by Sister Kathy Curtis
[This is Part One of a three part series]
Shortly after the Revolutionary war, three brothers named Howard were given a land grant of several thousand acres in what is now south Magoffin County, Kentucky. “My dad still owns some of the original property. In fact, most of the original land grant is still in the heirs” said Floyd County farmer Todd Howard in a recent interview. “When people saw a Howard coming across the hill on horseback they’d say, ‘them Howards don’t get out of the holler much and when they do, watch out.’”
One day, Howard’s papaw, Tilden, rode his horse over the ridge into Floyd County and down what they called Brush Creek to the Old Regular Baptist Church where he met his wife-to-be, Effie Hicks, staying in Floyd County.
Howard says, “We are the third generation on this property in Hippo,” property that is now HF Farm and one of the several areas where Howard grows produce.
Howard denies being the first farmer in his family, explaining, “If anything, I am doing what we’ve probably known for a longtime. Being here in Appalachia, in a rural area, if you trace your roots back you’ll find you’ve had to live off the land, you’ve had to get dirt under your fingernails and understand what it’s like to take a seed and provide some sort of means for your family.”
He wasn’t always a farmer though. When he and his wife Vylinda were expecting their first child, he worked in the coal industry for his father’s engineering firm. “We were living in a five hundred square foot house with one closet. It was so small; you couldn’t walk through the kitchen with the oven door open.” They moved down the hill to the “old house” where there was more room, more closets and about a third of an acre of grass to cut.
“I hated cutting grass so we decided to put in a garden because it would be a whole lot easier.” The family had had a garden there before and even had peanuts down by the creek. The first year went pretty well and they grew a lot to eat and put up. All was well.
January 2010, David Fryman, a relative of Howard’s got his hands on a greenhouse and they decided raising plants to sell would be easy. “You put a seed in a container; add some water and a little fertilizer and people will buy ‘em.” So they grew about 8,000 plants but only sold about 1,000 of them.
That April, Howard was laid off. He and Fryman decided to plant the several thousand plant starts they had left and soon had tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers and sweet corn planted with no idea how they were going to sell it all.
“We had the ‘Field of Dreams’ mentality. We figured that when people were heading out to the box stores to buy sweet corn they would get it in their heads to drive up Route 850 and buy their corn from us. We planted, but they didn’t come,” Howard said.
Then fate smiled in their direction when they found out the City of Prestonsburg was looking for fifteen to twenty vendors to start a farmers’ market. On opening day, Howard and Fryman were joined by Bev May who Howard had met at the Growing Appalachia conference that spring. Together, the three of them sold produce in a downtown parking lot. “It wasn’t too bad and we sold out every day.”
Howard was now (perhaps unintentionally) in the farming business. But the question is: Can a person earn a living farming in eastern Kentucky? We will answer that question in part two of this series.