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Small-Hold Farmer Love

Late November still life in the Similkameen Valley, British Columbia

Agritourism (a.k.a. agrotourism) should be receiving a shot in the arm this summer. With people back on the roads and in the air, and borders opening slowly, the very good people who operate small farms and keep us fed and watered, should see some well-earned soft dollars that aren’t dependent on the weather or commodity prices. Absolutely, they will be seeing me.

I am one of those people whom, if given the choice, would rather tour an artisanal cheese farm than visit a museum. The way I see things, museums will be around forever, but small-hold goat farmers, and struggling cider makers, may not be so fortunate. At least not without our moral and financial support.

And the “odeur”? That too promises a curious form of comfort. Great steaming piles of livestock manure mixed with barn stall bedding and garden greens, elicit warm and fuzzy memories of endless summer Sundays a thousand years ago, when helping my grandfather with farm chores was the highlight of my week.

Silvopastured sheep at Wellspring Forest Farm School, in Trumansburg, New York

I absolutely cannot wait for small farms to re-open to visitors; to bask in the calm, restorative energy that grows in farms and market gardens. When we slow down long enough, as we did during the early days of lockdown, that energy becomes addictive; essential even.

The pandemic has been tragic, truly, and one could say that nothing good has come of it. I lost three friends to COVID-19, but indeed I gained some much-needed perspective. I hope we all did.

It is undeniable that, global interruptions in packaged goods supply chains, the closure of restaurants and bars, enforced lockdowns, and other crisis-level phenomenon, inspired a food security renaissance, the scale of which hasn’t been seen since the second world war. As a permaculture designer, I consider the possibility that nature launched a warning shot over the bow of a consumer economy obsessed with satisfying unmet desires for things.

Breathing deep, the energy of the ages in a forest farm near Woodstock, New York

The lesson, I believe, was evidenced during the initial global lockdown last spring, when industrial scale everything ground to a halt, and our wounded planet began healing itself spontaneously, measurably. Our supply chains shortened, and we looked to local growers and producers for sustenance.

For that, I am grateful. For that, I will forego museums and megamalls, and industrial-scale everything, and make agritourism my go-to for vacation planning moving forward. I had a delicious taste of the genre just months before lockdown, during research trips to permaculture and organic farms in the United States and Canada. I travelled with my eldest daughter, together taking thousands of photographs of the people and places that nourished us literally and spiritually. It is my privilege to share some highlights.

New York State, USA

This charming village in Tompkins County, New York was settled in 1793 and is named (a mis-spelling) for its founder Abner Treman. This very small hamlet is situated in the famous Finger Lakes region, at the epicentre of research and practice of permaculture, and regenerative farming and forestry in America — a half-hour drive from Cornell University, and four hours from the beautiful Hudson Valley. We stayed in an old parsonage and ate and drank locally for the duration of our mid-September visit.

Hazelnut Kitchen, farm to table restaurant in Trumansburg, New York

We visited many small farms and artisanal producers, as well as other links in the agritourism supply chain that extended deep into the community, tying people, livelihoods, and economies together like nothing else I have ever witnessed. We were privileged to feast at every step along the way, and to meet truly extraordinary, passionate and creative people who really “get it," and have dedicated their lives to feeding our minds, bodies and our souls. These people and places inspired me to do more of the same at home, in my work, and on these pages.

Our first visit was by appointment, to a small permaculture perennial plant and tree nursery and forest farm research space called Edible Acres, where proprietors Sean and Sasha operated a charming homestead. There was so much to see and to learn over the course of the afternoon, but my biggest take-away related directly to ‘Fair Share’, the third overarching ethic of permaculture that for me, more or less sums up what needs to be done to set things straight in the world.

A chicken manure heated mini polytunnel at Edibles Acres homestead

Laying hens play an important role at the Edible Acres homestead, consuming green garden waste and producing fresh eggs and a steady supply of fertilizer manure. There were many chickens living in a large fenced area outfitted with a fortified coop, and, as I was planning on introducing chickens here at home, I asked Sean about predators like racoons and rodents, and how he kept them out of the henhouse. His answer delighted me, but came as no surprise really when I considered nature’s perfect balance.

He told me that they set older ‘bait’ eggs outside every night, in a designated area far from the coop, and that racoons and rodents know just where to find them, and most important, without threatening the hens. The system worked beautifully for the couple, as not once had a predator broken in.

