Outstanding in the Field
Stephen and Dawn Robertson have made a nice life at East Fork Farm marketing farm-to-table. One night last summer, their market came to them.
By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole
It’s one thing to eat a dinner in a restaurant with locally grown food, from a farmer down the road. It’s another thing to have that dinner right on the farm, where the food is sourced inches from the plate.
That is chef Jim Denevan’s vision for Outstanding in the Field, the coast-to-coast farm dinner tour he founded in 1998. Since then, the program has spawned hundreds of on-farm events where patrons get to meet the farm family that grows the food—and tour the farm itself—before settling in at a long, communal table in the field where dinner may have been grazing the day before. It is, quite literally, a taste of farm life.
Stephen and Dawn Robertson played host to the tour at their East Fork Farm last summer, and they’re particularly good at relating farm life to the inquisitive greenhorns in the dinner party. It wasn’t that long ago that the Robertsons were “computer geeks,” says Dawn, who wanted to become self-sufficient and raise a family on the farm.
Stephen and Dawn moved to this picturesque, pastoral valley in the mountains of Madison County, N.C., 15 years ago, “and the learning curve on everything has been about 15 years,” Stephen laughs. But they’ve learned enough to impart some wisdom to their guests—and the whole family gets in on the tour guide act.
Stephen and Dawn were both in the software business before they became full-time farmers, but they weren’t exactly city folk. They lived in Horseshoe, N.C., a rural community south of Asheville. “We had about an acre there, and we wanted a larger property,” says Stephen. “And we had a longing to be self-sufficient,” says Dawn. The search for the perfect piece of property was on.
The right place was just up the road from Asheville near Marshall: 40 acres with natural springs and a 700-square-foot house where the whole family lived while they built barns and made improvements to the land. “This property had about 90% of the things we wanted,” says Stephen, but there was a lot of work to do. The beautiful spot on the cover of this magazine, for instance, was 3 feet of mud before they dredged it and built the pond and pier. A grain barn that belonged to a neighbor was moved across the road and now bears a hand-painted “East Fork Farm” sign. Over the years the family added other barns, greenhouses and outbuildings, along with a hillside house with a stunning view of the valley.
There were some stops and starts with the farming, though. “We thought about doing commercial greenhouses. We thought about doing a tree farm. We thought about doing cattle,” says Stephen. In the end, though, their location and Dawn’s interest in sheep helped shape their business.
“This isn’t a huge farm, so it just made sense to run something out of the ordinary, other than beef and pork,” says Stephen, “and we found someone who was selling a whole flock of sheep, which is a good way to get some decent sheep.”
Though it took some work, it turned out the property was right for running lambs. Stephen and Dawn leaned on expertise and even some funding from North Carolina Soil and Water Conservation to devise a grazing plan and build five freshwater tanks that tap into the springs on the property.
“Rotation is important, because sheep don’t have the resistance to parasites that cattle do,” says Stephen. And there’s plenty of room to rotate. Today, there are 14 acre-and-a-half pastures of orchardgrass and clover, fenced with 6,000 feet of high-tensile electric wire. Each pasture is designed to always allow the sheep access to the barn. “When the sheep get moved out of a pasture,” says Dawn, Stephen will “immediately spread it with manure, and then the sheep aren’t back on that pasture for 30 days, so you get the benefit of fertilizer, but also parasite control.”
Then there was the location, just about a half-hour from Asheville. East Fork sells at tailgate markets, but also has distribution through Whole Foods and Earthfare grocers, as well as “10 to 15 restaurants,” says Stephen.
It’s a market that is “knowledgeable about what they’re eating,” says Dawn. “It seems to be really important [for customers] to know that the animal was healthy and happy.” That fits right in with the East Fork Farm philosophy: “Pasture-raised, no added hormones, no antibiotics, and medicines only to save a life,” says Dawn. Plus, the farm is Animal Welfare Approved.
That philosophy fits well with Outstanding in the Field, as well. On the 2009 tour, the Robertsons were “guest farmers” at an Outstanding dinner at a neighbor’s farm, providing rabbit to the chef. For 2010, they were invited to host.
“It was a great event, and we’d do it again,” says Dawn. The Robertsons, forever learners, were inspired by the experience to host their own farm dinners, events that are becoming staples in the agritourism industry to get locals from the city out to the farm. “Any time a group of people come out and they’re appreciative of what farmers do, it’s a good time,” says Stephen. Make that an outstanding time.
More About Outstanding in the Field
Visit the official Outstanding in the Field website for more information about the tour and this year’s dates.