To get to home cook and homesteading extraordinaire, Aaren Ross Riddle's, Well Fed Farm you wind up through the breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia until you reach the small town of Floyd. It was late Spring when we visited Aaren at her mountain home, located in the lush countryside, just a short drive from downtown. The vibrant green, this part of Virginia is know for, had just begun to recolor the landscape. Spring planting preparations were underway and Aaren's homestead was alive with activity. The songs of returning birds mixed with the bellows from baby calves made a very cheerful soundtrack.
After an exhaustive search for affordable farmland with a welcoming community in North Carolina, Aaren widened her search to Virginia. It only took one visit to Floyd to convince her this was the place to start a new chapter with her then husband and two young boys. Floyd is a haven of natural beauty with music, food and cultural offerings far exceeding what one might expect from a typical small mountain town. It was these offerings, combined with a friendly community, lush farmland and breathtaking views that convinced Aaren and her family to relocate from the city. They purchased a piece of land just a short drive from town and got to work building their first farm. They planted perennials and fruit trees, established grazing rotations for their dairy and beef cattle, built a massive garden, and began raising pigs and poultry. The work was back breaking and they struggled to figure out a sustainable model that would best work for their land and their skill sets. Raising two kids, while trying to make a go of farming full time, added major stress to their marriage. After three years of farming together, Aaren and her partner amicably split. He moved to town while Aaren opted to stay on the land to continue working towards her vision of Well Fed Farm.
While it was slower going on her own, Aaren met her partner Craig through mutual friends living in Floyd. Craig was living in Roanoke early in their courtship (an hour away) but moved to Floyd a few years ago and they married last year. Craig maintains an off-farm job and Aaren runs the homestead. She sells her pasture raised meats directly to local customers. Aaren does her own butchering, milking, curing, canning, baking, and preserving. Her formidable skills in the kitchen and on the farm she has acquired mostly through trial and error. Aaren's happy place is in the kitchen - cooking is her therapy - her sanctuary. Her kitchen is packed with cookbooks, mixing bowls, mason jars and delicious smells. Her love of homesteading is fueled by her passion for food - good food made with good ingredients. If you are looking for inspiration to embolden your own foray into scratch cooking and homesteading you need look no further than Aaren's instagram. It is a mouthwatering culinary overload of homegrown goodness.
CORONAVIRUS INTERVIEW follow-up
How have you been coping through this very difficult and scary time?
We are doing okay here on the farm. It’s the time of year that keeps us extremely busy anyway and staying busy helps me at least quiet my mind and a tired body makes falling asleep at night a bit easier. Honestly, we are uniquely suited for sheltering in place. I normally would go a week or so without leaving the farm and do well with solitude and quiet. We have freezers of our frozen meat, a stocked canning pantry of things put by from the garden, a cow or three for milk (and thus butter/ghee/ and cheese), chickens for our eggs (and meat) along with lots of grains stored to mill for breads and such. The garden is just starting up again and seedlings are taking over our basement that acts as our makeshift -at the moment-greenhouse.
I would like to stress, however, that we recognize what a fortunate position we truly are in during this time. We are thankful everyday for our homestead way of life now more than ever. Our size and scale keep us in a more buffered position (at least at the moment) than some of our farmer friends who are already feeling the strain of plummeting beef prices and such. We can hold our animals until things eventually even back out and since we sell beef direct to consumer for their freezers it’s less of a worry at the moment for us here.
What hopeful things have you witnessed during this pandemic?
One of the things I remarked on when I went out last week was how everyone is throwing themselves into beautifying their yards and breaking ground for new or larger gardens this coming summer. This makes my heart happy.
Can you share a few of your favorite dishes you’ve been making during social distancing? What advice would you have for novice cooks who are just getting their feet wet in the kitchen?
Sure. Scratch made pizza is a big one in the rotation... by just increasing my wild yeasted dough for bread once or twice a week it’s an easy and quick thing to make happen. The tomato sauce we use starts by sautéing a sliced clove of garlic in a good amount of olive oil, then a pint of tomato passata I made from our heirloom fruits late last fall gets added along with a pinch of salt, sugar, a few grinds of black pepper, a bay leaf, and a branch of dried oregano. This bubbles merrily away until reduced and jammy.
I also always have a clay pot of beans on the back of the stove so family can help themselves throughout the day. My advice to novice cooks would be to recognize that cooking (especially two or three meals a day everyday!) is something to congratulate yourself for. Don’t be too hard on yourself if something doesn’t go as planned. You only really learn from mistakes and building confidence in the kitchen comes from working through all kinds of recipes and situations. Pick a few things you love to eat and make them on repeat until you understand what’s building flavor and you feel confident with them. Start with making a few meal elements from scratch and build from there. It’s definitely ok to add a convenience/ prepared item into the mix.
