Farmer Sarah Jones Decker shares what it’s really like to host a farm dinner
By Jen Nathan Orris | Photos by Erin Adams
Farm dinners can be deceptive in their simplicity—at least for the guests. Those fresh flowers and overflowing plates don’t magically appear on candlelit tables; it takes months of planning before people descend on a working farm. Sarah Jones Decker and her husband, Morgan Decker, make it appear easy, but Sarah isn’t shy about sharing the realities of hosting events at Root Bottom Farm in Madison County.
Edible Asheville: Summer is a really busy time on your farm with the summer crops, your CSA, and farmers markets. You also put on events at your farm. Can you talk about one of your biggest events, the Pedal to Plate bicycle ride and dinner?
Sarah Jones Decker: It came about because my husband and I both love long-distance bike riding. On one of our bike rides, we started talking about how cool it would be to incorporate our love of biking and our farming. We usually take a big bike trip in October right after the garlic goes in the ground. The farm is almost closed, so our minds are open to thinking again. We had the idea of including our friends and our local farm neighbors and expanding our already successful farm-to-table dinners that we do in July and August. We call it “bike-to-farm-totable.” You start at Root Bottom Farm, and then you bike to four or five of our friends’ farms and get samples and tours. Then you come back to our farm for a 100 percent local meal from all the farmers involved.
EA: Like you mentioned, you also host farm dinners. What are those like?
SJD: We host people in front of our renovated tobacco barn. We have a private chef, Dava Allen from Blessed 2 Cook, who primarily cooks our food, but we also get locally sourced meat and eggs and cheese. She does all of our cooking, and it’s a big collaboration. Dava, Morgan, and I come up with a local seasonal menu together.
EA: What’s on a typical menu?
SJD: For Pedal to Plate last year, we did blackberry barbecue chicken drumsticks with our blackberries turned into barbecue sauce and East Fork Farm chicken from down the road. We are vegetable farmers and fruit farmers, so we say that even a vegan can leave happy because our meals are very plant-based. A typical dinner would be appetizers, a big salad, four vegetable dishes, and then there happens to also be a meat dish. There’s also homemade dessert.
EA: Each event starts with a farm tour. What can people see?
SJD: They can see an old tobacco farm that has been rejuvenated into a working organic farm. We give tours of our annual operation, microgreen operation, all of our greenhouses, and then also our perennial production and our fruit orchard.
EA: How many people usually come to your events?
SJD: Well, Pedal to Plate is pretty big. We have 60 riders, and then we end up feeding about 80 people, including farmers and volunteers for the event. Our farm dinners are smaller than that, typically 20-30 people, but we’ve had as big as 55 for the farm dinner.
EA: That’s wild. How do you get ready for all those people?
SJD: My husband and I are just super-organized, so we just kind of have it down. We do it in the morning, and we have a system that seems to work for us. We set up all the tables and get everything ready in the morning, and people start showing up at six o’clock in the evening. We’ve been doing it for so many years that we just get it done.
EA: Does it ever stress you out to plan these things?
SJD: You know, it has never stressed me out except one time when an hour before everyone showed up we had a torrential rain storm, and everything got wet, and we had to wash all the tablecloths and wash all the dishes and everything an hour before everyone showed up! Then it was blue skies and a gorgeous evening. But it was honestly one of the worst rainstorms we’ve had in all the years we’ve lived here. Besides that, it hasn’t been that stressful. It’s really fun. We love sharing our farm in that way because we’re not open to the public. It’s our opportunity to shine. I think if we were open 24/7 all the time that we wouldn’t have the same enthusiasm, but we like being open for three days a year to friends and customers.
EA: As you’re getting ready for a dinner, are there things that you have to do on a farm that a restaurant doesn’t have to worry about?
SJD: Our chef cooks everything in a certified kitchen and then brings it to our farm, so we follow all those rules. The only thing that we make here would be our iced tea. But everything else is made in a certain kitchen in another location.
EA: Do you have to take precautions on the farm to keep visitors safe?
SJD: Yeah, we have farmers insurance, and then, like with all agritourism, there’s a sign that says that you’re here on your own accord and to be careful. We have signs posted that say wear good shoes and be cautious of where you’re walking and things like that. We just ask that people come prepared to walk around the farm.
EA: You also live on the farm. What’s that like during events?
SJD: You know, it’s not that bad. We do let people use our bathrooms in our house. I guess the biggest thing is that we haveto clean our house really well. Our house is part of the whole story because it’s a 100-year-old wormy chestnut cabin, so people are interested in seeing it.
EA: I’ve been to events at your farm, and it’s an amazing old house. It really does feel like a family welcoming you into their home.
SJD: Well, thank you. It’s all-inclusive, and our doors are open.
EA: What is the experience of hosting these events like for you, emotionally? Does it give you energy? Does it seem exhausting?
SJD: I would say it brings me joy to put on such a big event successfully and seamlessly. Also, it gives me joy to see other people enjoying not only our farm, but other Madison County farmers and our beautiful back roads by bicycle for Pedal to Plate. So logistically, it’s awesome when it all comes together, but it’s also really cool to see our attendees be so happy and enjoy it.
EA: Any favorite parts of hosting the farm dinners?
SJD: It’s nice to be able to show people everything from start to finish. We can show them things that are growing, we can show them things that are harvested, and then they get to see it on their plate. A lot of times, we grow this food, and it goes off to somebody else. So it’s nice to see it full circle and to see our food cooked in this way. You know, I’m not a chef; my husband and I are both are good cooks, but to see Dava take our food and create these really loving meals with our ingredients, it’s pretty awesome.
EA: Are there other ways you connect with the community?
SJD: We donate $500 of ticket sales to a local Madison County nonprofit every year. This year we’re working with CHC [Community Housing Coalition of Madison County]. They do a lot of awesome things for people in this area. So not only is CHC the recipient of our donation, but almost their whole staff is riding the Pedal to Plate route. That’s a first for us. ◊◊
Jen Nathan Orris is a contributing editor of Edible Asheville and never misses a chance to eat under the stars at a local farm.
Sarah Jones Decker, her husband, Morgan Decker, and their daughter of Root Bottom Farm.