By Rachel Salatin
Winter is often a great time to visit a farmer. While the ground sleeps, production typically slows and farmers enter the “maintenance and planning” season. This is why on a cold (almost snowy) Saturday in January, my friend DJ and I found ourselves one-hour west of Staunton in Highland County, one of the least populous counties in Virginia. Located in the Allegheny Mountains midway between the eastern border of West Virginia and western border of the Shenandoah Valley, Highland County is often referred to as “Virginia’s Switzerland” or “Virginia’s Sweet Spot” for its mountainous terrain and extensive maple syrup production.
Highland County is rural Virginia. Internet is spotty (I recommend downloading directions in advance), population sparse and farms prevalent.
Our first stop was Riven Rock Farm. “Riven” is an ancient Gaelic word meaning “to split or shatter”; appropriate for the rugged rock formations, cliffs, and caves on the property. On 700 acres of land, Chuck and Lou Ann Neely raise clean, nutrient dense, grass-fed meat.
Joined on the farm tour by Maggie, the guard dog, we learned that the mountains (which reach the highest average elevations east of the Mississippi River), spring fed waters, and cool summer temperatures of Highland County, create the perfect environment for world class, grass-finished beef and lamb.
Two refurbished cabins are located on the property and are rented to visitors looking for a tranquil experience. This one sits next to a trout stream and features a beautiful and usable stone fireplace.
Following Chuck and Lou Ann’s recommendation, we enjoyed lunch at the Curly Maple general store in downtown Monterey, across from the Highland County Courthouse.
The second farm stop was Mill Gap Farm, Virginia’s only USDA Certified Organic maple syrup farm. Kevin and Emily Conner with their children, moved from Richmond, Virginia to Highland County in 2017. Using high-tech syrup collecting and evaporating equipment, they joined the ranks of the many expert syrup producers in the area. While Kevin is running and maintaining sugar lines on the mountain, Emily tends the farm’s alpacas, sheep, and two rented farm lodges.Kevin generously shared his knowledge of tree identification and explained how the size of a maple tree’s canopy effects the saps sugar content. Check out the view behind him!
The finished maple syrup is smooth, golden, and a rich combination of sweet and earthy.Highland County’s contrast of high, narrow ridges forested in hardwoods and broad, open valleys dotted with grazing sheep and cattle offers the perfect place to slow your pace and reignite your senses. Both Riven Rock Farm and Mill Gap Farm welcome visitors and the opportunity to share their products and livelihood with the public. In March, Mill Gap Farm will be open for Highland County’s annual Maple Sugar Festival.
8:45 to 10:00 am: Staunton to Riven Rock Farm – Drive is 1 hour and 10 minutes
10:00 to 12:00 noon: Riven Rock Farm – 10 minutes from Riven Rock Farm to downtown Monterey
12:00 to 1:00 pm: Lunch at Curly Maple – 10 minutes from Curly Maple to Mill Gap Farm
1:30-3:00 pm: Mill Gap Farm – 1 hour back home to Staunton
My friend DJ and I both have a strong connection to the land and hold immense respect for the land stewards who are lucky (and brave) enough to tend our ecosystems plants and animals. Our passion for food and farming is supported by our professions related to agriculture – he as an agricultural photographer and storyteller and I with my work in agritourism.
Left to right: Rachel Salatin is the Agritourism Coordinator of the Fields of Gold Farm Trail. Daniel James (DJ) Doherty is the founder of Herd Ventures.