Home Look for great learning opportunities on a fall trip through Virginia

Look for great learning opportunities on a fall trip through Virginia


matt lohrColumn by Matt Lohr

Let me start with a disclaimer. Proclaiming fall as Virginia’s second biggest vacation time of the year is not official; it’s just my idea. I’m sure many people would disagree or propose some other timeframe, but this is my story and I’m sticking with it, as they say. Let me tell you why.

In my opinion, and I believe the opinion of many other travelers, fall is second only to summer as prime traveling time. Here in Virginia the days are still warm but the nights are cool. We generally are past the hurricane season but winter storms are still on the distant horizon. Because we are a four-season state, the colors of the countryside are absolutely gorgeous, and because agriculture is our largest industry, travelers can visit a farm or ranch in every part of the state to pick pumpkins and apples or enjoy a food or wine festival.

Even the population-dense northern part of the state offers a plethora of choices for the fall agri-traveler. And really, isn’t that just about all of us?

So let’s get started. Your journey begins at your computer or on your smart phone. Log ontoVirginiaGrown.com, or install the free Virginia Grown app for Windows 7 smart phones and let the journey begin.

At VirginiaGrown or at our agritourism site, vdacs.virginia.gov/news/c-tourism.shtml, you will find all sorts of options for fall travel: pick-your-own farms, food festivals, pumpkin festivals, horseback riding, fly fishing, wine festivals, farms that offer overnight accommodations and so much more. Most food festivals include music and other entertainment from corn mazes to tractor pulls.

At the heart of the fall touring season are pumpkins and apples. Both are at their peak in October, and along with the fresh-picked fruits or vegetables, you get so much more. For me, the best treat is spending the day in the fresh fall air with my children, Caroline and Carson, and perhaps the extended family of grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles and cousins. Caroline is 12 now so I realize that the days of her being happy to travel with her old Dad may be limited. That makes each trip that much more precious and every pumpkin or bag of apples we drag home a fitting reminder of a special day.

One of the great aspects of a farm tour in the fall is that the fun continues after you get home. You can build a fire in the fire pit and sip Virginia cider, hard or regular, as you watch the fire crackle. Those apples you picked can become a family baking project with the end result being scrumptious pies or an apple cake. The pumpkins you selected so carefully become decorations for the front porch or greet trick-or-treaters with their carved faces. You can enhance your decorations with the straw bales, scarecrows, gourds, mums and other purchases at the farm, and be sure to save some of those apples for bobbing at your Halloween party.

A trip to a Virginia farm in the fall truly is a gift that keeps on giving.

For 10 years my late wife and I operated a U-pick pumpkin patch and agritourism operation compete with corn mazes, petting zoos, pedal race cars and hayrides. It was a lot of work, but I loved seeing the joy on the visitor’s faces when they got to experience a slice of farm life for the day.

One year we had baby goats in the petting zoo with I.D. ear tags in their ears. Two little girls were looking at the goats and one raised her hand. She said, “Hey mister, I just wanted you to know that you left the price tag in that one’s ear.” Then the other little girl chimed in and said, “Yeah… and that one was expensive!”

Another time two little boys were looking at the baby calves. We had a taller feeder in the pen where you pour feed in the top and it comes out the bottom. I overheard the boys talking and they were trying to figure out what that feeder was.  Finally one said, “Oh, man…that’s easy. Don’t you know anything? That’s his urinal.”

I would have loved to be in the car for the ride home with these families. Can you imagine the conversations they had about the expensive goat and the calf urinal?

Now that we don’t run the agritourism operation, I have more time to take fall trips with my own children. I’ve discovered the value of car conversations, although hopefully my kids know more about I.D. tags and calf feeders than some of our guests did.

Dr. Jay Kessler of the “Family Forum” radio program used to talk about the value of what he called Triangular Communication with your children. The triangle was composed of you, your child and something else. That something else often was a car and he used to say, “Going to the hardware store? Throw a kid in the car.” He believed, and I’ve found it to be true in my own life, that inserting something else into the equation is a great, non-threatening way to talk to your kids about important issues.

I have had some of the most serious talks with my children while driving. I am watching the road, so I’m not staring them in the face. And if the conversation gets uncomfortable, someone can always say, “Hey, look there’s a horse-drawn wagon” to break it up. Inevitably, within a few minutes, we’ll return to the topic of conversation. It’s a great way for me to check in with them about school, 4-H or FFA, but we can also talk very seriously about matters of faith or how much they miss their mother, who died two years ago.

A few weeks ago while driving I was having one of those car chats that became a little uncomfortable for Caroline. Finally she grabbed the door handle and said, “Dad, if you keep talking, I’m aiming for the grass.”  I laughed myself silly and it was a great tension reliever. She didn’t jump, by the way.

Yes, fall trips keep on giving in so many ways and I hope you take advantage of the season’s mild weather and brilliant colors to take a drive through Virginia farm country. I can’t promise you a series of life-changing conversations, but I can promise the finest, freshest Virginia Grown seasonal products and probably a processed products or two – wine, jelly, baked goods, cider, sorghum molasses and so much more.

Most of all, I hope you gain a greater appreciation for the way agriculture continually enhances our quality of life through open spaces, wildlife habitat, recreation, biodiversity, flood mitigation, improved water quality and soil stabilization – not to mention good things to eat and drink. Happy traveling.

Matthew J. Lohr is the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.



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