Emerging Agritourism: Farm to Fork Dinners at Sandiwood Farm
Twenty-five years ago, the land that would become Sandiwood Farm in Wolcott, VT wasn’t much more than a barren field. But that didn’t stop Sara and Bob Schlosser from putting down roots and starting a life there. The two married in that field, and in the years that followed, they built a house, a family, and a farm, all the while transforming it into a beautiful, thriving landscape. In their quarter-century of farming, Sara and Bob have refined their growing techniques to be able to offer some the earliest vegetables available in Northern Vermont—zucchini and cucumbers the first weeks of June, and potatoes just before July!—and have developed strong relationships with area chefs who serve Sandiwood produce all around the Stowe and Morrisville area. They also sell directly to customers at the Stowe Farmers Market, and at their own farm stand in Wolcott.
In 2012, after many years of planning and dreaming, Sara and Bob decided to add agritourism to their list of farm enterprises, and hosted their first Farm to Fork Dinner. Their daughter Sandi, a New England Culinary Institute trained chef, helped develop the idea. The farm produces almost all of the food served at the dinner, while Sandi creates the menu and runs the kitchen. Their son Kyle (whose middle name Woodrow is the second reason for the name “Sandiwood”) is also involved in the dinners, helping prepare and serve the food, and acting as the event photographer. The dinners have taken off since 2012, and the 2014 season will see one dinner each month through October.
I had the chance to stop by Sandiwood Farm and see the dinner prep in action for their season kick-off Solstice dinner. As always, Sara was brimming with excitement, welcoming me and showing me around the farm while Bob greeted early arrivers and Sandi and Kyle prepped with a small crew in the kitchen. There was not a weed to be found in the gardens that surround the house, and Sara joked that everywhere she walks she has the chance to weed. It’s hard not to be drawn in by Sara’s genuine love for farm and family, which is surely one aspect that keeps many diners coming back for meal after meal.
As agritourism is growing in popularity around Vermont, I asked Sara for her thoughts on it.
Katie Spring: How long have you been farming? Can you give a quick background on your farm—what you grow, where you sell, etc.
Sara Schlosser: We’ve been farming for 32 years. We grow a diverse array of produce, pushing the early season boundaries by having zucchini and cucumbers to sell by early June and beans and peas mid June. This year potatoes will be ready from a high tunnel by the end of June. We also produce maple syrup from our 35-acre sugarbush and sell it through mail order on our website. We’ve been fixtures at the Stowe Farmers Market for 20 years as, and also sell to high-end restaurant chefs. In the 1990s we had a 35-member CSA for 10 years before it was popular in the area. We’ve taken many twists and turns over the past 26 years but have stayed committed to growing food for ourselves and the surrounding community. More recently we’ve been focusing on sugaring and farm tours, and the Farm to Fork Dinners in the field!
KS: What does agritourism mean to you?
SS: Having guests to the farm to connect to where their food is raised and grown. Giving a wonderful, memorable, and educational experience and, in our case, an incredible localvore sunset meal in the field. We are blessed to be stewards of an amazing piece of land with incredible views, and we want to share what we love and what we are doing.
KS: What drew you to agritourism and wanting to share your farm with others?
SS: It’s natural to share what we are so blessed with—this land and the farm—and we’re proud of our accomplishments. We also want to share what we’ve learned about crops and varieties, season extension, and what is possible to grow in this climate without a heated greenhouse.
KS: Did you offer agritourism events or have other ways of inviting the public to your farm before you began the Farm to Fork Dinners?
SS: We’ve always welcomed people to our farm for sugaring and educational tours, and we have a plant sale from the farm for 6 weeks in the spring and early summer. We launched our first Farm to Fork Sunset Dinner and farm tour in 2012 and sat 20 people. We had no idea this type of dining experience would be so popular—we now seat 60 and could expand if we build a more permanent structure or pavilion. We are excited to have guests to our farm to connect to where the food is grown. We’ve had to find our niche with our farm dinners and make a truly unique experience different from other farm meals.
KS: You developed the Farm to Fork dinners with your daughter, a NECI-trained chef. What was the seed of this idea? How has this partnership evolved over the years?
SS: Our now-grown children were born and raised on the farm, and helped build our farm and business. Sandi found her true passion early on, always going to the gardens to harvest and prepare food from the time she could walk. Sandi has always loved to cook. It’s no wonder she went on to the New England Culinary Institute to get her chef degree! Collaborating on the Farm to Fork Dinners was a no-brainer with our incredible views, the farm, and Sandi’s passion to cook. I’m also a Justice of the Peace, and the family is excited to branch more into weddings and other special events on the farm with catering/grower/venue/family collaboration. Our son, Kyle, is entering his senior year at UVM and is a Parks, Recreation and Tourism major. Kyle is an integral part in making the farm dinners happen, from grounds and maintenance, kitchen help, and serving. We couldn’t do all that we do if our whole family wasn’t involved.
KS: What keeps you farming year after year?
SS: It’s what I’ve been doing for so long—it’s hard to change! I will always grow food for the local community and ourselves.
KS: What’s your favorite aspect of the Farm to Fork dinners?
SS: Seeing so many people truly enjoying the experience, raving about the food, venue, and what our family is doing together. It is so much more than a meal in a field. It is community building.
KS: Do you have any advice or encouragement for other farmers interested in agritourism?
SS: There are so many details—parking, rest rooms, insurance, handicap accessibility—and all the little things that need to be done in a timely way to give folks the best experience. It’s a lot to think about and prepare for. Just like agriculture, with all the certifications and insurances, it’s hard to stay small and really be sustainable. For us, we’d have to do a lot more dinners or branch out further with other agritourism options on our farm, but at this time we are maxed out with the mix of farmers market, chef sales, and on-farm dinner events. We are only in our third year of the dinners, though, and just like agriculture, it can take a little bit to get on your feet. The community experience and family venture keeps us going, and we are excited at how the dinners are growing!
KS: Any advice for eaters seeking out a farm experience?
SS: Do it!
One of the best things about agritourism is that it allows you to have a unique experience in your own backyard. Historically farms have not been a public space, but more and more farmers across Vermont and the US are opening their land up and inviting eaters to dig in. Whether you are driving to a local farm or visiting farms on a vacation, agritourism allows you to get to know a place on a deeper, and certainly more delicious, level. To learn more about Sandiwood Farm or to sign up for a Farm to Fork Sunset Dinner, visit www.sandiwoodfarm.com