Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Brightwood Vineyard and Farm

Sitting on the wraparound deck of the Brightwood Farm cottage makes you feel like you’re up in the trees. The Robinson River winds through in the valley below, and the loudest sound you hear is the cicadas’ buzz. Inside of the cottage, large windows still let you enjoy the view and the vibrant green of the summer canopy. The cottage is a very cleverly planned 600 square feet, with every nook and cranny serving some purpose. Susan and Dean Vidal designed their guest cottage around an A-frame that the farm’s previous owners built in 1974. One of the Vidals’ ideas for the farm, from the time they moved there 10 years ago, was to share the beautiful farm they had found. 

Because of their relationship with the previous owners, the Vidals didn’t want to tear down the A-frame, so they added on a kitchen and eating nook, a bedroom, two sleeping lofts, and the wraparound deck. Dean and Susan’s daughter, who is now a full-time green carpenter in Colorado, worked on the cottage addition and restoration with her boyfriend. They reclaimed American chestnut and maple from a barn to build the hardwood floors, and added green features like double-glazed windows, energy-efficient walls, and a clean-burning Jotul wood stove.

When I visit Brightwood Farm, a London couple is staying at the cottage. They tell me, “This is paradise for us. Right now our flat in London is so noisy, there’s always construction and drilling going on. Nobody can afford to move right now, so everyone is doing construction work.” They say their son, Oscar, at 17, “is usually on Facebook at home, but he loves it here.” When Susan and I walk up to the cottage, Oscar is running back from feeding the goats. He looks really happy. Susan tells me, “It’s not just the kids who love feeding the animals. The adults love it too. And collecting eggs!” Susan invites guests to help as much or as little as they like.

For breakfast, Susan gives guests a choice of a cook-your-own meal where she provides the ingredients, or a prepared continental breakfast. The ingredients, Susan says, are “really local things” -- Brightwood Farm’s own eggs and fresh berries in season, sausage and breakfast meats from the Vidals’ neighbors, muffin or pancake mix, and farm-made jam.

The farm

As Susan Vidal tells it, she and her husband Dean used to be “regular suburban people.” But after their children left home and they became inspired by a trip to French wine country, the Vidals agreed they didn’t want to stay around the congested DC Beltway forever (they used to live in Arlington, VA). The Vidals decided to buy a farm where they could grow wine grapes. A search around Virginia’s best wine-growing counties led Dean and Susan to Brightwood Farm in scenic Central Virginia, just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The farm sits on 100 hilly acres, with 35 acres of pasture where the previous owners raised beef cattle. Susan tells me: “Before, I worked as a cartographer. It was a great job. But farming is a much better fit for me than working in a cubicle. I always had trouble with that.” Dean, an engineer, still commutes to his job. 

The Vidals also enjoy the help of a few interns who come to them through ATTRA (National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) and WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). The interns live on the farm -- either in a three-year-old insulated, four-season yurt with a woodstove, or on a tent platform.

Although the Vidals originally set out to make Brightwood Farm into a winery, they quickly realized that they wanted to do much more than just grow wine grapes. From the beginning, the Vidals have grown their farm through diversification -- their primary enterprises are now laying hens and berries. They also raise goats, sheep, vegetables, ducks, and donkeys. When I ask Susan how they learned to farm, she says, “We just kind of launched ourselves into it. We started everything small, and learned by doing.”

In the Vidals’ first few years of farming, they grew an acre of pumpkins following Virginia Cooperative Extension’s recommendations for pumpkin cultivation. Brightwood Farm was not organic then, and Extension’s guidelines involved regular spraying of synthetic fungicides and pesticides. As Susan explains, “The sprays kept the pumpkin leaves nice and green, but the fungicides dripped down into the soil and killed the soil microorganisms. Our yields decreased each year as soil fertility declined. You can kind of prop up the production if you keep adding more fertilizers, but we didn’t want to do that.” The Vidals transitioned Brightwood Farm to a certified organic farm in 2007.

True to their diversification strategy, the Vidals currently grow five kinds of raspberry and four varieties of blackberry. The Vidals grow diverse plant varieties to improve their chances of getting good yields despite attacks from insect and disease -- certain varieties might be more resistant to one pest, while another variety is resistant to a different pest. The Vidals also look for plant varieties that thrive without chemical inputs. In addition to the berries, the Vidals raise a diverse collection of vegetables. They grow some vegetables at Brightwood Farm, where they have a shade house that holds salad greens much of the year, and a hoop house for growing warm weather crops. They grow the bulk of their vegetables (which mostly go to restaurants) on 10 acres of a neighboring property. 

Brightwood Farm is also a small winery, just as the Vidals originally planned, but the wines they make are different than what you might expect. Susan tell me, “We’re still working on the grape part. It’s a challenge doing grapes organically. In the meantime we started making blackberry, elderberry, and elder flower wine ... We do dry wines, so they’re not the run-of-the-mill fruit wines, either.” After Susan offers me samples of their wines, I can vouch that Brightwood Farm’s fruit wines are not only unusual, they’re also really delicious.

