission here is also be able to connect people back to the land as well as to grow good food and have a family project and improve our farm.
Broadview uses natural, sustainable practices that treat the land and the animals with respect. The cattle, American Red Devon and Angus are grass fed, moved to a different area to graze every few days. The free range chickens also have a healthy diet: no GMOs or chemicals in their feed and they’re also moved to fresh grass every couple days.
Atwood: So a good percentage of their diet would be the bugs and the grass.
Atwood: It’s a much more natural system. They’re out in woods, they have shelter, food and water but they live outside. Most pork, commercially raised pork, never sets foot on a piece of ground and we’ve gotten piglets from them and to see them set their feet on the grass for first time, they just run and jump and play. So this is just a much more natural system. They exercise, being outside and walking around, we give them plenty of room and they’re socially better off. They get to be pigs.
Broadview has given tours to people from more than 40 countries, from Guyana to Bhutan to Bolivia. And the historic farm, whose dude ranch inspired the 1950s TV show Spin and Marty, hosts natural horsemanship clinics and has miles of trails for horse owners to ride.
Wade’s Mill is another site on the Fields of Gold farm trail, located West of Raphine off the scenic Route 606.
Georgie Young: This is our wheat, it’s grown locally and delivered here...
Georgie and Jim Young bought the property from the Wade’s, a family who operated it for four generations. But it’s history goes back even further.
Georgie Young: It was built in 1746 by an Ulster Scotsmen named Joseph Kennedy and Mr. Kennedy was really, really smart. He was illiterate but he knew exactly what he was doing. He put the mill near a creek but not on it, which meant that you never had the problem with the creek flooding and taking out the mill. He did an indirect water source with a small dam about a half mile up and it came down in what’s called a mill race, just a run. It would have gone all the way across property in a long wood box to the wooden wheel, which would have been 13 feet high and it would have made the wheel go round.
The Young’s gave up their government jobs in DC and learned the techniques from miller Charlie Wade. They produce stone-ground white and wheat flour, white and yellow corn meal, polenta, whole grain rye, and buckwheat flour and sell directly to the public from a store on the first floor of the historic structure.
Jim Young: Georgie thinks that this might be the oldest continuously operating grist mill in United States. There are other mills that are older but they don’t run it commercially, they may periodically do demonstrations or do festivals. But this one operates continually and it’s been operating since 1746.
Matt Adams: My name is Matt Adams, I’m the chef and owner of the Red Hen restaurant here in Lexington, Virginia.
Diners at the Red Hen are served products from all over the region, ramps gathered by a local forager, greens from a local farm, quiche made from local eggs. One of tonight’s menu items, the Pork Duo, was made using products from both Wade’s and Broadview Ranch.
Adams: We work with a lot of different producers in the area. For the Pork Duo we worked with Broadview Ranch. They have cows and chickens and pork and their pork is Berkshire Cross. So we got some hams and we made a Toulouse style sausage which is a French sausage with garlic and red wine. We do all of sausages in house. And we braise pork to go with that and we did a classic charcuterie sauce… we served all that with Wade’s Mill grits with a little espelette which is a Basque region chili pepper. So we are trying to mix local southern and I’ve worked with a lot of French chefs so I have that influence as well.
Adams: I think we have a pretty good following here with people who appreciate local food. We try to get the best quality food that we can, so maybe that’s truffles out of Italy but there’s no reason for us to buy Italian proscuitto when there’s Edwardsville ham here that is out of this world. There’s no reason to buy vegetables that are coming out of Guatemala and California and Florida that are picked unripe and shipped across the United States in trucks when our greens are picked in the morning. Our salad greens are picked in the morning and delivered in the afternoon, you can’t get any fresher than that.
In addition to the Fields of Gold initiative, there are efforts across the state to promote agritourism. Virginia Cooperative Extension has been studying the financial impact, finding that it is benefiting farmers but alliances are important to draw more people to rural areas. The Extension helped bring people together for the state’s first agritourism conference earlier this year and they’re providing resources for farmers to help start or expand activities. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.