As our little tour van rolled up the dusty gravel road toward Fairburn Farm, I knew we would be in for a treat. I hopped out and had to let the scenery soak in a bit. We stood in front of a lovely farm house surrounded by pastures, mountains, and lush green hues that sprouted up from the ground and hung over our heads under a canopy of fruit-bearing trees.
Mara Jernigan met us just off the porch and picked some white alpine strawberries for us to taste before we even finished making our introductions. Growing right along the house these sweet, melt-in-your-mouth berries (that resembled little bright white LED Christmas lights) were the first of many treats in store for us that day.
Since it was established 115 years ago, Fairburn Farm has only had two separate owners. Although the products, business, and land have evolved, the same down to earth goodness and values still exist today. The 130 acres are maintained by the Archer family who run the Cowichan Water Buffalo Dairy, while the Culinary Retreat and Guest house are under the direction of Mara Jernigan.
Mara offers culinary getaways, cooking classes, education in eating local, and was a driving force behind the slow food movement in the Cowichan region. She founded the Vancouver Island Feast of Fields, which is an annual fundraising event that connects farmers and chefs as well as farm folks and city folks — all through food.
We were treated to breakfast on the porch, which consisted of a free range egg frittata, a chicken sausage (pasture-raised chicken from Cowichan Bay Farm), chicken of the woods mushrooms, fresh greens, and coffee. Mara pulls in everything from corn and mushrooms, to garlic, lavender, and kohlrabi into her cooking. “When the vegetables are fresh, you don’t have to do a lot to them,” she noted adding that ideas for delicious meals just come that much easier when you have resources like these.
Throughout our Vancouver Island tour, at each farm house, vineyard or artisan shop, everyone spoke so highly of everyone else in the community. Hilary’s Cheese served bread from True Grain, and the milk from the Water Buffalo at Fairburn Farm goes into Natural Pastures Buffalo Mozzarella (which we had on the frittata). Mara is a proud member of this community who joked, “if you marked the dollar bills [around here] you’d just see them going around and around.”
She also orchestrated the Slow Food movement in Cowichan, helping it gain status as the first-ever North American city to be designated Cittaslow. To become a Cittaslow city you need to be approved on many levels, from sustainability and environmental impact, to signage on the roads. With an influx of big box stores in the region, Mara thought it was vital to showcase local businesses in a positive light, instead of being negative about the economic and industrial changes in the Cowichan Valley.
Fairburn Farm is a guest house with several rooms and Mara offers cooking classes such as Field to Table, and Culinary Boot Camp. At the Boot Camp participants will learn skills such as harvesting from the garden and making home made pasta. She teaches classic French and Italian techniques but with local ingredients. Mara also runs culinary tours to Italy several times a year.
Out on the farm, Darrel Archer tended to Water Buffalo who during our visit, who were out in the oat field. He’s got such a great relationship with the animals whom he refers to adoringly like children, joking about their characteristics and quirky traits. We walked around back to visit with some of the baby water buffalo, who came bounding out of their barn like school children when we approached.
We met a few more water buffalo and also got a tour of the milking operation for the production of the mozzarella cheese.
We washed our hands after petting all the baby water buffalo and piled back into the van to head to the next stop on the tour. Rolling down the winding gravel passage that took us away from the farm a member of Tourism BC that was on the trip said it best, “at the end of every dirt road in BC there is a fantastic story.” I must agree, and the story of Fairburn Farm is definitely one I’ll continue to share.
I recently toured the South East portion of Vancouver Island with Tourism BC. You can read all of my posts from the trip under the tag: ‘Cowichan‘.