Farmstay U.S. Blog

Created for and by travelers and the farmers, these posts will cover a variety of topics related to farm stays in the U.S.

The Ponderosa Lodge Farm

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 interested guests.

The Lodge

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 far-flung families.

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.

The Farm

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.

The Animals

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 available.



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: 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 For more photos of the farm, see Michelle's Ponderosa Lodge album on Picasa.

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