It’s not every day you throw axes, pet alpacas and taste wine, but it happens every month on the “Not Your Average Farm Tour.”
The eccentric experience takes local residents and out-of-towners on a day-long adventure off the beaten path. Three East Tennessee farm families host groups at their unusual businesses on the last weekend of every month.
Co-owner of Rocking Chair Farm David Rogers came up with the idea for the trail last October as a way to support agritourism and spread awareness about farms in the area. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the owners’ plans, but the timing is working out as more people search for nearby socially distanced activities.
As someone who lived on a two-century farm, I grew up on my family’s fields, so I tagged along on a slow Sunday morning to see if this tour was anything but average.
Staying safe and saving farms
I pulled up to the gravel parking lot of 865 Axe Throwing around 10 a.m. The morning fog was still looming, but Weston Babelay, the fifth-generation owner of his family farm, greeted me as he hung shades anticipating a sunny day.
The Babelays owned and operated more than 900 acres of greenhouses in North Knoxville for more than 100 years, though the size of the farm has dwindled to 90 acres and the greenhouses are now abandoned. Babelay and his wife, Penny, opened the thriving axe-throwing attraction in October 2019 to entice visitors to come back to the farm.
Babelay met Rogers when he laid gravel for the lot I parked on. Rogers suggested 865 Axe Throwing join the farm tour, and Babelay was on board. He recognized the need for exposure, especially because relatively few people venture beyond downtown Knoxville.
“All of these farms are within 15 to 20 minutes of each other, and nobody knew we were out here,” Babelay told Knox News. “(The tour) gives you a good taste of what Corryton and the counties around Knox offer.”
“The Not Your Average Farm Tour” keeps groups small, capping participants at 20. Three tours run on both the last Saturday and the last Sunday of every month, and visitors spend about 30 minutes to an hour at each location.
Three couples showed up for the Sunday tour I went on. They signed their waivers and started slinging axes. Babely demonstrated the different ways to throw an axe and cheered after every bullseye.
Almost every tour has been completely booked, but being booked before COVID-19 compared to being booked now is not the same. Babelay said that all the farms are trying to stay safe and stay afloat amid the pandemic.
“Everything is outdoors where there’s room to social distance,” Babelay said. “We’re going to be safe and we hope that others will be safe as well.”
Businesses work together to better area
Rocking Chair Farm is about a 15-minute drive right down the road from 865 Axe Throwing. I hopped out of my car and suddenly felt at home when I heard the sounds of chickens clucking in the Rogers’s field.
David and Christine Rogers sat and spoke to the tour group from their porch. The couple has been caring for world-famous show alpacas and leading tours through their fields for six years. Both have day jobs but enjoying alpaca farming on the weekends. David sells handmade clothing from the alpacas’ fiber.
After a brief introduction and safety instructions, every participant got a bag of dried beet pulp, or “candy,” to feed to the 19 alpacas that live at the farm and walked into the field to meet the residents.
“There’s no better place to get away from things,” David said, “You can have one of the worst days of your life, come out here in the field and forget about it all.”
The Rogers’ herd happily let visitors feed and pet them while the owners told stories about each alpaca and coaxed them to pose for selfies. David and Christine were glad to welcome people back to the farm.
They said that the pandemic forced them to close for a couple of months, and business hasn’t been the same since. The two decided to cancel the farm’s largest annual event because they said they wouldn’t be able to do it in good conscience during the pandemic.
“We thought, well, we’ll open the farm up for this because we can control this, and everyone still gets a great experience,” Christine said.
They’re not just in it for their own farm, though. David told Knox News that he hopes the “Not Your Average Farm Tour” enriches the whole community.
“We needed to do something around here to attract people to this area. There’s so much to do here, and people just don’t realize it,” David said. “This is a way we can make these farms grow and better the area. We want to help everybody.”
Tour helps family farms ‘hang in there’
I could have talked to David and Christine all day, but I had to hurry on over to the final stop on the tour at The Winery at Seven Springs Farm about 20 minutes away.
All three couples were set up under an outdoor tent with two wine glasses, a charcuterie board and a clipboard to rate the drinks throughout the testing. Winery owner Nikki Riddle poured 10 of the family’s most popular and newest concoctions, including sweet wines, ciders and wine slushies.
“I’ve been on a wine trail before, so why not start a farm trail? I didn’t know anyone who had ever done that before, so it seemed like a really cool idea, something new,” Riddle told Knox News.
The tour group was invited to hang out as long as they liked and could ask for samples of anything on the menu or order bottles to go. By 2 p.m., everyone finished their wine, trays and the tour.
Riddle stayed behind to tell me about how the pandemic affected her family’s farm. Seven Springs had to close the tasting bar during the pandemic but was able to sell local produce and dairy. Riddle said that sales are down and the farm’s large events have been forced to cancel.
“We’re all small business owners and small farm owners doing something really different with them to try and make the best out of it,” Riddle said. “We’re still hanging in there, and this helps.”
The business owners along the “Not Your Average Farm Tour” have scheduled September, October and November dates. Tickets cost $55 a person and come with a commemorative wine glass if you visit all the stops.
Participants must be 21 years or older to join because of the wine tasting, but everyone is welcome to throw axes or pet alpacas.
Tours start at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. the last Saturday and Sunday of the month. Tickets must be bought in advance by calling 865-745-2902. More information about the tour and tickets is available at facebook.com/NotYourAverageFarmTour and @notyouraveragefarmtour on Instagram.
Email Allie Clouse at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @allie_clouse. If you enjoy Allie’s coverage, support strong local journalism by subscribing for full access to all our content on every platform.