Interview: Diane Daniel on Agritourism in North Carolina

Diane Daniel, author of Farm Fresh North Carolina: The Go-To Guide to Great Farmers’ Markets, Farm Stands, Farms, Apple Orchards, U-Picks, Kids’ Activities, Lodging, Dining, Choose-and-Cut Christmas Trees, Vineyards and Wineries, and More sat down to talk more about her book and and the agritourism scene in North Carolina. Here she shares her wealth of knowledge on agricultural destinations across the state with tips and fun facts for anyone from the novice to the seasoned agritourist. Personally, I’m quite eager to find some alpacas in the area. -Alex

Q: Farm Fresh North Carolina is the first statewide guide of its kind. How did you hit on this great idea for a book?

A: I stumbled upon a Virginia cookbook that featured tours of historic farms and something clicked inside my head to write a farm travel book. For years I’d enjoyed the annual Piedmont Farm Tour organized by Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and knew that there were tons of cool farms and related places people could visit across the state. The idea of such a book combined my interests in travel, North Carolina, the outdoors, and sustainable agriculture.

Q: And how did you find and ultimately settle on the 425 places that you feature? What kind of vetting process did you have?

A: To first locate places I culled through dozens of lists, from national websites to lists created by county extension officers, as well as picking places from newspaper and magazine articles I read from across the state. It was a daunting task, and organizing all that research was a challenge. Next came visiting hundreds of places across the state, and setting up my trips with as little backtracking as possible. I first approached farms, stores, restaurants, wineries and any other place in the book as if I were a regular customer so I could see how they treated the average person. If they weren’t hospitable and professional, they didn’t go in the book.

Q: How is the book organized and what are some of its special elements?

A: Organization was another challenge. Ultimately, I decided to first organize it by region and then by activity, with micro-organizing done by county. Also useful is the county by county index in the back. So, if you’re headed to Winston-Salem, for instance, you can look up Forsyth and surrounding counties and see what might strike your fancy there. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in only apple picking or wine tasting, you can check out those categories by region. I think one fun thing about the organizational headings is they quickly bring to light the different gateways travelers have with farms and food. Those include farms, farm stands, apple orchards, farmers’ markets, choose-and-cut Christmas trees, vineyards and wineries, lodging, and dining. That’s a lot of farm-fresh fun to be had in our state.

Q: Some of the 35 sidebars in your travel guidebook tackle some serious topics, such as migrant workers, pesticide use, and discrimination against African American farmers. Why did you include issues like that?

A: Great question. While I consider the book to be mostly about fun outings, I think that travel is in and of itself an educational experience, or it certainly can be. Along those lines, I think it’s important to be armed with information to know what you’re spending your time and money on, and to consider whether those things are in line with your values. My goal with writing about travel has always been to align my stories with the principles of ecotourism, which is to respect the land and its people while you’re out there having a good time. In my mind, it’s a mutually beneficial and ethical way to travel.

Q: Readers of Farm Fresh North Carolina will no doubt see the state with new eyes. What kind of impact are you hoping to have on agritourism in North Carolina?

A: One of the best things about being a writer is you get to tell people about things you think are really interesting, noteworthy, worth visiting, and then they go and visit them! So I hope that people who read the book will think, hey, I want to go to that winery, or that farmers’ market, or that store, or restaurant, or farm, and then go and not only bring business to the destination but also get out and enjoy what their awesome state has to offer them. North Carolina is the sixth most popular state in the country for tourism. Residents don’t always realize how lucky they are.

Q: What makes North Carolina a particularly attractive destination for agritourists?Diane Daniel

A: We have an amazing number of ways visitors can intersect with farm life. A lot of this is because our state’s history is steeped in agriculture, much of it tobacco and cotton, both lucrative industries a couple generations ago. Cotton farmers supplied the textile industry, while tobacco farmers supplied the country’s cigarette habit. Both industries went overseas, and tobacco farming was additionally hit by the reduction, thankfully so, of smoking. Farmers, being the enterprising sorts they are, knew that in order to save their land they’d have to come up with different ways to make money. They turned to produce, livestock, grape growing. Many began to dabble in “direct marketing,” meaning dealing with customers directly. This has been a rather dramatic change, but many have found ways to make it work for them, and are enjoying their new careers.

Q: It’s surprising to learn that there are no organic Christmas tree farms in North Carolina. Why is this so?

A: In general, North Carolina has been slow to embrace organics, from produce to grapes to cotton. But because we’re the country’s second-largest Christmas tree grower, behind Oregon, you’d think we’d have at least one sizeable organic tree farm. But we don’t, yet, though Duke University students are working toward that. In general, organic trees take more people hours to tend to and the trees themselves take longer to reach maturity, so it often comes down to economics. I am heartened, however, by the fairly recent move to IPM, or integrated pest management, practices, which basically means farmers use far fewer pesticides and far more natural methods of keeping their tree farms healthy and thriving.

