By Frances Figart
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Thursday and several cars have just arrived in the parking lot of an Asheville grocer. The dozen or so people getting out range in age from early 20s to mid 80s. All are here with a common goal: to explore agritourism in the Asheville area.
Grinning from ear-to-ear, tour operator Ann D. Stauss greets our group and launches into a lively overview of the five-hour experience ahead, during which we will visit three working farms. We eagerly accept gift bags containing customized Asheville Farm to Table Tours water bottles and scope out the immaculate 12-passenger van with everything from snacks and umbrellas to first aid supplies and coolers for our purchases from farm stores.
Stauss couldn’t be more prepared if we were setting off on a week’s travel. But that’s not surprising given that her culinary and food service background took her to 18 countries throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia, where she delighted in diverse cultures and savored delicious foods. She has owned and operated a food truck, provided catering for film crews in the French Quarter, West Texas and the Louisiana swamps, performed food styling for still and film photography, and co-founded Chez Nous Charcuterie, New Orleans’ first carry-out cuisine and retail store.
Upon moving to Western North Carolina in 1999, the enterprising Stauss began to envision a fun adventure that could educate others about mountain foodways. “I realized that although the farm-to-table movement was vibrant in our area, there was little opportunity to experience this movement from farmer to seed to meal,” she says. “So I began reaching out to farmers to see if we could create a mutually beneficial situation.” Interviewing farmers and visiting their farms, she developed the concept and opened her tour company last May.
On Fridays at 10:30 a.m., the van departs Asheville for Flying Cloud Farm, Blue Ridge Mountain Creamery and Hickory Nut Gap Farm, all in Fairview. But today we are headed for East Fork Farm, Spinning Spider Creamery and The Farmer’s Hands, all of Madison County.
East Fork Farm
Dawn Robertson and her husband Stephen purchased the 40-acre East Fork Farm near Marshall in 1996. “Neither of us had much of a farming background so we hit the books, learning as we went and making tons of mistakes,” she recalls.
The couple now raises chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, pigs, sheep and cows on one of the cleanest working animal farms you’ll ever see. Over the course of 20 years, they’ve constructed fencing to be able to practice intense rotational grazing, built barns for baby chicks and installed a greenhouse with pasture access. “Each morning, we open the door to our greenhouse and the chickens and ducks roam the farm with no fencing,” Robertson says. “We close them in at night for their protection.”
Two years ago they added a picturesque working waterwheel and water-powered gristmill so they can grind heirloom non-GMO corn into cornmeal and grits in a gluten-free environment. Above the gristmill is a tiny apartment with a cedar soaker tub on its deck, one of three cozy rental cottages the farm provides for guests.
East Fork Farm animals are raised with non-GMO feed and are grass fed or pasture raised. Meat is processed on the farm each week for sale at the North Asheville Tailgate Market. Before we load up, members of our group purchase meats from the farm store.
Spinning Spider Creamery
Less than a mile away, our next stop is Spinning Spider Creamery, a quaint mountain property featuring one of the largest Franklin trees I’ve ever seen. Here we learn about the intricacies of the cheese making process from owner Chris Owen, who spends many waking hours inside a small, cool room devoted to artisan cheeses. Everyone is delighted to interact with some endearing goats.
The cheese tasting here allows us to try a handful of delectable varieties of aged cheese, fresh goat chevre and bloomy goat cheese. Like many of our group, I make a purchase: Though tempted by Pepperberry, featuring jalapenos and strawberry preserves, I end up with Stackhouse, an award-winning ashed rind.
“Our family mission is to maintain a lifestyle that incorporates the cycles of the seasons with our love of animals, our craft of cheese making and our family unity,” says Chris Owen, Spinning Spider’s owner along with her three children.
The Farmer’s Hand
By the time we reach The Farmer’s Hands just outside Mars Hill, we are ready to focus on food in a big way. Here, a three-gabled, pre-1900s farmhouse is home to Ariel Dixon-Zijp and Dutch-born Sebastiaan Zijp (pronounced Zipe), who honed his skills in some of New York City’s best restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern, Bar Blanc Bistro and Bouley.
After touring flower gardens, raised vegetable beds, chicken and duck coop, rabbit hutch, grape arbor and small-plot irrigated fields, we wander through the house—tastefully decorated with artwork, antiques and jars of the season’s produce—then settle at the long picnic table under a large tent.
“Ann’s tours are really great for us,” says Zijp. “A big part of what we do here at The Farmer’s Hands is share our experience and knowledge, and we love to show people that you are able to create an amazing homestead on a small piece of land.”
The couple also loves to share the food they grow here, and we are ready to devour tomato salad with Spinning Spider Feta, red cabbage slaw with Spinning Spider Garlic and Herb Chevre, roasted potatoes and garlic, corn bread from East Fork Farm, and lamb and beef meatballs in a fresh tomato sauce with basil.
Our enthusiasm is magnified when we taste the food that connects us to the farms we just visited. Stauss says she is most inspired when folks on tours gain “an in-depth understanding of where food really comes from. They will never see their grocery purchases the same way again!”
After a winter hiatus, tours resume later this month. Learn more at ashevillefarmtotabletours.com or by calling 828.606.9553. Look for Asheville Farm to Table tours on Facebook and Instagram.