by Sister Kathy Curtis
From growing a home garden to avoid cutting grass to running a farm business with a 30 member CSA, restaurant and institutional contracts, farmers’ market stand and growing ten acres of industrial hemp with the University of Pikeville and Freedom Seed & Feed, Todd Howard of HF Farms has had a steep learning curve.
“Those that know me know that I take the plunge in most everything I do. I used to tell my wife Vylinda that I’m the guy who’d jump in the swimming pool and hit his head on the bottom only to see he’d jumped in the kiddy pool. I’m getting better though. I’m learning to read up on things and that preparation is vital.”
In the six years since starting HF Farms Howard has gone from what he calls his “Field of Dreams” mentality to a structured business model complete with long term goals which include developing new markets.
In eastern Kentucky “we operate on the assumption that there is a market [for fresh produce] here but nobody knows what it is.” As an example, Howard said that his research has shown that lettuce yields more profit per acre than any other typical crop. And that lettuce is a staple that most restaurants use and buy on a consistent basis. It would seem like an easy market to enter.
“But am I willing to put in a thousand feet of lettuce and contract to providing it to a restaurant every Wednesday at 5:00 from May to September?” He believes that farmers in eastern Kentucky are not ready to support that type of commitment and wonders how to get there.
His research suggests that the viable market for his produce is away from eastern Kentucky in markets like Lexington and Ashland. “There is no hard evidence that there is a market here. I may need to be willing to move outside while we are try to develop markets here.”
Another issue Howard has run into is the confusion a farmer is faced with regarding regulatory standards in the industry. One agency says one thing and another says something different, especially with food safety compliance. As a small farmer in eastern Kentucky Howard says, “it’s doable but we aren’t ready for it yet. We’re having to figure this stuff out by ourselves. It can get frustrating.”
Frustration aside, Howard loves the farming business mostly because of all the time he gets to spend with his family. Luke and Liza, his older children, both help in the garden and with the pigs and Luke has decided to take on care of the bee hives, recently attending a beginning beekeepers class. And they are not camera shy—recently doing the promo video for this year’s CSA and an interview with WMMT recently about what it’s like being farm kids.
Howard mentioned several times during our conversation that “you won’t get rich farming in eastern Kentucky.” Seeing him with his family working together in the greenhouse or eating soup filled with vegetables they canned together last summer, I’d say he is a very rich man.