In Charlottesville, a new generation of farmers and market owners is committed to changing how we eat―and live. Come meet them and try our favorite local food.
On a warm afternoon in Esmont, Virginia, with clouds streaking across a robin’s-egg blue sky, Gail Hobbs-Page stands in a field surrounded by her 44 goats. Here at Caromont Farm--named to reflect Gail’s childhood on a farm in North Carolina and these mountains she now calls home--Gail makes some of the finest goat cheese in America. Like so many others, Gail has found a certain kind of magic in the land encircling Charlottesville. In this area where Thomas Jefferson elevated farming to an art form--growing everything from figs to artichokes to raspberries--an increasing population of men and women is leading an agrarian renaissance. The players are as varied as the food they’re producing: a former teacher with a flair for design who sells vegetables and zinnias; a one-time Peace Corps volunteer immersed in the world of cattle, chickens, and eggs; a couple selling gourmet local foods from a country market.
For the visitor, a trip here is a way to enjoy true culinary magic. Restaurants specialize in local food, shops sell outstanding
organic cheeses and produce, and bakeries and breweries invite you to come inside and talk with owners.
But the movement is about more than food. It’s also about people who’ve built their dreams in this corner of the South that Jefferson called his “Eden.” Now, more than ever, his words ring true.
One raises grass-fed Red Poll cattle. Another turned a failing vineyard into an organic operation growing zinnias, herbs, and heirloom tomatoes. They all traded a conventional life for one that celebrates local food and the land it came from. Here, their stories.
John and Nancy Hellerman, Goodwin Creek Farm & Bakery
What They Do: Bake bread and sell vegetables and eggs. They plan to open a produce stand by the road and to create a program through which visitors can come work on the farm.
Where You’ll Find Them: In Afton, 30 minutes from Charlottesville; www.aftonvirginia.com
Specialty: Pumpkin Spice Muffins and Italian-style ciabatta (made by Nancy)
Where To Get It: Greenwood Gourmet Grocery, Blue Mountain Brewery, and Revolutionary Soup.
How They Got Started: “I bought the farm with my family four years ago,” John says, “and we knew we were going to do some kind of business here. Now, we almost have more business than we want.”
Why They Love It: “The viability of family farms is coming back, and it’s neat to be part of that,” John adds. “I know the family that we bought this from, and they produced a lot of their own food here, from cows to chickens to hogs. So we’re keeping the land in use and trying to continue a tradition of family farms.”
Elizabeth VanDeventer, Davis Creek Farm
What She Does: Manages 50 head of Red Poll cattle, plus 4,000 Cornish Cross chickens and 30 mixed-breed laying hens
Where You’ll Find Her: In Lovingston, about 40 minutes from Charlottesville; www.daviscreekfarm.com
Specialty: Grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chicken
Where To Get It: Nelson Farmers Market in Nellysford on Saturdays, or at the farm. Go online for directions, and call ahead.
How She Got Started: “My husband, Tim DiChiara, and I met while working on an agriculture project in the Peace Corps. Later, we started the farm as a way to do something meaningful and have a lifestyle that incorporated our children.”
Why She Loves It: “We have such a high quality of life. I get to spend so much time with my three sons because I can include them in the work. They’re comfortable with the land because they spend so much time exploring the pastures, forests, and creeks,” Elizabeth says. “Plus, they’ve learned that food is connected to place--plants, animals, and people. Sometimes when Tim and I work an 18-hour day, we may feel like we’re crazy, but the quality of life is the kind of payback you can’t put a price tag on.”
Rob and Megan Weary, Roundabout Farm
What they Do: Grow organic herbs, flowers, and vegetables on this former vineyard
Where You’ll Find them: In Keswick, 10 minutes east of town; www.roundaboutfarm.net
Specialty: They grow dozens of varieties of produce, but what’s unique about Round¬about is the flower operation and the marketing savvy Megan brings to it. Their summer zinnias, bundled in tissue paper and tied with grosgrain ribbon, are a refreshing splash of color from the farm. Sunflowers are best-sellers. “When people walk away with those wrapped flowers, they feel like movie stars--they feel special,” says Megan.
Where To Get It: Charlottesville City Market and Feast!, as well as at MAS and L’étoile restaurants
How they Got Started: “After school at UVA, we lived in Italy and the Virgin Islands--these places that people consider paradise. In the end, we knew that we always wanted to be here,” Megan says.
Why they Love It: She adds, “It’s incredibly rewarding to provide something that is good, solid, and strong in a place we really love.”
David Atwell and Nina Promisel, Greenwood Gourmet Grocery
What They Do: Run one of the first area markets to commit to local produce. They buy from more than 200 local vendors.
Where You’ll Find Them: In Crozet, about 30 minutes from Charlottesville; www.greenwoodgourmet.com
Specialty: Everything local--apples, produce, meat, cheese, wine, and beer
How They Got Started: “We really started as a way for local farmers to sell seven days a week instead of just Saturdays at the farmers market,” David says. “Here I am, 10 years later, still a quirky retailer.”
Why They Love It: “I always wanted to be a farmer, and I still do. But it’s a necessity for us to be here now, being an outlet for all these little farmers. They are the ones who usually fall through the cracks,” says David. “It’s more about the idea of a community than a job.”
Gail Hobbs-Page, Caromont Farm
What She Does: Makes artisanal goat cheese for restaurants and consumers
Where You’ll Find Her: In Esmont, about 40 minutes south of Charlottesville; www.caromontfarm.com
Specialty: Excellent goat cheeses, including a variety soaked in Sancerre
Where To Get It: Charlottesville-area markets such as Feast! and Greenwood Gourmet Grocery. She also sells her cheese at the Nelson Farmers Market in Nellysford on Saturday mornings.
How She Got Started: “I’d been a chef for 26 years, and I thought, ‘Well, I can make cheese, and I love goats because I had them when I was growing up on a peanut farm in North Carolina.’ I went to the people at Best of What’s Around, musician Dave Matthews’s farm, and they decided they didn’t want to deal with goats anymore. So they gave them to me with their blessing.”
Why She Loves It: “I grew up on a farm, and now I’ve got my own--plus what I call our ‘goatel’ and 55 kids!”
Our editor’s picks of the best restaurants, markets, and farms
Restaurants in Downtown Charlottesville:
Revolutionary Soup: A hole-in-the-wall with inventive soups. (www.revolutionarysoup.com)
L’étoile: A cozy bistro with French inspiration and Virginia products. (www.letoilecville.blogspot.com)
MAS: This tapas restaurant is one of our favorites. The anchovy fillets in lemon marinade will change your mind about anchovies. (www.mastapas.com)
City Market: The place to be on Saturday morning for all things local. Open every Saturday April-October. (www.charlottesvillecitymarket.com)
Feast!: This downtown market also serves sandwiches. Try “The Local” with Caromont Farm goat cheese, artichoke hearts, and olive spread. (www.feastvirginia.com)
Restaurants Outside Charlottesville:
Blue Mountain Brewery: Down the road from Good¬win Creek Farm, this brewery serves food and excellent beer. Afton, Virginia; www.bluemountainbrewery.com
Check out www.buylocalvirginia.org. This site from the Piedmont Environmental Council is a great source for all things local. You can download and print a guide to markets, restaurants, and farms.