Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Interview with Don Greene of Harvest Hosts

Kim and Don Greene recently started a website called Harvest Hosts. The site is based on a concept the Greenes brought to the US from Europe. The idea is to build a network of farms and wineries that agree to host RVers for free for up to 24 hours. RVers buy a membership to gain access to the network. Don Greene kindly agreed to answer some my questions. Here's our interview:

Q: Could you briefly explain the concept of Harvest Hosts?

A: Harvest Hosts is a new, fun way for RVers to get off the main track and visit new places in more rural environments. We have put together a list of farms, wineries and other agricultural producers (orchards, lavender farms, llama and animal ranches) that not only are RV friendly, but feel that the RV traffic is so important to them that they are willing to let members stay overnight just for making the effort to visit them.

These farms, wineries, etc are the Hosts for the evening. Members can stay for a maximum of 24 hours, unless members and Hosts work out a different agreement. We want to provide additional opportunities for RV owners to explore and enjoy the rural areas of America. Now, with Harvest Hosts, members can spend the night, parked for free, in the farmlands across the country, while supporting small mom & pop, family run operations.

There is no obligation to buy anything from the Hosts, but we hope that if the Host is offering something for sale that members like -- food, fresh fruit and/or vegetables or wine, that members will support them by making a purchase.

Q: What should farmers expect when hosting RVers? What should RVers expect when staying at a farm or winery?

A: All Harvest Hosts members agree to abide by our Code of Conduct. The Code is explained on the Harvest Hosts website, its basic point is that members will be “good neighbors” with the understanding that they are invited guests and that these overnight stops are not to be treated as a campground. The farmers also expect members to be traveling in self-contained vehicles – they are not providing water, electricity, sewer or trash.

The farmers hope that if you like something that they have for sale that you will support them with a purchase, but there is no obligation to do so. Farmers understand that every visitor can spread the word about their business and they are excited to have the RV community as customers.

Q: On your website, you say that you got the idea for Harvest Hosts while traveling in Europe. Could you say more about the European networks? Do you find them in most of the European countries?

A: France and Italy have the most expansive networks, while Spain and Switzerland have newer networks that are still be developed. Great Britain has a network offering overnight stops at Pubs.

France’s network, France Passion, is the granddaddy of the farm/winery stopover networks now in its 17th year with 1,400 farms and wineries participating.

Q: Why do you think the program has been so successful in France?

France has a motorhome/rv culture that matches and maybe even exceeds ours here in the USA. Per capita, I think that the French might even have more RVs than we do.

Q: What has been the reception to Harvest Hosts so far, with both Hosts and RVers?

We are very hopeful that Harvest Hosts will be a huge success here. The feedback that we are receiving from Hosts and members has been very favorable and very supportive. The biggest challenge is just getting the word out, since it is such a new concept in the US.

Thanks for the interview Don, and best of luck!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Oakland Green

In 1864, during the heat of the Civil War, Union soldiers burned 230 barns and eight mills in Loudoun County, in retaliation for Confederate raids. They slaughtered and drove off tens of thousands of farm animals, and destroyed tens of thousands of bushels of grain. As the county lies right on the edge between the North and the South, it was ferociously contested and a hotbed for conflict.

Sara Brown, whose family has lived at Oakland Green in Lincoln, VA for nine generations, has a desk chockfull of photos and letters that pieced together form a picture of the farm’s rich history. One of the family’s favorite stories tells why the farm’s pre-Civil War bank barn is still standing when almost all of the other barns in the county were burned. As Sara tells me – “and who knows if it’s true, but it makes a good story” – her ancestor William Brown was standing atop Oakland Green’s high point, counting fires from the barns burning on surrounding farms. William counted ten fires, then spotted a hawk swooping down on his chickens. He called for his son, Nathan, to come fast to shoot the hawk. Just as Nathan set off a couple of shots, two Union soldiers approached on the road with the intention of setting fire to Oakland Green’s barn. But when the Union soldiers heard the shots, they assumed Confederate soldiers were protecting the farm, and believing they were outnumbered they turned back.