Bait eggs keep predators away from the henhouse, demonstrating permaculture's 'fair share' ethic

I apply similar logic in my fruit and vegetable garden at home, forfeiting specific backyard bait fruit and vegetables to wild things, based on an unspoken understanding that the front yard ‘farm’ is off limits. These two simple permaculture examples demonstrate that we can live richly in harmony with nature, near nature, if we respect her needs and ecosystems, sharing equitably.

To learn more about Edible Acres operations and nursery products visit their website. I couldn’t reach them at time of writing, for an update. Note that the homestead is private.

Having way too much fun cleaning and drying forest-grown shiitake mushrooms with Steve Gabriel.

Next, also by appointment, we visited Wellspring Forest Farm, a lovely farm school owned and operated by Steve and Elizabeth Gabriel. Elizabeth is the Executive Director for the Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming, based in Ithaca, NY, and Steve is Extension Specialist for the Cornell University Small Farms Program. Steve co-authored the excellent book Farming the Woods, and co-authored Silvopasture. Over the past several years, I have learned a great deal about outdoor and indoor specialty mushroom cultivation from Steve directly, from his book, and from his Cornell teachings.

During our farm visit we explored their extensive shiitake and specialty mushroom growing operation in their woodlands, and enjoyed a sneak peak at their new indoor facility. I was specifically interested in hydrology and water management, which led to a walking tour through several of the 40 acres of pasture and forested pasture that Steve and Elizabeth rotate their sheep through annually, feeding on nothing more than grass and natural forages.

Examining spent cultivation wood stocks at Wellspring Forest Farm with Steve Gabriel

I don’t have acreage for pasturing sheep, but I am setting up a small shiitake bolt yard, and a winecap mushroom bed and pathways here in my urban permaculture garden. After spending an afternoon in Steve’s shadow harvesting and drying shiitakes, having too much fun and asking too many questions, I felt well prepared.

We visited the sheep and the ducks, the maple sugaring operation, the elderberry (syrup) hedge, and many other aspects of the farm’s thriving ecosystem, before leaving late afternoon with a sample gift bag full of mixed specialty mushrooms to prepare ourselves at the parsonage. A second sample bag of beautiful chestnut mushrooms was destined for delivery to the chef-proprietor of the Hazelnut Kitchen restaurant in Trumansburg.

Stunning cultivated chestnut mushrooms at Wellspring Forest Farm, destined for a Trumansburg restaurant

I was only too happy to sneak into the Hazelnut kitchen via the back door, to deliver the samples in person, before returning later in the evening for the first of many spectacular dinners. The charcuterie board, featuring house-made pretzel bread, house-cured meats and locally made cheeses, was a favourite starter - but the highlight was the locally-grown mushroom pate.

To learn more about Wellspring Forest Farm and their current online-only course offerings visit their website. The farm is private.

Twice we visited Hawk Meadow Farm, a long-established grower of shiitake, lion’s mane, and turkey tail mushrooms, and artisanal producer of medicinal mushroom tinctures, maple syrup, herbal skincare products, locust wood posts, and benches made from sustainably harvested lumber.

Permaculture farmer Steve shares the history of Hawk Meadow Forest Farm in Trumansburg, New York

Steve and Anne own and operate Hawk Meadow, and are as much a part of the Trumansburg/Cornell small farm, restaurant supply, farmers market, and food web culture as Steve and Elizabeth, and Sean.

Our first visit was as part of a small group of agritourists from all over the world, interested specifically in forest farming, and our second visit was private, affording me the luxury of hours to ask questions of one of North American permaculture’s founding fathers.

We toured traditional and Japanese style shiitake gardens, the maple sugaring operation, the locust timber forest farm, several lion’s mane and turkey tail totem gardens, the homestead and its beautiful food gardens.

The beautiful Hawk Meadow Farm homestead

Steve is a wealth of knowledge about permaculture, specialty mushroom cultivations, and sustainable forest farming. He spoke at length about various methods of growing shiitake mushrooms, including the Japanese method of hillside-stacking and how electrical storms can trigger massive blooms of shiitakes. He showed us his small hillside-stacking operation, which at the time was a work in progress. Fascinating stuff for permaculture geeks like me.

Before leaving, we visited the front porch store, stocking up on powdered shiitake, maple syrup, handmade soap, lovely skin salves, and various mushroom tinctures. I have just finished the last of the shiitake powder, which I have come to rely on as a pantry staple — a delicious and nutritious umami bomb. I will order more online.

To learn more about Hawk Meadow Farm and their current by appointment tour offerings, visit their website. The farm is private.