If you are stuck on what to put on the table for dinner figure out what you need to use up, and see how you can work all those things into something you actually feel like you want to eat. I do this a lot. Get friendly with using Umami...anchovy, fish sauce, parm, and miso are excellent secret ingredients that can slide into the most unlikely places and do in many of my meals. Acid is also your friend. Many dishes can be happily tweaked before eating with a bit of bright vinegar or lemon juice.
Embrace your fats! Those beans? Full of leftover fat from the bottom of the chicken roasting pan I scrapped into a little jar to save and stash in my fridge. Butter! I put it in and on everything... we have a freezer full. Olive oil, goes without saying. I also have on hand at all times: home rendered lard, peanut oil, grape seed oil, coconut oil and farmstead ghee.
How has your community rallied together during this time? Do you feel even more grateful to be in this community and on this land?
We love our small community and how everyone has pulled together to help each other during this time and make ends meet. It is incredibly stressful and sad watching so many of our friends in the restaurant business have to make some really tough decisions. But also wonderful watching incredible outside the box ideas bloom and seeing the resilience and ingenuity flourish among farmers, makers, other small businesses, and the restaurants we know and love.
Have you wrapped your head around the potential lasting effects? How do you envision our society, our world, and our communities changing after this is over?
Loaded question! Honestly, no, not completely and really who has?? I do have my own thoughts on how this could potentially play out and my own feelings on what I hope to see eventually happen in the future. But, I’ll keep my hand close for now.
All I can say is: It’s a lot. My heart is heavy a lot of the time. It’s easier for me than say my teenage children. Keeping busy helps.
What advice do you have for people in the city and suburbs who want to start growing their own food and/or becoming more self-sufficient?
Just go for it. Learning to can and put food by is a great place to start. Boxes of fruit and veg can usually be acquired from your local farmers and you’ll most likely get a bit of a price break buying in bulk. When one is then able to grow their own, you’ll already have the skills to embrace your new abundance.
Have you noticed a shift in what you value and deem important?
Food sovereignty has always been of utmost importance to me. This C-19 crisis is really pointing out where we as a country are broken and have been off track in regards to industrialized agriculture and the meat industry. We are upping our game this season here by expanding our already decently large vegetable garden. Extra seedlings and produce we are looking forward to bartering/gifting within our community.
Do you think this pandemic will inspire more people to begin learning more self-sufficiency skills?
I really cannot see how it wouldn’t. I have already noticed a swift uptick in local folks looking for laying hens and (while we ordered all our seeds back in December and January) it’s also evident by the current backlog in seed companies to the point where many are no longer taking orders to try and catch up. I have never seen that before. Seed saving and sharing is more important than ever right now.
Do you think more people will migrate from urban areas after this has ended?
I believe so. I really believe so.
Why did you decide to leave the city?
After our first son was born, we felt a pull to be closer to family and say goodbye to the high desert. Santa Fe, New Mexico had been our home for many years, but I wanted my babe to roll on grass dotted with violets, not crawl through the dusty goat-head studded earth (which was our current yard situation). My then husband Gabriel and I both craved the lush verdant mountains of our youth, so we decided to move back east. I dreamt of a large vegetable garden to tend, harvest, and cook from for our family. Our original plan when leaving New Mexico included starting a business with Gabriel’s father, who had an exporting license and lived in Argentina. We were playing around with the different ideas and how it would all look - importing wine, cow hides, and antiques up to our new home base in western North Carolina.
The universe had other plans. All within a year and a half Quique (my father in law) sadly and unexpectedly passed away, and my second pregnancy unraveled with an emergency cesarean surgery and the preterm birth of our second son at 25 weeks. After months and months spent with our babe in the hospital, Gabriel and I were busting at the seams for change, for space, for privacy. In hindsight, we were both desperately needing to take charge of something of our owning making that could help ground and refuel us. (Ironic, I know, as farming is one of the most tumultuous, even uncontrollable at times, enterprises to undertake.) Now more than ever we wanted to have access to the most healthy, nutrient dense foods possible for our young boys and we understood the best way to obtain that was going to be by jumping in and doing it ourselves.
Why did you choose Floyd, VA?
We had learned from our few years in Black Mountain and Asheville that North Carolina just wasn’t for us, and this became even more apparent during a search for land outside of Asheville after we had decided to put our West Asheville bungalow on the market. We kept running into the fact that those available small pockets of farm land we could afford came along with unfriendly old timers who viewed us as unwanted outsiders taking away their land and way of being. Bottom line, it just was not going to be a good fit.
