My Day on the Farm Tour

Piedmont Farms: the Happiest Places on Earth

Three years ago, I sat with my mom in “Ariel’s Grotto” while nearby, a dad yelled at his teary-eyed, disobedient son.  Mom and I were having a self-imposed “time-out” amid the clatter and chaos of DisneyWorld, where we’d gone on a family vacation.  We couldn’t entirely escape the piped-in music and ubiquitous flashy advertising, but Ariel’s Grotto was shady and somewhat quiet—at least between Ariel’s musical performances.

“It’s almost parade time,” Mom said.

I dragged myself up from where I slumped in my clamshell-shaped chair.  Out in the sun, families hurried toward Main Street, where the parade would pass.  “Move faster!” I heard a parent bark.  “We need to get a good spot, or you won’t see Mickey!”

“Alright,” I replied to my mom, “I’m ready.”  I put on my sunglasses and stood, bracing myself for another afternoon in “the happiest place on earth.”

Last month, I spent an afternoon at Fickle Creek Farm, greeting visitors during the Piedmont Farm Tour.  Throughout the four-hour volunteer shift, I saw not one crying child.

As a member of the marketing team at Weaver Street Market, I’d participated in many behind-the-scenes aspects of the Farm Tour, from calling farmers to arrange pickup of Tour signs, to interviewing new Tour members and writing promotional articles, to editing the Farm Tour brochures, which Weaver Street Market designs and pays for.  I’d rolled Farm Tour tee shirts and counted out Farm Tour buttons, and done the particularly dangerous-to-the-fingertips job of pinning buttons to plastic “Do you have your button?” displays.  And I had gone on the tour many times.

This year, I decided to tackle a new aspect of the Farm Tour: volunteering.  I knew the CFSA needed more volunteers to greet visitors at each farm, but more importantly, I wanted a free tee shirt.  So I contacted the CFSA and filled out the volunteer form they sent.  They assigned me to Fickle Creek Farm on Sunday; I’d have Saturday free to tour other farms.

I arrived at Fickle Creek Farm around noon.  Owner Ben Bergmann greeted me and drove me out to the field where visitors would park.  With the help of another volunteer, we pitched a pop-up tent and set up a table with all the paperwork we would need.  As one o’clock neared, Ben left to return to his Tour duties, and we volunteers took our seats under the tent.  Below us, Jersey steers grazed in the tall green grasses under a sweep of power lines; beyond, a hill rose up, dotted with white blots of sheep, a bright red barn peeking out from the trees on the right side.  Overhead soared a cloud-strewn sky.

Cars began to pull in and park, and visitors got out, unclipping toddlers from safety seats and checking cameras.  Then they approached our tent, where we checked them in and explained how to use the vinegar shoe wash.  We told them a little about the farm.  Then, just like Mary Poppins, they headed into the landscape.

At Fickle Creek Farm, visitors take a self-guided tour, following orange flags and arrows put out by the farm’s owners, Ben and Noah Ranells.  The tour must change as animals rotate from one field to the next; this year, it took visitors first past the “flerd,” a combination sheep flock and steer herd that graze together.  From the tree-lined edge of the field, visitors could watch the slow flick of a cow’s tail, as her big head turned to check them out.  Lambs leapt in the grass, some trying to nurse as their mothers nudged them toward the grass instead.

The tour led past the vegetable gardens and on to the mobile chicken coop, where visitors could enter the field to “pick their own” eggs.  Farm staff stood nearby, warning people about the three “broody hens” who glared from the coop, refusing to leave the nests.  The farm’s Great Pyrenees guard dogs slept in the shade under the coop.  Next came a field in transition: until recently, hogs had been quartered here, rooting up the soil and leaving behind nutrient-rich manure.  Now the field would be planted.

After passing more fields, the tour ended at the barn, where farm staff sold eggs and meat.  By talking to the farmers, visitors could learn more details about the farm’s practices: using cover crops and rotational grazing to balance the nutrients in the soil naturally, planting trees to shade animals and assist the bee population, running farm vehicles on locally-produced biodiesel, buying animals and feed locally and selling to the local market, and landscaping with native plants.

On the Farm Tour, visitors don’t leave the real world to tour a model farm.  There won’t be piped-in music or paved walkways.  And there won’t be any cows that talk or chickens that dance.  The farms are real, and they’re accessible thanks to the goodwill and efforts of our local farmers.  Consider volunteering next year to help make the Farm Tour happen, or go on the Tour to support the CFSA and visit local farms.  Whether you go simply to see the cute animals, or to explain to your children where meat comes from, you can relax and walk at the normal pace of life.  And you’ll leave happy.