Dean Vidal makes all of the wine for the farm in 15-gallon batches in the state-certified commercial kitchen in the basement of their house. In the kitchen, the Vidals and their workers also make jam and process dried herbs for tea. 

With their livestock, the Vidals choose specific breeds for their vitality and versatility -- heritage chickens for eggs and meat, easy-keeping Spanish meat goats, and they’ve recently started raising dual-purpose Tunis sheep. They look for animals that do well on average pasture, without needing much supplementary grain.

Brightwood Farm’s 120 laying hens live in a movable house that allows Susan to easily shift the hens to fresh pasture as soon as they’ve clipped short the grass in their current spot. Susan says, “We generally go for the older, dual-purpose breeds, because after they stop laying they become stew hens.” The Brightwood chickens’ breeds have wonderful old names like Speckled Sussex and Buff Orpington, some of which are rare breeds that farmers like Susan are trying to bring back from endangered status. Susan also enjoys raising her own chicks. She tells me, “We have to buy in purebreds some years because we have no way of selecting the best layers. But this year, I’m looking for broody hens that want to sit -- I’m looking for volunteers!”

The Vidals’ Spanish meat goats also have a remarkable lineage. Spanish meat goats, now rare, are descendants of the goats brought to America by early settlers, mainly the conquistadors and missionaries of the Southwest. These Spanish goats were abandoned or escaped their farms, and lived in the wild for many generations before being re-domesticated. As a result, they are easy keepers, and great moms - they have very little trouble kidding and nursing. Spanish goats’ mixed heritage also means the goats come in different colors. As Susan says, “It’s fun when they’re born ‘cause you never know what color they’re going to be.” The goats have a furry, friendly guardian dog, named Athena, to protect them from predators like coyotes. Each group of animals on the farm enjoys the protection their own guardian dog. Susan says fondly, “We couldn’t do it without the dogs!”

The Vidals originally brought donkeys to the farm to protect the livestock from predators. “But,” says Susan, “They were hard on the little goats.” The Vidals now rely on the three donkeys for fertility. “Since we’re organic,” says Susan, “We rely on non-commercial fertilizers. And, the donkeys like the guests and the guests like the donkeys.”

 The Vidals sell their produce, wine, meat, and eggs at two very different farmers’ markets, Charlottesville (where there are around 100 vendors and Brightwood Farm sells wine, jam, and meat), and the more local Madison farmers’ markets (where there are only 8-10 vendors, and the customers mostly ask for vegetables.) The Vidals also sell to restaurants through a Virginia-based company called The Fresh Link, whose tagline is “Family Farms to City Plates.” Twice a week, the Vidals post information about what produce they’re offering to The Fresh Link, where the information is made available to restaurant chefs, who order the exact kind and number of heirloom tomatoes and free-range eggs they need.

If you go:

The Brightwood cottage sleeps up to four on one queen bed and two twin loft beds. Rates are $110/night weekdays and $155/night on weekends, double occupancy. Additional guests are $20/person, per night. The farm is two hours from Washington DC and 45 minutes from Shenandoah National Park. Farm activities (for guests who are interested) include feeding goats, sheep, and donkeys and collecting eggs. Guests are also welcome to swim in the Robinson River and walk on trails that wind through the farm’s “back 40.”

(540) 948-6845

Dean and Susan Vidal
1202 Lillard's Ford Rd.
Brightwood, VA 22715

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Mitchell Farms Agritourism

Really well done agritourism video. I love this quote: "This beats the punk outta growing soybeans and peanuts that you have to give away over in Alabama!" Folks told this farmer that no one would come to his middle-of-nowhere farm, but come they do.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lant Hill Farm

Lant Hill Farm is a small organic farm on a scenic hilltop in Argyle, New York, not far from the Vermont border. On the farm, hosts Don Previtali and Sue Kowaleski raise and breed their own unique variety of beef cattle, along with chickens, vegetables like multicolored potatoes, and a diverse collection of fruits: there are blueberry, elderberry, black currant, and raspberry bushes, and plum, pear, and peach trees. Sue and Don also tap close to 150 maple trees and boil the sap to make maple syrup every spring. Don even aims to grow his own biodiesel.