Thanks to a combination of luck and care, Oakland Green’s barn – and the home and most of the outbuildings – are still standing today. The history of Oakland Green stretches back about 130 years before the Civil War, all the way to 1730, when Quaker farmer Richard Brown (sixth grandfathers ago for Sara) built the original log house. Subsequent generations built stone and brick additions, as well as the barn and other outbuildings. 

 The farm was passed father to son through the Brown family until the 1960s, when Sara’s Aunt Helen owned the farm, but had no children to take over. As Sara relates, “Helen’s sister was also an old maid, and they wrote these amazing letters to each other. I have letters that Helen wrote about taking calves to market, driving cattle for two days to get to Alexandria, about making honey. She writes about nursing a sick calf. I imagine her sitting here in this room with a calf, feeding it whiskey.” Sara continues, “I can’t imagine how she lived here all by herself. Understandably, the house became very run down.”

 Photo: Chris Warner

Luckily for Oakland Green, Sara’s father, who worked in DC in the House of Representatives, bought the farm from Helen in the 1960s. Because the house was in bad shape, Sara’s parents decided to take down the log house and reconstruct it piece by piece. They numbered the deconstructed logs, treated them, replaced some of them and put them back in place. They built the house back up and made it taller, salvaging some and replacing other floorboards.

The Farm

Oakland Green’s 200 acres have been farmed consistently throughout the Browns’ nine generations of ownership. When Sara was a child, her parents, who were not farmers themselves, leased the land to other farmers for raising cattle. 

Sara’s maternal grandfather, however, had always been a farmer, and when he moved to Oakland Green he continued doing what he always had done. He raised chickens and geese and reestablished the vegetable gardens, planting 96 tomato plants one year and turning the harvest into tomato sauce, juice and paste, refusing to waste any of it. Sara says she could hardly stand to look at a tomato by the end of that summer.

Photo: Scott Maison

When she was 10 years old and a member of 4-H, Sara raised her first steer at Oakland Green. She got a heifer next, and bred her. That was the beginning of her present herd; she now has 52 Black Angus. Initially, Sara used her cattle money to support her horseback riding hobby – she says she could ride before she could even walk.

“We used to have what’s called a cow-calf operation,” says Sara. In other words, they sold their calves after weaning to a feedlot in Pennsylvania, where they were finished on grain in preparation for slaughter. About seven years ago, Sara had a big “ah-ha” moment. She realized that her animals, which had good pedigree and which she cared for so well, were high quality, and that it was a shame to send them to a feedlot.

In lieu of sending them to a feedlot, then, Sara began to finish the beef herself and sell directly to the consumer. Today, Sara raises her cattle on pasture, and finishes them on grain for the last 75 days. The herd always has free access to hay, pasture, and clean water.

For the first three years of direct selling, Sara sold beef exclusively by the side. For the past four years, she’s also offered individual cuts, in order to make the beef more accessible to people who can’t necessarily buy a whole side.

“I care about animal welfare as it relates to human welfare,” says Sara, “and the direction we’re headed with mass-production of everything is not always best. This isn’t something I’d ever envisioned doing when I was 15, but it’s what I know; it’s something I came to care deeply about. I have a passion to make a little area of the world better than it was before.” 

Sara sells about six animals by the side every year, and reserves three for retail. She’s keeping it small for right now, she says. Regardless, Sara’s beef business is remarkable considering that she works full time in DC as a project manager for AOL, in addition to hosting the Oakland Green B&B.

Every time there’s a beef recall, Sara says she gets a lot of phone calls. “I think it’s great that people are trying to see where their food comes from,” says Sara, “because for such a long time, we didn’t have the option. There were so many farms around here but it all went into feeding the industrial system.” Ironically, she says, the same development that drove away the farms has led to a resurging demand for local farm products and a desire to protect the farming community.

The B&B

Oakland Green guests stay in the original log portion of the house, with its downstairs sitting room and piano, upstairs bedroom suite, and one and a half baths. Guests can also enjoy the main parlor, decorated with portraits of stoic Browns from different eras of the farm’s history. A full breakfast is served in the lovely dining room, with local pork sausage, eggs and seasonal fruit, sometimes berries from the farm itself. The wide front porch, with its old rocking chairs, faces north to keep cool even on hot summer days. 


