From Farm to Your Hands: Farm Tours in Charlottesville and Beyond
Saturday mornings at the City Market in Charlottesville are a maze of grass fed meats, hand picked vegetables, and carefully crafted goods. Each local farmer has their own way of enticing you towards crates of rustic root vegetables, field greens, and free-range eggs. It’s easy to be attracted to the array of vibrant colors and a smell perfectly summed up in the word fresh. After listening to a well-prepared introduction from the young farmer behind a well decorated stand and having a laugh or two, I was still left wanting more from my food buying experience. I was searching for a closer relationship with my food and I wanted to understand the connection between the produce at the City Market and the farmers in their natural habitat. Is there a way to link urban dwellers with local farms? It turns out, I wasn’t the only one asking this question.
Market Central responded to the demand of locals and visitors alike by creating the annual Meet Yer Eats Farm Tour. Participants have the opportunity to customize their own experience with 21 local farms to tour. This allows farms the opportunity to show how they contribute to the local food system. Each farm has their own unique way of making a sustainable impact on the production of their goods. On Labor Day, farmers invite those who are curious about the origins of their produce straight to the source to participate in guided farm tours, interactive workshops, and of course tasty eats for purchase along the way. With Meet Yer Eats in the sixth year of their annual Labor Day farm tours, there is clearly a high demand from foodies in Charlottesville and surrounding areas to finally have a hands-on experience at their local farms. If you are wondering “what to do in Charlottesville?”, a farm tour may be what you’re are looking for.
Some farms have taken a personal interest in bringing folks out to where it all happens. Bellair Farm CSA has made it their goal to connect people to the lush landscape of over fifty varieties of plants, flowers, and fruits that they grow every year. A beautiful historic property dating back to the early 1800s, Bellair Farm is carrying on the tradition of being a working farm through their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), allowing people to buy a “share” of each season and pick up weekly selections of seasonal offerings. Ms. Cynnie Davis is adding to the rich history of Bellair Farm with its impact on the local food web of Charlottesville. Around town you will find the Bellair Farm name accented on menus and their vegetables, eggs, and fruit gracing the table at a variety of local eateries and restaurants around town. Being physically present on the farm has such a captivating aura that is worth the ride down the scenic back roads for a day out on the farm. Turning onto the dusty gravel road, the red tin roof of the barn instantly gives a rustic feel to the farming experience. Picnic blankets sprawled out over the green grass, little one’s eyes following on the laying hens and bunnies, while the pick-your-own fields are loaded with an assortment of flowers, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, flowers, green beans, and herbs, all make for a perfect afternoon. Old friends find one another again searching through a large crate of winter squash, while new friends are made with a helping hand for a hard-to-reach ripe tomato on the other size of the row. Bellair Farm defines community with its inviting comfort and generous hospitality. Jamie Barrett, the CSA Manager, operates Bellair with a philosophy of strict organic guidelines in order to produce the highest quality of fruits and vegetables while maintaining sustainable methods. The farm should be receiving organic certification this year after completing the required 3 year waiting process. Bellair Farm goes far beyond the demand to provide the community with a local source of produce. They have committed themselves to educating members about the world of sustainable foods by hosting workshops for aspiring farmers. It is clear to see why folks love to spend an afternoon at Bellair Farm!
Loving Cup Vineyard and Winery share many of the same sustainable philosophies as Bellair Farm. Loving Cup is the only winery in Virginia that is Certified Organic, a lofty achievement that required going back to the basics of farming to achieve. In 2007, Karl Hambsch brought to life an idea of transforming their small family fruit plot into a fully functional, commercially viable vineyard. The farm, sitting in the rural foothills of the Blue Ridge, is a pristine canvas for a picturesque planting. Carrying out the task of being organically conscious is one that Karl Hambsch has taken on with a dedicated commitment. Loving Cup specifically identifies hybrid grapes that are resistant to common diseases and respond well to a climate that is not known for being organically friendly. Despite the strenuous work, Mr. Hambsch and his crew have succeeded in producing quality sustainable wine that creates more consumer options in an already vibrant wine region. Their current crop consists of three varieties of white wine grapes and two of red wine grapes, with more varieties on the horizon. Loving Cup’s conscious effort in the holistic understanding of the agricultural processes has caught the attention of the vast organic community in Charlottesville. Their tasting room is fitting for a lazy late Saturday afternoon; lounging on their spacious wrap-around porch. The porch allows a prime view of the vineyard with a backdrop almost meant for appreciating sunsets. It’s worth stopping at Loving Cup even for the view alone!
There is another fruit orchard making some noise around Charlottesville: specifically, the crisp sound of apples being pressed into delicious hard cider. Albemarle Ciderworks and Vintage Virginia Apples believes that the craft of making cider is resurging and I could not agree more. In the heart of historic Virginia is an 80-acre farm nestled in the mountains. There an apple orchard stands brimming with heirloom vintage Virginia apples of every conceivable type. That which once was a hobby has quickly turned into over 250 varieties of apples for the Shelton Family, which does not even include the various varieties of peaches and pears grown in North Garden, VA. This orchard has catered to the taste of Virginians since the first tree was planted in the mid-1990s. In n 2009, the Shelton’s began building one of only eight modern cideries in Virginia to date. The Albemarle Ciderworks tasting room is comfortable and casual, and preserves the warm country rusticity that accompanies the cider so well. The selection of ciders offered has grown since their initial three offerings. The cider makers at Albemarle Ciderworks are constantly experimenting with different blends, and are now serving eight dry varieties in their tasting room. Though the craft cider is reason enough to stop in, there are events, festivals, local musicians, and workshops that may persuade you to stay awhile. The tasting room hosts a range of classes on topics such as grafting, biological orcharding, and pruning. With plenty of musical talent in the Charlottesville area, local live players await tasters most weekends. Yet, the jewel of Albemarle Ciderworks events is the Apple Harvest Festival. For one day, fruit lovers come to indulge in all things apple. From sampling apple butter to watching a pressing demo, the festival is packed with a day full of fun and delicious activities. Along with music, food vendors, crafts, and cidery tours, there is even an Apple Pie Contest. With the cidery preparing for its 15th annual Apple Harvest Festival, it is sure to become a mainstay in and around the Charlottesville region. There are so many reasons to visit Albemarle Ciderworks and Vintage Virginia Apples but none may be more satisfying than the taste of a freshly picked ripe apple right off of the tree.
Farm tours across the country are making a big splash into the organic community and are growing in popularity. From the organic fields of the Northwest to local artisan cheeseries in the Northeast, farms are taking advantage of the opportunity to introduce their work to visitors. The scenic byways south of Charlottesville offer a bushel of options for fresh vegetables, organic winemaking and a cidery that is reviving an old staple. A Charlottesville area farm tour is sure to be a delightful day full of adventure. Being able to touch the dirt from where your food comes from is an exciting new concept that has created a closer relationship between the farmer and those who believe in supporting the rich local culture that surrounds Charlottesville. This is a culture that opens up the opportunity to go beyond the market and into the origin of the fruits and vegetables on display. Despite the makings of a majestic weekend, finding local farms to tour and creating a schedule that highlights the optimal time to visit can be complicated and time consuming. Let us take the boring work out of planning a great local farm tour so that you can spend time appreciating the hard work of our growers and producers. The only decisions you’ll have to make whether to try a red or green apple first. (Hint: either way, you’re in for a treat!)