The story below is an excerpt from our May/June 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
From hundreds of Angus cattle to 18 varieties of microgreens, from cutting-edge environmental practices to field-to-table dining, Asheville’s Biltmore Estate has treasures far beyond a general visit.
A sea of bright yellow blooms prompts drivers to pull over on the grounds of Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina to capture images of the springtime beauty. Keeping the landscaping beautiful is definitely part of Biltmore’s mission, but many visitors are unaware of the larger purpose at play. These eye-catching fields represent Biltmore’s venture into the bio-fuels arena.
Under the leadership of Ted Katsigianis, vice president of agriculture and environmental sciences at Biltmore, crews began planting canola in 2012. It’s part of a partnership with AdvantageWest, Appalachian State University, AB Tech, and the Biofuels Program of North Carolina in a pilot project called Field to Fryer to Field (F3).
“Canola is a real draw for our visitors with its yellow fields,” says Katsigianis. “There are 50 acres of massive yellow color.”
The canola is transformed into bio-diesel that is used in the estate vehicles and equipment. They use at least 20 percent bio-diesel, but Katsigianis says in warmer months they can use 100 percent bio-diesel straight from the tank.
“We’re also investigating canola oil for human consumption,” he says, “But we’ll need more machinery because it needs to be degummed.”
A Path Few Visitors Take
Katsigianis swipes his badge across an electronic eye that opens the gate leading across the bridge that crosses the French Broad River into the Estate’s “wild and wooly west side.” “This side of the river is agriculture and forestry,” he says.
The average visitor to Biltmore never ventures this far on the estate. The 250-room French Renaissance Chateau – which retains its status as the largest private residence in America – provides hours of exploring the vast treasures Vanderbilt collected, along with specialty tours that offer the chance to visit rooms and other areas not on the regular house tour. Then there’s often time spent eating meals and exploring the flower gardens.
“The issue we hear from our guests when we ask why they didn’t visit the winery or Antler Hill Village is ‘I ran out of time,’” says Katsigianis. “Most of our first time visitors don’t realize this is a multi-day destination.”
We stop briefly at fields laden with chardonnay vines – it’s here that Biltmore’s award-winning wine production begins. Nearby, a flock of South African White Dorper sheep runs beside a fence before stopping to begin grazing again. At peak, the estate has around 1,000 sheep each year.
“We produce a lot of different wines,” says Katsigianis. “With over a million visitors a year we have to have a wine for everybody.”
As we travel dirt and gravel roads on the west side of the estate, we pass bee hives, vegetable gardens, and fences that are oddly slanted – a proven technique for keeping deer from nibbling the produce. The deer are somewhat spooked by the odd angle and won’t attempt to jump.
I’m surprised as we pass several structures that remain on the property once used to house tenant farmers (see sidebar). Seeing these buildings provides a glimpse into the past as it makes me more aware that Biltmore Estate needed hundreds of workers to fulfill George Vanderbilt’s vision as a self-sustaining farm.
The next stop is a greenhouse filled with hydroponic lettuce that will go straight to the plate at Biltmore restaurants. A truck sits outside emblazoned with the words “Field to Table Biltmore” framed by two forks: a pitchfork and a table fork.
Stepping inside, I’m mesmerized by the rows of tiny lettuce leaves. The estate grows 18 different varieties of red and green microgreens. They are also beginning to experiment with cucumbers and plan on other hydroponic crops.
We soon travel to a barn with a silver silo positioned beside it, which serves as the canola production facility. They transform the canola into biofuel and then feed the spent meal to their livestock. They maintain about 200 Angus mother cows and have 600 to 700 yearlings and babies each year.
The cattle graze nonchalantly in lush fields. From this vantage point on the west side, you can see the Biltmore House rising in the distance. The rural scene framed by amazing opulence and wealth.
About six years ago they began introducing a Japanese breed known as Wagyu into the herd by artificial insemination. The first Angus Wagyu steers were harvested in 2012.
Animals on the estate are humanely raised in a low stress environment without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics.