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Sassafras Farm workshops offer a taste of country living

By Robert Saunders
BUTCH COOPER | Metro
Suzanne McMinn has a passion for country living, and shares her expertise in a series of self-sufficiency workshops at her Roane County farm.

Visitors to Sassafras Farm quickly learn they are at a real, working farm.

After driving a few miles up a narrow Roane County road, one sees a white farmhouse overlooking a dell. Down the hill from the gravel driveway sits a red barn with various farm implements and animals lying about. The animals are the usual barnyard denizens: goats, cows, chickens, ducks, a couple of dogs. One of the implements is an odd-looking metal tub on legs.

“That’s a chicken plucker,” said a woman in jeans, chore boots and red flannel shirt, coming from the house to extend a greeting. Long, blonde hair frames her face and cascades over her shoulders as she points to the contraption. “It can pluck a chicken in under 30 seconds.”

The woman is author and country-life entrepreneur Suzanne McMinn.

McMinn was a “suburban born-and-bred” divorced mother when she decided to return to rural West Virginia. Her father was from Roane County, and McMinn visited the state often as a child.

“My father worked his way through WVU by milking cows. He got a degree in agriculture, but never really used it once he got out. He became a Church of Christ preacher. I guess he was tired of milking cows,” she said.

McMinn walks down the slope and crosses a small creek into the pasture. The creek looks innocent enough on a snowy January day, but during last year’s June flood, the water rose dangerously fast and became, in her words, a “raging river.” She’s thankful the water didn’t reach the barn. “The only animals we lost were some of the ducks. They got swept downstream and we never found them.”

Up at the barn, McMinn opens a sliding gate to enter her milking parlor. The room features parallel milking stalls against opposite walls – one made for a cow, the other a goat-sized version. It’s a convenient setup that lets her go back and forth easily between different-size animals. Because the species don’t mix well, she only brings in one at a time.

“The goats don’t really like the cows,” she said.

She has three milking cows, including Glory Bee, a cow she raised from a calf. At one time, McMinn had horses, sheep and even donkeys. They’re gone now. “I’m keeping the animals that contribute, and are easy to work with,” she said. “Animals aren’t robots. They are doing something crazy all the time. I mean, I love sheep, but as soon as sheep are born, they start looking for a way to die.”

McMinn shares some of her sheep stories -- and other misadventures -- in her best-selling memoir, “Chickens in the Road: An Adventure in Ordinary Splendor,” published by HarperCollins in 2013. The book details her first attempt at Appalachian self-sufficiency, at a place she called Stringtown Rising Farm.

“It was a great adventure, but very tough to farm,” she said.

After she moved to Sassafras Farm, she eventually sold the first place to an English couple, who aren’t trying to farm it.

Before “Chickens in the Road,” McMinn was already a successful writer with 26 published romance novels to her credit. But she had burned out on the romance genre. “It’s a very competitive field,” she said.

She is also known for her popular blog and website at chickensintheroad.com. When McMinn began blogging, she would post daily about her farm-life experiences, complete with photos, videos, recipes and cooking tips.

“At its peak, the blog was getting a million visitors a day,” she said. “I don’t intend to ever stop writing on the blog, but I don’t do it everyday now. The Etsy shop keeps me busy mailing out orders, and I’ve gotten really busy with the workshops.”

The online Etsy shop (linked on her blog) is where she sells old-fashioned sweet treats and baked goods, including biscuits, craft breads, preserves and goat’s milk fudge. West Virginia’s favorite snack is not overlooked -- McMinn makes her own pepperoni rolls.

“Biscuits and pepperoni rolls are the best sellers,” she said.

She makes the food in a health department-certified commercial kitchen in a separate building behind the farmhouse. She remodeled the building to serve as a studio and classroom for her workshops.

“The idea for the workshops came out of my tutorials on my website. Readers kept wanting some ‘face to face’ time. It was a reader’s idea.”

McMinn conducts about 25 workshops a year. “I’m the teacher, chief cook and bottle washer,” she said. She tries to keep each workshop to about 12 people. The cost of attending a workshop is $75 per person, which includes lunch, all supplies, instruction and take-homes.

Workshops on the schedule this year include several on cheese making (different ones for hard and soft cheeses), soap making, primitive candle making and something she calls the “Taste of Sassafras Farm Experience.”

She describes the latter as a “really fun day.” “People get to milk the cow, make cheese, bake bread and whip up a batch of soap. It’s for people who want the farm experience, and who want to learn more about their food.”

Workshop season begins in April. The workshops, her mail-order business and running the farm keep McMinn busy, but happy.

“I’ll still be doing this as long as I’m kickin’,” she said. “I couldn’t live in the suburbs again – it would feel like being behind prison walls. The farm life is the best life there is.”

For a complete schedule and more information about Sassafras Farm workshops, go to chickensintheroad.com, or visit the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/chickensintheroad.

Watch the video on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzzdrT5wV2I