During our whirlwind week in Trumansburg, we visit the famous MacDaniels Nut Grove and Forest Farm at Cornell University in Ithaca. I had been reading about the forest farm for years and wanted to see the forest classrooms and diverse farm forest myself.

It isn’t an easy place to find, and the trail is most definitely not well marked (a good thing), but after much wandering and back and forthing, my daughter and I found our way in and down into a truly magical forest, where abandoned test gardens and empty outdoor classrooms sparkled in the dappled shade.

A long-forgotten shiitake hillside-stacking demonstration at the MacDaniel Nut Grove at Cornell University

I could have spent a week there in the percussive quiet, photographing old log bolts, native fruit and nut trees, endangered species, gorgeous shadows, knee-deep shade, and the technicolours possible only in wild spaces where the super-oxygenated, super-clean air intensifies hue. I’m not sure if that last bit is based in science, but I like how it sounds, and for me it rings true.

A weathered outdoor classroom at MacDaniels Nut Grove and Food Forest

We visited the wineries and cideries of the Finger Lakes Region, opting for the lesser-known properties with small, uncluttered parking lots. There are too many to mention, but suffice it to say that a trip to the area, for the sole purpose of tasting wines and ciders, would be well worth taking.

Our final overnight in New York State, was to a small town near Woodstock, NY, where family friends manage a historic, family-owned forest farm, producing maple syrup, and cultivating specialty mushrooms and ginseng. The four hour drive from Trumansburg to Woodstock, through the legendary Catskills was otherworldly. Sheets of autumn leaves were raining down from one end of the woods to the other, making the roads slick, and forcing us to slow down enough to commit passing scenes to memory. I felt as though I were driving inside a giant, golden snow globe.

British Columbia, Canada

Much later that fall, after returning to Canada, we visited Klipper’s Organic Acres in British Columbia’s Similkameen Valley, where Kevin and Annamarie Klippenstein operate an organic farm, the Row Fourteen Cidery and Restaurant, and Klippers Guest Suites. It was late November and the operation was getting ready to close to the public for the season.

It was cold and windy in the valley, but so stark and beautiful that we didn’t mind the extended search, in a very small and seasonally-abandoned small town, for fleece-lined leggings. The valley is lovely and remarkable in summer — known for its miles long stretches of fruit and vegetable stand. For many reasons though, I prefer the deliberateness of fall and winter.

Row Fourteen Restaurant Chef Derek Gray plating farm-to-table cuisine in front of his wood-fired hearth

We had called ahead to arrange a farm and cidery tour, and were excited to try the farm-to-table cuisine of Chef Derek Gray, and spend some quiet time chatting with Kevin and Annamarie. Three days later, we left for home, fully sated by extraordinary food and service, remarkable cider and Okanagan Valley wines, and many hours spent touring and exploring the farm.

To learn more about Klippers Organics and their tour and hospitality offerings, visit their website.

A visit to a small-hold farm such as this opens one’s eyes to the passion and commitment of its operators — to the long hours in the fields and greenhouses, to the challenges of driving long distances to and from Farmers’ Markets and restaurants multiple times every week, and to the risks and challenges of weather dependency.

Klippers Organic Acres and Guest Suites: orchards on the brink of winter

For me, I was painfully, almost shamefully aware of how many of us underappreciate and undervalue the people who grow our food. Today, as we think about returning to a new normal version of life as we knew it, I reflect on the autumn of 2019, and carry its lessons close to my heart. Nature’s remarkable wisdom must not be taken lightly. She can and she will continue to teach us until we listen, and we learn. I for one, have learned my lesson.

My daughter and I put on many miles driving hither and yon to various farms that remarkable season, and in a perfect world we could have rented an electic car. Higher than average consumption of fossil fuel is my one and only regret. I will remember that beautiful time alone with my daughter on farms and in nature, forever. I don’t recall with any sense of longing, my last visit to a museum.

So ends my thoughts for this beautiful spring week of 2021. I hope you will join me in exploring agritourism and other acts of solidarity, in supporting small-hold farmers, growers, fishers, foragers and artisanal producers of the nourishments that sustain us, and respect our beautiful planet.

Farm to table cuisine and house-made ciders at Row Fourteen Cidery and Restaurant

Until next week, happy gardening!

To learn about urban permaculture and permaculture principles, watch Modern Farmer Magazine's Urban Permaculture video series in which publisher Frank Giustra and I introduce the basics.

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