Growing close

 David Wagoner, left, started a community garden while living in Alexandria, Va. The neighbors called him "Farmer Dave" in 1997, and he's still at it, 20 years later.

David Wagoner, left, started a community garden while living in Alexandria, Va. The neighbors called him "Farmer Dave" in 1997, and he's still at it, 20 years later.

By Sara Gibbs

Three Springs Farm sits on Crooked Creek Road in Nicholas County, Ky., near Carlisle, pop. 2,010. The 200-acre farm has been lovingly tended by David Wagoner, Arwen Donahue and later their daughter, Phoebe, since 1997.

David and Arwen were living in the Washington, D.C., area, where Arwen worked as program coordinator for the Oral History Department at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and David worked in the historical gardens at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, when they decided they needed to buy some land.

“He started a community garden in our neighborhood and all of our neighbors called him ‘Farmer Dave,’” Arwen said. “That’s when the writing was on the wall that he needed land.”

They moved to Kentucky to purchase a farm from David’s distant cousin. For David, the move to Kentucky was a return to his homeland and to his roots, having grown up in Lexington. The farm is their primary source of income, with only 2 acres of bottomland used to grow fruits, vegetables, herbs and cut flowers while the remaining 198 acres is woodland and grasses.  The crops are grown on a 10-year rotation that helps to replenish the soil to increase fertility and crop yield, while preventing erosion.  

During their time caretaking this parcel of land, David and Arwen are slowly renovating their house and outbuildings.  David taught himself to play a variety of stringed instruments and started a band called The Pawpaw Pickers, featured often at Ouita Michel’s Windy Corner Market.  Arwen is a prolific published writer, artist, graphic novelist and oral historian. Phoebe is developing a talent for art and design, and has created note cards for Windy Corner’s annual Holiday Open House.  

Ouita met David at the Holly Hill Inn when he attended a birthday dinner for his older sister, Analisa Wagoner, who had been Ouita’s high school classmate. “We didn’t pay much attention to David then, since he was younger,” Ouita laughed. That meeting marked the beginning of a long relationship between chef and farmer, based on mutual respect and love for each other and for the products generated from the farm. Over the years, the Michels have spent many weekends at Three Springs, harvesting, cooking and eating the fresh fruits and vegetables, and doing some serious porch sitting.

Three Springs Farm was the natural choice when Ouita and Chef Josh were searching for a staff farmer to supply produce for Honeywood. Operating as a community-supported agriculture, or CSA, farm for 18 years, where consumers buy directly from farmers, David and Arwen had proven that their sustainable farming practices could produce stellar results with their organic methods of crop and soil management.

Ouita’s eyes dance when she recalls meals that she prepared using David’s freshly dug produce at a variety of venues over the years, when Holly Hill Inn was the biggest CSA client of Three Springs Farm. She described black, white and red currants macerated in sugar served at the James Beard House in New York as part of a dessert course, and tiny pickled eggplants prepared by Arwen as part of a farm fund raiser dinner. “To be part of their farm in such an intimate way is a responsibility. I am so grateful that Josh feels that and has such respect for their products. Having David as our staff farmer has been integral to our business.”

— Chef, restaurant veteran, food stylist and cookbook author Sara Gibbs has worked more than seven years with Ouita and Chris Michel as recipe archivist and recipe developer for their restaurant group. Sara has a culinary arts degree from Sullivan University, is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan and has a master’s of library science degree from the University of Maryland. She and her husband, Tom, take care of an 18-acre farm southeast of Louisville.