Frustrated, one day on a whim, I came up with the proposition of moving our search up to a small town close to where I had grown up. As a child, my family had a tradition of driving up to Floyd to get a tree each year for Christmas. I knew there was a food co-op and a great old time music scene there but, honestly, that was about it. So, we drove up for a visit and, after that, we both just kind of knew this was IT. We had come…HOME.
The folks we happened to meet that one day were incredibly friendly and kind. We discovered a countryside of green rolling hills and abundant water with incredible mountaintop views. Floyd was full of artists, makers, and musicians. There were just so many people passionate about food and farming. Everyone we met was so welcoming. From the old timers in the local diner and hardware store (which are located side by side and on the corner of the one and only stop light found in the entire county), to the established back-to-the-landers who had been here for decades, to younger families much like ourselves who had recently gravitated to the area as well. When I discovered there was also a small parent run independent elementary school, that sealed the deal, and we began looking for land with a recommended realtor.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the transition from city to small town? What challenges came later?
Honestly, good restaurants! It was difficult giving up amazing food delivery, sushi, the hole in the wall Greek restaurant, the Whole Foods… Our closest ABC store (VA controlled and run liquor store) was an hour away after we moved to the farm! So, yes, there was that culture shock of an adjustment. On the flip-side, it really lit a fire underneath me to learn to cook everything I missed.
Oh, and the absolute dark here took some getting used to as well. I still vividly remember driving up the long gravel driveway after midnight our first night arriving here with a loaded moving truck, two sleeping boys, a dog and two cats. We were exhausted from loading that truck all day and trying to avoid all the deer that kept running out in front of us on the drive up through winding, unfamiliar, tiny country roads. When we got inside the farm house and turned on the lights, I had a small panic attack from the extreme dark of those gaping, curtain-less windows! It’s funny now in hindsight, but at the time I felt like there could be anyone or anything out there looking back in. It felt the opposite of how country relaxing was supposed to feel. I am happy to report that as we got to know our land that feeling completely disappeared, and the only time I draw closed the curtains now is when the temperature severely drops during the winter at night ;)
How has professional life changed since moving away from the city?
Completely. In Santa Fe, we were working in restaurants and I was also apprenticing in the collections departments of two museums and later took a job with one of them. I have a degree in Art History and at the time never planned to become a farmer! I loved meeting with and shopping from local farmers at the markets, even visiting farms, but that was the extent of my connection to the vegetables and proteins I used in my cooking aside from say a pot of cherry tomatoes on the back porch. If someone had told me 20 years ago I’d be hand-milking my own herd of heritage breed cows, making cheese and butter, curing homegrown and harvested pork, butchering chickens, and tending a large market and kitchen garden along with fruit trees & grape vines…I would have laughed.
What do you appreciate most about the life you’ve created here?
I love the wide-open space, the solitude, the woods full of mushrooms, the rhythms of the land and the beasts we care for here throughout the seasons…the perennial gardens I have established full of medicinals, flowers, fruit and nut trees. As an introvert, I am well suited to this type of living. I draw satisfaction from knowing just how strong and capable I truly have become living in this environment and understanding that one way or another I can figure out a way to get it done. (I mean, I may or may not have learned to castrate piglets from You Tube tutorials.) I can now depend on my own resourcefulness and industriousness and feel that at this point I can handle most of what comes my way with a tenacity and a (sometimes) grace I never knew I had in me before. That all comes from failing A LOT, getting older, being a mother, making it through a divorce, and of course tending all matter of beasts these last ten years. I love shopping from my freezer and walking out to the garden right before dinner to help guide my decision about what to include on the plate for the evening. Most of all, of course, I love our kitchen and the cooking and feeding of my family and friends.
Why did you decide to start Well Fed Farm?
Well we dove head first into homesteading after deciding we were going to live this lifestyle. I always knew in my gut, after making this decision to farm, that stewarding rare, heritage breeds was just naturally going to be our focus and that doing so with organic methods was just the way it would have to be done. These methods would draw from what we had in abundance…beautiful woods and forage lush pastures. We began with the firm intention to have our end goal be a closed loop system so that definitely has helped define our choices along the way. It was just the only way we ever saw it all being done. It just made sense.
We began to harvest, and cook, just to feed our family at first, but then it carried over in an abundance to our extended families and friends and which turned into sales at markets for a while and then other clientele came to us via word of mouth. There was a definite recalibration and redefinition (still happening!) that was inevitable after my separation/ divorce which led to me taking over all farm matters here as a solo endeavor.