Q: Lots of folks have picked their own strawberries, visited a local farmers’ market, and gone on a tasting at a winery. What are some of the more unexpected adventures travelers will learn about in your book? Do you offer options for “extreme agritourists”?

A: While I agree that many people know about these activities, I’m always surprised at the number of people who haven’t actually done them, especially visiting wineries. We now have more than 100 wineries in our state. But, yes, there were surprises even for me. I’d say that two activities that stood out for me were farmstead cheese operations, where farmers make cheese from goats or cows, and fiber farms, where farmers raise alpacas, sheep, and llamas for wool. I have to admit that I fell totally in love with alpacas, an animal I knew next to nothing about before starting the book. They are darling animals, and have a luxurious fleece. I met so many farmers who were just mad for their alpacas.

Q: Early buzz for Farm Fresh North Carolina has been strong–you had a mention in Southern Living months before your publication date. Why is the time so right to explore the farm movement?

A: When I first thought about doing this book way back in 2007, I had no idea that farmers would become rock stars or that “locavore” would become Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. The time is ripe for several reasons, including a backlash against industrial farming for safety, nutrition, and economic reasons; continued interest in the source of what we eat, for both health and taste reasons; an interest in getting children out from behind computer and video screens and into the great outdoors; wanting to teach kids where their food comes from, and an increasing passion among many cooks and diners for local sourcing of ingredients. It’s the perfect storm, in a good way, for all things farm-fresh and local.

Q: Tell us about your website,

A: The site contains basics about the book, an order form, and a calendar of where I’ll be appearing when. People can also of course contact me through the site as well. The home page also contains a blog that I update at least weekly with news, views, and items of interest around the topics of food, farms, and related North Carolina travel. While the contents of the book are not online, I do post any changes to the printed book there, and I hope readers will send those in as well.

Q: What are some basic tips for anyone setting out to visit a farm?

A: I have a complete list of tips in the book. My overall message to travelers is to remember that a working farm is not Disney World. It doesn’t have regular operating hours or a paved parking lot. Its primary mission is to provide us with food or other agricultural goods. I also suggest that visitors pay farmers, even if they’re not charged for tours, by buying products from the farm. If there are no products to purchase, insist on leaving a donation. Some practical tips include bringing water, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, a hat, and a cooler for storing purchases. What not to bring? The family pet. Fido and a flock of chickens do not mix well.

Q: Farm Fresh North Carolina includes 20 recipes, with offerings from “Pink-Eye Purple Hulled Peas” to “Chocolate Shortcake with Strawberries, Cream, and Grand Marnier.” What distinguishes the recipes in the book? How did you decide what to include?

A: I love the variety of the recipes in the book, from mountain-sourced Sunburst trout, to a 16-year-old farmers’ daughter’s shortcake, and a cauliflower soup created by the chef at one of the state’s first locally sourced restaurants. Home and professional cooks from each of the book’s five regions donated recipes. I looked for a variety of offerings, from sides to main dishes and desserts. The only stipulation was that the main ingredients must be grown or produced in North Carolina. All the recipes were professionally tested to make sure they could be reproduced by readers. They can, and they’re yummy!

Q: Many of the farms included in the book are considered “century farms.” What does this designation mean?

A: Not only does the book contain several “century farms,” some are “double century farms,” those that have been in the family for more than 200 years. The farms are so designated by the state in a program that began in the 1970s. Every other year, the Department of Agriculture holds a “Century Farm” gathering in conjunction with the State Fair, inviting all century farmers to break bread together and be feted for their longevity and land preservation.

Q: It’s striking how many farmers in the book started out in other professions. Are we experiencing a renaissance of the back-to-the-land-movement?

A: There is absolutely a renewed farm movement, and still plenty of old-timers are at it, too. But while the latter’s numbers are shrinking, the number of new sustainable farms is increasing. One of the neat programs in North Carolina, and other states as well, matches retiring farmers with new ones, who usually cannot afford to buy land. I’m curious to see how long this new-farmer trend will be on the rise. However long, it’s exciting to see beginning farmers, young and not so young, breathe new life into what was becoming a fading occupation. Here in North Carolina, I view the renewed farm movement as the bridge between the old-time North Carolina I grew up in and the more progressive state I live in now.

Q: You’re a writer by profession, but did you ever feel the pull of another occupation while researching this book? If you were going to make your living from the land, what would you do?

A: One of the things writing and farming have in common is that people romanticize the heck out of both professions. I’ve seen how much work goes into farming, and also how hard it is to ever get away from home. It’s not for me, though I admire farmers greatly. But, playing along, if I were to romanticize a farming life, I would have a goat farm in the mountains and make award-winning cheese, which I would sell out of my little shop. On the side, I’d take care of a few dozen laying hens, a few alpacas, and grow produce. Oh, and I’d cook amazing meals, too. In my spare time.