Monticello’s 11th Annual Harvest Festival: Following Jefferson’s Passion For Gardening

Reader Contribution by Kurt Jacobson
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Biscuit making demo with Paula Marcaux

Under clear blue skies and perfect weather, I had the pleasure of attending the 11th annual harvest festival at Monticello. Could there possibly be a better place to hold this type of event? After all, Thomas Jefferson was consumed with keeping detailed weather notes, twice daily for over 40 years. This data was used for several uses but primarily to help with crops.

Jefferson was an avid seed-saver and laid the groundwork successful farming practices in America for future generations. He tried in failed in many an agricultural experiments and said this: “One success is worth 99 failures.” Although he failed in producing sufficient grapes for wine production he is often said to be the father of the Virginia wine industry-which is thriving lately.

September 8th was the opening of the event on a smaller scale than Saturday the 9th. Three classrooms and three other venues hosted classes on a variety of subjects like:

Baking biscuits and breads in an open fire
Exploring regional heirloom wheat with Paula Marcoux
Ferment your garden harvest with Dawn Story
From seed to garment: cotton and flax with Cindy Conner
Boiling water-bath canning with Leni Sorensen
Home-based edible oil processing with Chris Smith
19 other classes or garden walks were available to attend on that first day.

I sat in on the boiling water-bath canning session where I learned I don’t have to sanitize the jar lids. Since three years ago the new technology has rendered this part of the process obsolete. Leni said she merely holds them in a pan of hot water until needed. I also learned that by using a steam canner, I could process smaller batches and not be dealing with a huge pot of boiling water like I’ve been doing.

Preserving Cabbage

In the fermenting class, I learned how to preserve cabbage by simply slicing it and rubbing the cabbage with sea salt. Dawn showed us how to pack the cabbage into the jar, then press it down with a few uncut leaves of cabbage and an apple. This provided enough pressure to let the cabbage ferment properly. She also showed us how to make beverages like kombucha and water kefir soda on day 2.

Thomas Hatch gave tours of Jefferson’s garden and spoke of our third president’s love of gardening. Jefferson had a garden terrace cut out of the east-facing hillside for a perfect vegetable garden location. This garden bed is still in use over two hundred years later. I loved seeing the late-fall veggies still vigorously growing and marveled at the scarlet bean vines that grew long and tall up the arched supports.

Day two was the big event. Around 1,500 attendees gathered for the tastings, seed exchanges, presentations, and food trucks. At “Between the Farm and Table” we heard the challenges of small livestock producers have in processing their livestock and getting it to your table. Some of them related that current regulations for butchering and slaughtering are becoming increasingly difficult. The regulations for such production are written by mega-producers, not the FDA, and make it harder for small producers to thrive. The panel pointed out that in Europe small farmers don’t have this trouble.

My favorite presentation was by Barbara Pleasant. Her talk was “Plant to Preserve” and I followed some of her advice on what to do with an abundance of cucumbers. Her book, Home Grown Pantry was available for purchase afterward and I’ve benefited on some new methods of preserving both cukes and jalapeños from my organic garden. You might recognize Barbara as an editor of past Mother Earth News magazine issues. She definitely knows how to teach this subject.

Good Food Onsite

Food trucks were on hand to serve a hungry crowd. My favorite was the North Cove Café’s truck from the mushroom farm of the same name. They served 6 items, both meatless and meaty that were delicious. I went all-vegetarian with their Shi-tacos and Oyster Mushroom Seacake-a meatless take on a crabcake. The shitake tacos were a crowd favorite and mine too.

North Cove Mushrooms brought their food truck

Vendor tents were set up selling everything from mushroom growing kits to pies. I attended a demonstration by the local Wegman’s grocery store chefs showing how to make sushi at home using sustainably raised salmon from New Zealand. A chocolate making demo showed the old way of grinding cocoa nuts on a stone surface with a stone device like a rolling pin.

The petting zoo with common farm animals was a big hit with kids. I saw a type of sheep that was the cutest critter at the event called an Old English Southdown that was hapy to pose for photos. Pigs, donkeys, and goats were also a kid magnet nearby. There was an art table where children could make their own artwork including hats. It was fun seeing them walk the grounds wearing their handmade art.

Cutest in show would be this Old English Southdown sheep

Even if I had spent 8 hours at this Saturday event there was no way to see it all. With an admission price of $28 most visitors would want to get all they could out of this all-day event. The staff opens Jefferson’s home for walk-through tours, instead of the usual guided tours, so I was able to make my house visit shorter than usual. The house tour is a good place to start the event.

If you go next year it’s best to arrive early to get a good parking space. There’s plenty to see and do early on and most formal presentations and tastings start at 10:30. Lodging in Charlottesville is reasonably priced and the restaurants in the downtown area are some of the best farm-to-table eateries in the country. If you’ve never been to Monticello, 2018 would be a great time to make it your first visit.

Kurt Jacobson has been a chef for over 40 years and after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his fifth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening. Kurt is a full-time professional freelance travel and food writer. Follow Kurt at

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