A tasty Tennessee hideaway where you can hang your hat when you hop off the Two Lanes.
Fly Hollow Road is incredibly narrow as it cuts through a two-mile stretch of Tennessee back country about an hour south of Nashville. It’s just wide enough for a car to squeak through the thick cedar and oak trees, but if you make your way through, you’ll find yourself at a field gate with a wood sign which reads “Appointment Only” and just inside and at the end of a dirt road is a giant metal bell. If you’re a Two Lanes traveler who made reservations, give it a ring and soon you’ll see Jon and Mandy Giffin riding down the hill on their ATV to welcome you to Forest Gully Farms.
This incredible 29-acre organic, self-reliant permaculture farm and homestead in Santa Fe, Tennessee is sure to be one of the most unique finds on your travels. After a day of active exploring or quiet escape, you’re certain to find solace and simplicity at Forest Gully. Unlike other getaway rentals, which give you just a room, an overpriced minibar, and squeaky pull-out sofa, Jon and Mandy offer you 15 of those acres full of u-pick produce, a waterfall, and the opportunity to sleep in your choice of three underground hobbit houses or “Gully Huts”. Let’s dig a little deeper.
Forest Gully Farms was conceived as a place where travelers, locals, and families could stay for a weekend, learn about the food on the farm, and detach – no hotspots or wifi needed or wanted. Disconnect from the digital world and re-connect to the real world at a bed and breakfast where you pick and cook breakfast yourself.
Established in 2013 by Jon and his wife Mandy, the farm is an honest offering to anyone who wants to experience the natural and edible beauty around them. It all fell into place once they quit their traditional 9 to 5 jobs.
“I’m a self-taught plant man who went to school for photojournalism, a wedding photographer who recently hung up his camera,” chuckles Jon. “But I am proud of the way I am learning to make use of the land and work with it instead of against it. You won’t see anything on the property growing in beautifully manicured rows. Mandy and I see this farm as a laboratory for alternative farming where we don’t fight nature, but rather allow nature to tell us where plants should grow. In doing this, we are finding new foods all the time. Most recently we had elderberries pop up!”
And plants are definitely popping. The property is abundant with intentional and unintentional fruits, veggies and herbs. Paw Paw trees (the largest native fruit-bearing trees) grow wild in the company of persimmons, mulberries, and magnolias (an homage to Mandy’s Mississippi roots).
Other produce abounds: cilantro, parsley, basil, carrots, red onions, peanuts, English peas, celery, Brussels sprouts, watermelons, field peas, beets, muscadine grapes, radishes, hazelnuts, turnips, tomatoes, habaneros, cayenne, and jalapeños. There are also two bee hives on the property – admire but do not disturb!
Walk over the hill a little ways and you’ll find a picnic table under a tree with a large red cedar chicken coop beside it. Jon built the coop to house the 16 chickens Mandy calls her “golden girls.” On the way over to collect your eggs for breakfast, pick some clover and dandelions for the “girls.” They will love you forever.
“Jon and I wanted to give to others in a more fulfilling way,” explains Mandy. “We’re so proud of the food we grow and what’s already growing. What’s important to us is to educate. We want to help families and explorers alike successfully identify edible plants in the woods on their adventures. Things you think are weeds, like oxalis, are actually tasty sour snacks! That’s why we had the Gully Huts built. We want folks to saturate themselves on the farm. Take a grazing tour of the land: walk, eat berries, smell the fresh herbs, and let your mind wander . . . it will help you decide what type of meal you’d like to prepare for the day.”
Which brings us to the place to prepare your bounty . . . meet us at the bottom of the wood staircase.
At a first glance, these the Gully Huts look strikingly similar to the ones in the hills of the shire in Lord of the Rings. It’s all part of the appealing plan. Tucked into hills of oregano and thyme, the huts stay cool year ‘round. They were built by Wooden Wonders, a company out of Maine, and collectively, they sleep up to eight people, with plenty of room for everyone’straveling gear.
“The best part is our ‘rent one, get two free’ policy,” explains Jon. “That’s so you can freely come and go around the grounds without having to share them with others. After living in the red hut for eight months while our house was being built, we feel like we have a great idea of everything you need to enjoy your visit and the space you need to fully relax.”
Walk inside to drop your bags and you’ll immediately smell the fragrant white cedar that the houses are built from. Old burlap coffee bags hang in the windows as curtains, and colorful quilted blankets cover the beds. And yes, there’s also a copy of The Hobbit on the nightstand, respectfully.
On the kitchen counter, you’ll find some of Mandy’s favorite recipes that feature produce from the garden. The most popular and delicious one we tried was the wild sumac lemonade. (Yes, sumac!) Also included in the welcome kit are a suggested tour of the grounds, some facts about the chickens, and a scavenger hunt around the farm to help you get familiar with the plants. Just outside the front door is a large fire pit where you can practice your cast-iron cooking!
“What makes the huts so appealing is that they allow you to disconnect and get back to nature,” says Mandy. “Not only that but you get to see how your favorite foods grow. It’s a healthy way to remind yourself that dinner doesn’t need to happen by popping open a bag. Head over to collect your choice of eggs for breakfast. You can’t beat a fresh organic egg in cast-iron skillet!”
After your meal, slip your boots on and hike about 200 yards down the trail to the freshwater spring and waterfall below. The path is littered with wild ginger! Jon and Mandy did a great job of building some wood steps to help steady your descent, but there are still a few little spots where you’ll want to watch your step! The water below is ice cold and the fog lays thick on the moss, logs, and rocks.
Escaping to places like Forest Gully is an important reminder that we need to think about how we spend the hours in our day. When we’re at home it’s easy to load Netflix and rewatch The Office while you crunch on Cheetos and simultaneously update your Facebook status. Studies have proven time and time again that our brains and bodies are most happy when we’re out in nature. So why not feed that happiness? Go out for an adventure, learn something cool, and then use what you’ve learned to improve the quality of your life. That’s what Jon and Mandy want you to take with you when you leave Forest Gully Farms, and it seems to be working.
“My favorite thing about this entire experience has been the surprises,” explains Mandy. “A lot of people after their stay have told us that they’ve decided to grow something and ask for help on how to begin their own garden. I always recommend that they start with tomatoes or cucumbers because they’re easy maintenance for beginners. It’s a rewarding feeling when people come out here and then keep the experience alive in their own corner of the world.”
Forest Gully Farms is open year-round, offering fresh fruits in summer, golden leaves in the fall, and the quintessential backdrop for a shire-worthy campfire when the snow falls. They’re already booked up every weekend for the rest of 2017, so make it your Two Lanes mission to visit them in the new year. No special equipment needed . . . just water shoes, an empty belly, and an open mind ready to be filled with the wonders of real life.
Photos by Meghan Aileen