Meg Southerland represents the third generation of the McEachron family to serve as steward of Gardenworks Farm. She and her husband, Rob, along with their friendly crew tend the farm’s fertile land in the Black Creek Valley just outside Salem’s village limits in southern Washington County. Her grandfather started the farm in 1911, and after her father, Harold McEachron, graduated from Cornell in 1932, he came back to work the farm with a focus on dairy and poultry.
“Dad started with chickens but kept looking forward,” she says of her father, who used to break for lunch each day and listen to the U.S. Farm Report on WGY radio, keeping current on wholesale prices on eggs, meat and milk.
In 1970, they sold off 50,000 chickens, as egg prices were very low. “The cost to feed the chickens was higher than what they were able to get wholesale. You need to make good and smart decisions—and you can’t always look for the financial rewards immediately,” Meg says and notes her father’s incremental transition out of dairy and poultry to an agricultural model that included U-pick berries.
Harold McEachron was known for following agricultural trends, and even after he finished his studies at Cornell, those involved in agriculture at the university would rely on his tracking and financial models when teaching students about pricing, labor costs and accountability.
Meg also graduated with a degree from Cornell but didn’t return to work the farm until mid-career. Her brother Dan intended to run the farm after her father retired. However, after Dan’s death in 1985, her father started the U-pick berry side of the farm. Meg and her young family moved back to the area in 1990, and in 1992, after serving as a consultant for Agway, she took over the farm.
Meg has developed the educational side of the farm, too. Whether she hosts students visiting from nearby schools to teach about soil and planting, welcomes senior groups coming for lunch at the café and a tour of the greenhouse or offers classes on how to make an herbal kitchen wreath or learn about cheese varieties in a workshop run by her husband, Rob, the farm is a great place to learn and have fun.
With diversified offerings at the retail end of the barn ranging from edible to decorative, Meg and Rob have created a marketplace of local seasonal produce. They supplement what they grow in their fields with additional vegetables from nearby Moses Farm and Slack Hollow Farm. The Gardenworks U-pick summer blueberries and raspberries make way for a bountiful fall raspberry harvest as well as specialty winter squashes and pumpkins. The holidays are always aromatic with farm- grown Christmas trees, and the former milking parlor is transformed into a space for making decorative wreaths and evergreen sprays.
“We need to be adaptable to what goes on around us—for us, we decided to keep the farm active and market from the farm rath- er than take our offerings to farmers’ markets,” says Meg, adding, “People are much more aware of what they’re eating and where it’s grown—it’s become almost entertainment to visit a farm. You might be stopping by to pick up some petunias; however, you can also get salad greens and a quiche to put in the oven for an easy supper when you’re home.”
Gardenworks has become a destination for those driving through the beautiful hillsides from nearby Saratoga Springs, the Adirondacks or Vermont, and travelers can refuel with items from the farm-sourced menu at the farm’s café and can even order up the famed Nuns of New Skete cheesecake and local beverages from Argyle Brewing and Brown’s Brewery.
Gardenworks has been a partner with related events for the annual regional Cheese Tour (September 10 and 11), now in its 10th year. Rob took a real interest in cheesemaking, visiting local artisanal creators of cow, sheep and goat’s milk cheeses. Most of the cheeses Gardenworks carries come from farmstead cheesemakers within 25 miles or so of the farm. Last year, the dinner they produced in tandem with the Cheese Tour highlighted all local cheeses in a menu that included: fondue; a special chef-designed Gardenwork’s pasta and cheese; raclette; and a finale cheese course with fresh-picked raspberries from the field adjacent to the al fresco dining area.
On-farm breweries, many growing their own hops, are nearby, too. This year the Cheese Tour will include stops at R. S. Taylor Brewery in Hebron as well as Victory View Vineyard in Easton, adding to the lineup of farmers and producers who comprise the largest cheese tour in the Northeast. “With the addition of the artisanal beverage pro- ducers to the cheese tour, it’s a sign of agriculture evolving in a rural area but with great diversity,” Meg says.
Meg and Rob have also partnered with the Fort Salem Theater over the past four years to offer a dinner prior to a show. On performance nights, guests can begin their evening gathered around a beautiful long table at Gardenworks. Meg, Rob and their friendly staff serve a locally sourced dinner before guests head back into town to see the Fort Salem Theater show, featuring talent from New York’s Broadway and beyond.
In the spirit of collaboration, Meg and Rob often work with the visual arts and host curated art shows in the store. Local artists find inspiration for landscapes and more in the checkerboard hillsides. The shows take place in the hayloft in the midst of beautiful flowers hang- ing from drying racks for the dried flower arrangements and decorative wreaths Meg creates throughout the year.
Meg, along with her sisters and brother, grew up in the farmhouse across the road. With some stunning modern touches and updates stemming from Rob’s expertise in architecture, the farmhouse is now an Airbnb listing addressing the need for lodging in the area. Guests are treated to a comfortable farm stay and leave with a greater understanding of farming and country life.
Washington County is a vibrant agricultural hub, with support- ing infrastructure such as Salem Farm Supply for equipment needs and almost every type of farm from vegetable and fiber to maple and fruit orchards. As we applaud the new crop of farmers and producers inspired to take up agrarian and artisanal arts, we also can reflect on and learn from those who have made agriculture a longtime familial pursuit, keeping acres tillable and vistas expansive.
“Ideas are easy, but to implement the ideas takes labor—we’ve been lucky in getting the right people to be in those positions to help. We are committed to making the farm sustainable and hope it’s farmed into the next generation and beyond. We realize the need to be flex- ible with changing food patterns and interests,” says Meg, adding, “I think our strength has been the ability to network with local farms as well as connect with local artists and artisans to create an interesting retail marketplace.”