by Sister Kathy Curtis
Earlier this summer, armed with a printout from MapQuest, a road map of Floyd County and directions from the farm owner, I went looking for Four Petal Farm in Banner Kentucky. After twenty-five minutes of driving back and forth on the two-lane, turning around twice on the “one-lane” and following what appeared to me to be a four-wheeler track, I was ready to declare myself lost when I saw the low tunnels – a sure sign I had found Four Petal Farm, the home of John and Cathy Rehmeyer and their daughters, Vivian and Caroline.
This was actually my third visit to Four Petal Farm but the first in its new location on Akers Branch in Floyd County. Cathy’s first venture into farming was as an urban farmer in the middle of Pikeville on one-tenth of an acre at the top of a hill in the middle of town. It was there where Cathy learned to grow food for her family and later her CSA customer’s all through the winter, using terraces and low tunnels.
Having seen all the work Cathy and John had done in Pikeville, I asked her why they chose to move to a rural farm that had not been in production for several years.
“John and I grew up in rural America” Cathy replied, “and we had childhoods where we just roamed the woods. We wanted that for our kids—the freedom to explore and be outside.” John was raised on a “tractor” farm where they raised hogs, corn and soybeans so vegetable farming was new to him. But after seven years of looking, he found the farm on Akers Branch on the internet.
“It’s not an ideal location for vegetable farming, especially year round vegetable farming like we do.” Cathy told me. “Vegetables need maximum sunlight. Our farm is at the head of the hollow with steep slopes on both sides. In the summer the sun doesn’t hit the first bit of garden until 9:30 and leaves it by 4:40. At it gets even less in the winter. And then there was the question of soil quality. It was a real leap of faith.”
As we walked the property, Cathy talked more about the soil quality. “It’s like a box of chocolates, ‘cuz you don’t know what you are going to get” she remarked with a grin pointing out spots with sand and right next to it a big clump of clay. There were even chunks of coal and what looked like concrete.
“We are pretty sure this is fill” she said. “There is a gas well up above us and we think that the former owners of the property allowed them to dump fill here to create “flat land”. We had a friend come out with his tractor and tiller and when he got to this part he just left it alone.” Cathy has planted that section in sorghum sudan grass to help break up the compaction and add nutrients so that some day that section of the field can be used too.
Soil quality is a topic Cathy never tires of talking about. “The farm had been hay cropped for decades and the soil was just worn out. When we first started working the field, we walked it one day after being freshly tilled and found one measly earthworm in the entire bottom. I knew it was going to be a challenge even without a soil test.” Now, after only one year, there are earthworms all over the place.
As we walked around the farm, Cathy’s daughters showed me their rabbits, Eliza and Henry. (Apparently the girls had just seen My Fair Lady prior to getting the rabbits.) I asked the girls more about the rabbits and found out they were New Zealand Reds and they were “delicious”. As a city girl, that comment took me by surprise until I realized Cathy and John were raising their children to understand where their food comes from and that includes meat too. There are also goats on the farm who apparently a source of humor to the girls, especially when they “eat mommy’s hat” and ducks that take a lot of care.
As we walked, Vivian, the eldest showed me the Earth Tone field corn, a beautiful “Indian corn” with blue, brown and green kernels that she was growing. She explained that “field corn was not what you eat on the cob but you have to let it dry out and then you grind it for meal to make cornbread.” She got the seed from the Pikeville Seed Swap and would be saving some of the kernels for next year’s garden and some to swap. The rest was going to be made into cornbread for Thanksgiving.
Vivian also showed me her most favorite bean, “Aunt Bets” that she got from the famous Kentucky bean saver, Bill Best. “If you let them get really big inside, they are really tender and they taste really good,“ Vivian said with a grin. And then she and I ate some right off the vine.
Back at the farm house, I asked Cathy why she was farming. “To make money” was her immediate response. “John is our full time farmer. We are counting on making up that salary that he transitioned out of in March by being very intentional about planting things that already have a home.”
While still in Pikeville, Cathy started growing produce for The Blue Raven, a restaurant in Pikeville that supports local farmers by purchasing directly from them. “Matt (the owner of The Blue Raven and its sister restaurant Sliced) featured our produce on his menu. When we moved to the farm, he wanted to continue using our stuff. He wanted to use our tomatoes and basil for a Four Petal Farm Pizza at Sliced. I said we can do that. He wanted summer squash as a side for the Raven. I said we can do that.”
She told me that too often folks new to growing food to sell get it backwards. They plant and then try to figure out where to sell it. “We focus on growing stuff in the summer that has a destination already. Farmers markets are great but they cannot be the only thing to make farming a viable income for people, to make a living out of.”
As our time together drew to a close, I asked Cathy where the farm name, Four Petal Farm, came from. “Well, she said, there are three things. We are known for our winter gardening which is primarily vegetables from the brassica family—broccoli, cabbage, turnips, radishes—and brassica flowers have four petals. But we are also growing year round now in all four seasons. And there are four of us in our family. So the Four Petals are very symbolic.”
To learn more about all season gardening, Four Petal Farm and Cathy in general visit her blog, Mother of a Hubbard.
Breaking Beans: Appalachian Food Story Project is an initiative of Community Farm Alliance to tell the story of how local food and farming in Eastern Kentucky can contribute to a bright future in the mountains. Read the stories at cfaky.org/blog