Sue and Don offer a two-bedroom guesthouse B&B across the way from the farmhouse where they live. Don’s parents, both artists, built the guesthouse and designed the gardens in the 1970s. The guesthouse is lovely and very comfortable, with a large, open sitting room that features lots of wood and big windows that lead onto the deck and panoramic view down the hill to the east. Cozy chairs and couches offer families the chance to settle in for one of the games or puzzles they can choose out of the closet. There is also a dollhouse that’s great for kids. Lots of neat antiques hang on the walls -- a wooden shovel, a huge pan, and other tools for farming and cooking that have been in Don’s family for generations.
The Master Suite offers a king bed (or two twins), a full bath, and direct access to the large deck. The attached sitting room has a futon that can sleep two more guests when needed. On the lower level, the Cedar Room has a queen bed and a full bath with a tile shower. A rollaway bed is available for additional guests. Children are welcome.
Some guests, says Don, like to stay on the farm and help out, while others spend their days visiting nearby Lake George, Saratoga Springs, or Vermont. Within Washington County, there are covered bridges, and annual cheese, maple, and fiber tours. The Battenkill River also offers premier fly fishing. For those who prefer to stay on the farm, guests might have the opportunity to harvest fruits and vegetables, help with maple sugaring, or feed the animals, depending on the season. Croquet and horseshoes are options in the summer, and in the winter guests can ski and snowshoe right out the door of the guesthouse. At night, says Don, with no light pollution, it’s ideal for stargazing.
For breakfast, Don prides himself in using the best ingredients from Lant Hill and his neighbors’ farms. You might be treated to fresh berries, pancakes with Lant Hill maple syrup, smoked meats, yogurt from the Argyle Cheese Farmer down the road, and milk and cream from the Battenkill Valley Creamery. Says Don, “We’re pretty close to being on a 100-acre diet here. The main things we need to import are salt and vitamin D ... We like to support our neighbors. A lot of the county’s dairies are gone. The ones that are left are looking for a niche, like making cheese or bottling their own milk.” Some of Don’s breakfast treats are old Swiss recipes -- like yogurt with fresh fruit and grains -- that were passed down to him by his mother.

Farm History
Don bought Lant Hill Farm in 1971, after moving to the area to work as a farrier, a specialist in horse foot care and shoeing. Don had been working with horses since he was nine years old. When looking for a farm, Don wanted to find a place with a big spring, woods, and fields. He was also looking for land that was relatively free of chemicals, and since the Lant family had farmed the land for generations, using crop rotations and minimal chemical sprays, Lant Hill Farm seemed like the right place for him to settle down.
Don says he’s always farmed the same way, without synthetic chemicals. He also uses principles from biodynamic agriculture (a form of organic farming) and permaculture. Don’s aim is to find a natural balance between pests and their predators so that there’s no need to treat the vegetables and fruits.
When I ask Don what led him to farming, he recalls the first time he ate in his school cafeteria, in first grade. During his childhood in Southern Connecticut, Don was used to eating his mother’s fresh, biodynamically grown food (she had studied biodynamics in Switzerland). “The cafeteria food was so bad,” says Don, “that it made me sick.” Don realized then the importance of good fresh food to him. Further explaining his attraction to farming, says Don, “you are drawn to certain areas where you feel good. I wanted food I could trust. I didn’t want to work for a company.”
For 30 years, Don drove a school bus in Argyle in addition to farming and working as a farrier. He would get up, check on the animals, drive the bus for two hours, shoe horses, drive the bus for three more hours, then go back to the farm and feed the animals. Small towns would often draw their bus drivers from the farming community, as the farmers were the ones who could easily figure out how to work the buses. The dependable income from bus driving and the hours complemented farming well.
Don currently has 10 beef cattle, which he raises and finishes on grass. Most customers come to the farm to buy meat, and Don does some deliveries as well. One of his goals with the cattle has been to develop his own genetics to produce animals that are strong, healthy, and well-suited for his land. Don also aims to create a special flavor in his beef, which graze on Lant Hill's unique mix of grass, herbs, and other plants.

Maple Sugaring

When tapping trees, Don is careful to treat them well. He makes his taps 2-4 inches away from the scar of the old holes. The first step is to drill into where the sapwood sits. He has close to 200 taps on 150 trees -- most trees have two taps. Don uses plastic tubing and gravity to draw the sap downhill to his wood-fired evaporator. To boil down the sap, he says, you bring it to 7 degrees above the boiling point. It’s time to start boiling when you have 300-400 gallons of sap, which sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t take long to collect that much from his 200 taps.
Don is finishing work on his sugarhouse, which he recycled from a building that had been torn down. He’s still planning to add a room for canning, finishing work, and for socializing. Don admits to being something of a hermit. “But,” he says, paraphrasing the old Adirondack hermit Noah John, “what’s the sense of being a hermit if you can’t meet anyone?”

If you go:

The Master Suite (king bed) starts at $125/night, for bed and breakfast, and the Cedar Room (queen bed) starts at $95/night. Children are welcome.
(518) 638-8003 /
Hosts: Don Previtali & Sue Kowaleski
RD 1, Lant Hill Farm
687 McEachron Argyle, NY 12809 Hill

Photos 1 and 4 courtesy Lant Hill Farm.

Friday, July 2, 2010


South Africa agritourism + funny guy in knee socks = :-) Watch for the scapegoat!