The Ponderosa Lodge Farm is scenically situated in the mountains
above West Virginia's New River Gorge, a great spot for hiking,
rock climbing, and river rafting. In July, I drove the winding road
up to the farm to meet with owner Ken Toney and take a tour of the
farm. When I arrive, Ken generously takes a break from his work in
the lodge's kitchen to show me around. A whole bin of apples sits
on the counter along with two fresh-from-the-oven pies and the
dough for a loaf of olive bread. The apples are too sour and tough
for eating out of hand, says Ken, but just fine for cooking. Ken
tells me, "I've always loved cooking ... that might be the downside
of farming; I can't just spend all day in the kitchen." Ken grows
most of the food his family eats, and he tells me they will be
trying out the '100-foot diet challenge' next year, to see if they
can raise, grow, hunt, or gather nearly everything they eat. Ken
also offers bread baking, pickling, and canning classes for
The three-story Ponderosa Lodge sleeps up to 32 guests in 10
bedrooms, each with a private bath. Ken and his wife Jorene have
set up the lodge as a private destination for family reunions,
weddings, and church or business retreats. Ken points out that the
New River Gorge is a fairly central point for folks who live east
of the Mississippi, so it works well as a meeting point for even
The lodge was originally built in 1969 as a zoo; it later became
a roadside motor lodge and restaurant. Wall mounts of bear, deer,
and cougar that once lived at the zoo still decorate the walls of
the Great Room, which is just inside of the lodge's front entrance.
The Great Room also features a big stone fireplace, lots of
comfortable seating, and a huge wagon wheel chandelier.
Ken and Jorene bought the property in 2005, and they quickly
jumped into renovating the lodge and clearing land where they could
raise vegetables and animals. They've had to clear lots of pine
trees, which they've put to good use, either milling the lumber to
use for building or using the wood for heating the lodge come
winter. Opening up the forest has also allowed Ken to install solar
hot water and electric panels, and he plans to install more.
Most of the renovations required for the lodge were fortunately
cosmetic. Ken and Jorene replaced the lodge's flooring, for
instance, using recycled hardwood flooring from a local roller
skating rink. They also renovated the kitchen completely, updating
appliances and making it open and bright. Guests who would like to
cook during their stay may rent the kitchen as a separate rental
from the lodge. Ken also offers catered lunches or dinners,
featuring a seasonal menu of food that's raised right on the farm
or bought locally.
Ken and Jorene were looking only to buy a cabin for themselves
when they found the listing for Ponderosa Lodge. Even though it was
much bigger than what they had envisioned, they fell in love with
the property and decided to buy it. As Ken tells me, "I'm really
not a city person... I've always wanted to farm," so it suited him
to leave his job at the Naval Research Lab to move full-time to
West Virginia. Jorene still works as an attorney, spending week
days working in Falls Church, a suburb of DC. Since Ken and
Jorene's son Liam was born in 2008, he has become an integral part
of the welcome crew at the lodge. Liam loves to help with the
animals, and Ken has modified some of the animal feeders so that
Liam can help out more. Says Ken, "Liam learned what animals say
before we started teaching him that. He doesn't say 'baah' for
goat, he says 'waaah,' since that's what our goats really sound
like." Guest kids (as well as adults) love touring the farm and
feeding the animals, too.
Ken and Jorene have been farming at Ponderosa Lodge for three
years now, and Ken tells me that it just keeps getting better. The
shallow topsoil and steep topography are challenging for growing
vegetables, which is one of the major reasons they decided to get
animals. Raising poultry and livestock provides not only meat but
also manure, allowing Ken to improve the soil fertility and grow
lush vegetables on even his marginal land.
Ken shows me his chard, with its ruby red stem and vibrant green
leaves, and he says, "This is my favorite vegetable of the year.
It's just a powerhouse of nutrients. I can put it on a pizza, chop
it up and put it in an omelet, and Liam eats it ... he loves it."
The vegetables Ken grows are heirloom varieties, and he enjoys
picking out unusual seeds when he plans his garden in the winter.
Ken also experiments with companion planting and intercropping --
he plants a Three Sisters Garden of corn, beans, and squash, a
traditional planting combination used by American Indians. Jorene
has also planted beautiful perennial gardens around the lodge.
Says Ken, "We have 16 acres here, which seems like a lot, but
I'm already starting to feel the crunch." There are nine acres with
permanent fence, where six goats, a steer, and seven pigs live. Ken
also keeps around six ducks, a handful of rabbits, 16 turkeys, and
80 layer and broiler chickens inside of portable electric fencing
that he can easily move around as the poultry need new grass to
graze. Ken says he follows the model of farming practiced by Joel
Salatin at his Polyface Farm, which is pasture based, "beyond
organic," and diverse.
Ken talks cheerfully to the animals as we walk around feeding
everyone. When one of the goats nudges Ken's hand eagerly to get to
the grain he's holding, he calls out, "Hello, Gus! You're gettin'
strong! Hey! That was my finger, you!" Ken tells me that the goats
are wonderful with Liam. He says, "I can give this bucket to Liam,
and they'll just follow him, or they'll be right in front leading
the way. We might actually have trouble butchering them. We're in
here with them every day, and that tames them up some." Like the
Salatins at Polyface Farm, Ken also butchers his own meats.
Every year, he buys animals in the spring and butchers them in
the fall. He keep only the hens and breeder rabbits through the
winter, since keeping the others wouldn't make economic sense. Ken
is also planning to build a smokehouse this fall. Ken chooses
varieties of animals that are adapted to being on pasture. His
broiler chickens are Freedom Rangers, an old French breed. Ken
tells me, "Chickens are so much healthier on pasture. And the
Freedom Rangers are more suited for foraging than the most commonly
raised broilers, Cornish Cross. Freedom Rangers are ready to be
butchered after 11 weeks, as opposed to 8 weeks for the standard
Cornish Cross. I've just been so pleased with them. The common
breeds have been manipulated so much for the big industrial farms
that they're not good at surviving; they are not very healthy."
In addition to feeding their family and guests with the food
they raise on the farm, Ken and Jorene also have a small CSA
program that feeds 15-20 people, mostly Jorene's co-workers and
their friends. The CSA basket includes eggs, vegetables, turkeys,
and pork, plus strawberries and juneberries in season.
If you go:
The Ponderosa Lodge is open year round, and is available for
group retreats, weddings, and special events. Rates for the whole
lodge (sleeps 32) are $795, Jan 1-April 30. From May 1 to Dec 31,
rates are $845 for up to 22 guests, and $895 for 23-32 guests. All
10 rooms have private baths. The kitchen is available as an
additional rental; catered meals and cooking classes are also
Ken Toney and Jorene Soto
Phone: (304) 438-7113
Toll Free: (877) 246-9972
P.O. Box 186, Lookout, WV 25868
*Ken and Jorene also write a neat blog for anyone interested in
gardening, cooking, or raising animals: http://ourmountainfarm.blogspot.com/.
Ken's food pics will make your mouth water.
**Piglet photo courtesy Ken Toney
This post was originally published at Michelle's Farm Stay
Project blog, at
http://farmstays.blogspot.com/. For more photos of the
farm, see Michelle's
Ponderosa Lodge album on Picasa.