Is there anything you miss about living in a more urban area?
Sure. Cultural diversity, museum exhibitions, ethnic food…
Would you ever consider moving back to a big city?
Never say never, but it would have to be something pretty big and pretty great that would convince me to walk away from my life here.
What advice do you have for people who want to leave the city but don’t know how to start planning their exit strategy?
Read, dream, sketch, plan… but most importantly get out there and hit the road, visit some places while talking to people along the way and getting your hands dirty.
Did you have any experience growing food prior to moving here?
A bit. I grew up visiting with family every summer who had a huge farm down in Georgia. When I was a teenager and my family moved out of town to have land, we kept a decent sized summer garden and I had experience keeping my horses then as well. We never kept chickens or pigs or goats or cattle or anything like that, though.
What advice would you give to someone interested in growing their own food?
Research, visit and talk to as many different folks as possible. Try to really listen to what works for them, even if you kind of know that it might not be the way you want to do things yourself. It’s all about piecing together just the right strategy for you and your crew or, at least, putting various techniques and tools into the pot, just in case. And, of course, offer yourself up as free labor as much as you can in the process! Talking and reading only gets you so far. Bottom line is there is a wicked and on-going learning curve to farming veg or animals, period. Trial and error, unlimited resourcefulness, and an ability to bounce back and not chastise yourself over poor mistakes or grave miscalculations is something that one is going to need to embrace practicing.
Do you notice a trend of young people wanting to leave city life behind? If yes, why do you think that is?
For us and for a lot of our friends and contemporaries we were just getting priced out. The idea of a slower more fulfilling way of life and raising kids to see where their food comes from and what it takes is also a big draw. Honestly, farming with kids is hard. Good but hard.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
You do not have to love your neighbors, having them over for sunset cocktails once a week on the back porch with a dinner and bonfire later that night (although, cheers to you if you do!), but you realistically do need to keep on good working terms with your neighbors whether or not you share the same values or have a whole lot in common. Out here everyone leans on each other, here and there, throughout the months and years. It behooves you to have their numbers in your phone and have each other’s backs in case of who knows what unexpected things that can and eventually will transpire…please believe me.
Small communities are symbiotic. Being friendly, offering a hand, graciously accepting help, taking care of neighbors and friends is just the plain, decent way to be.
I always say ‘thanks’ to people for their help with some of our pork chops, a bit of fresh cheese, eggs, or bread. Also, try not to go to war with anyone over anything, ever. (If you can help it.) Good fences do tend to make good neighbors. Wave. Smile. Be nice. Mind your own business (to a certain degree). Return any mason jars you received as a food gift back to their owner clean and preferably full of something else delicious you can share with them.
Ha! How’s that for a boiled down country living manners primer?
What hopes do you have for the future of food and farming in America?
Food sovereignty, continued and evolving animal welfare standards becoming the norm with quick on farm deaths at harvest, USDA mobile butchery units, more and continuing diversity of breeds, and customers who actually understand why food from small farms should cost more than corporate mass commodity meats.
Are there any books, mentors, podcasts, farming hero’s that you would recommend to people wanting to start growing food?
I remember reading Gene Logsdon’s The Contrary Farmer and feeling so much, YES! (All his stuff is great.) Country Women: A Handbook for the New Farmer by Jeanne Tetrault is much older but had a big impact on me. Goat Song by Brad Kessler was a favorite back when I was neighborhood locked and dreaming of having my own goat herd. John Seymour’s Self Sufficient Life was fantastic. The Foxfire series, Eliot Coleman, Joel Salatin… Finding and Buying Your Place in the Country by Les & Carol Scher was a little outdated even when I read it (over ten years ago) but was great for understanding the importance and impact of certain things pertaining to purchasing and owning rural land such as: right of way, zoning, water rights etc. Oh, and my favorite A Patten Language and Gaia’s Garden are good ones to throw in too.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
Get all my girls artificially inseminated in tandem so everyone calves together during the months of late April early May 2019. Finish building a new, strong, 10-foot garden deer fence. Perhaps try a new heritage breed of hog. (Specifically, I am interested in the lard type Mangalitsa that take a bit longer to grow out but are amazing in cured preparations). We’ve also been saving to get solid perimeter woven wire fencing professionally installed around most of our pasture acreage and hope to get that infrastructure in place soon. Finally, begin our attached greenhouse that has languished as a project on the back burner ever since we had its foundation dug and laid many years back. I also hope to begin offering some farm based cooking classes again. And, a R & D trip over to Spain wouldn’t hurt either. Who am I fooling? This is a list that could go on for days!