Jean Brown, Sara’s mother, started the B&B at Oakland Green in the 1980s, making it one of the oldest B&Bs in the county. Sara was in elementary school at the time, so it’s a business that she’s been around for most of her life. In 2009, Sara took over the B&B from her mother.

Oakland Green is also available for weddings and special events.

If you go:

The upstairs Log House Suite has a queen bed, private bath, and downstairs sitting room. A mini-fridge and microwave are included in the suite, and wi-fi is available throughout the house. Rates start at $110/night for weekdays. The separate Twin Bedroom is available for rent only in conjunction with the Log House Suite. It has two antique featherbeds that are perfect for kids. Rental rates for the Twin Bedroom start at $55/night, added to the price of the Log House Suite.

For more information:
(540) 338-7628

Sara Brown
P.O. Box 100
Lincoln , VA

All uncredited photos taken by Gerry Carter in January 2010

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Agritourism Article Trio

Photo: Evelyn, then 4, plays with the chickens at Willow-Witt Ranch in Ashland, Ore. Fresh eggs are available for purchase. (Jessica Garrison / Los Angeles Times)
On this blog, I normally list relevant agritourism articles via the Google Reader widget in the right sidebar, but a nice trio of agritourism / farm stay articles has come out in the past few days, so I decided to share them right here in the spot of honor.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Book Review -- Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge

Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge is a memoir by Gordon "Zola" Edgar, who buys and sells cheese for the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco.

Cheesemonger traces Edgar's accidental road into the world of cheese, explaining that he stumbled upon his job circuitously, after growing up on punk politics and less than gourmet Velveeta and Kraft singles. After working at Rainbow for a while and sampling cheese after cheese but loving none of them, Edgar’s life changed for good when he tasted an Antique Gruyere. That Gruyere was his gateway cheese.

Throughout the book, Edgar interlaces stories about his life as a cheesemonger with platefuls of cheese descriptions and buying tips. He also offers bits of insider’s wisdom on cheese snobbery, farming practices, raw milk, and worker-owned cooperatives. Though officially a memoir, Cheesemonger is more than just an autobiography. Edgar delves into the complexities that underlie certain food buzzwords. For instance: what does it mean when a farmer says he grazes his cows on pasture? Does that mean the cows get the majority of their food from a pasture? Not always. As Edgar notes, especially when it comes to “ill-defined catchphrases,” what’s good for marketing isn’t always the whole truth. Farming is full of compromises. But he doesn't gloss over the gap between farming ideals and practices. He aims to tell the whole story, and "not just the pretty bits."

Gordon Edgar might seem like an unlikely champion of farms: when he was younger, punker, and growing up in San Francisco, his bogeymen were the farm boys who allegedly waited outside Marin County punk shows with ax handles. It's ironic, says Edgar, that he now makes a living selling a farm product. Edgar calls the cheesemakers he knows an interesting mix of 1970s back-to-the-landers and old farm families. Their politics and religions vary, and Edgar muses that some of his leftist customers might not be so eager to support the cheesemakers if they knew about their religious fundamentalist or conservative beliefs.

But one of my favorite things about agritourism and the local foods movement -- and Cheesemonger highlights this point well -- is that they encourage unlikely alliances across cultural divides. In the words of Edgar, "In this country, where urban and rural communities have become increasingly polarized, if one believes that blue/red election results are indicative of people's true feelings, food is one of the few remaining avenues of contact. This exchange isn't much, but I try to do my part to build solidarity by not being an elitist jerk."

Cheesemonger has the right ingredients to be a fun read. First, it's about cheese, a delicious, strange, and ancient food. Second, it's written by a passionate punk-inspired ambassador with a righteous anti-snob attitude. That Edgar also delves into topics like farmland preservation and farm policy is a great bonus.

Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge, by Gordon Edgar, was published in March 2010 by Chelsea Green