Cedar Creek Farm: A Model for Sustainability

By Sister Kathy Curtis

One of my favorite things to do for Breaking Beans: The Appalachian Food Story Project are farm visits. So, it was with great excitement that I found myself heading west on a beautiful Sunday morning this past March. My destination? Cedar Creek Farm and Winery.

Cedar Creek Farm and Winery is in Pulaski County, one of Kentucky’s few Appalachian counties west of I-75. Usually I have to follow graphic directions like “turn off the four lane at the auto repair shop and follow the road for a couple miles until you see the big white house, cross the bridge and we are a little ways down the holler”. But, I had none of those worries because signs for Cedar Creek Winery we evident on both the highway and the secondary road. And I knew I was in for a fun day when I started seeing vintage bicycles along the drive and stained glass artwork along the path pointing the way. 

Parking next to the large solar panel, I got out of my car and took in the beauty of the farm—sight, smell and sound. On the back porch knitting, sat Debbie Wiles who invited me up and introduced me to her husband Jeff. Soon their son Micah and my friend Candace Mullins joined us and we had to decide where to set up the interview. While I knew inside the house would probably be better sound-wise, the beauty of the spring morning would not be denied. I loved hearing the cows, ducks and crows.

The Wiles family bought the 94-acre property, where the farm is located, “a while back” with the idea of raising horses but when the “market went south” they decided to try growing grapes to sell to wineries instead. They soon realized that to make any money with the grapes they would have to make the wine too.

Jeff and Debbie have been making wine for about twenty years and have been licensed to sell it for close to fifteen but when they decided to create the winery they came face to face with a big challenge—Pulaski County was a dry county at the time so they couldn’t have an on-farm tasting room.

In about 2000, the Kentucky legislature passed a law that allowed small farm wineries to request special elections in that farm’s precinct. The first year the Wiles requested the law be changed, they lost by 120 votes. Three years later (the amount of time required by law before reapplying) they won by eleven votes.

Established in 2002, Cedar Creek Vineyard and Winery was opened in 2007 with an initial offering of four labels. They currently have their wine in fifteen or so stores in the state and just recently have it in the first restaurant.

“We like dry, red wine so we grow red grapes” Jeff told me. It has been a long learning experience. “Prohibition was the last time grapes have been grown in this area so we have had a lot to learn.” They’ve had to pull up one variety all together and then there were “a couple of really cold winters that were bad on the grapes.” It has been a real learning experience.

“How long have you dreamed of having a farm?” I asked Jeff and Debbie.

“It took us a while to decide if we were up to the struggle, challenge and sacrifice of living on a farm.” Debbie told me. About eleven years ago they decided to give it a go and started building the house, deciding to make the bottom floor, which is built into the hillside, the winery.

“We went to an owner/builder school in Maine about 35 years ago”, Jeff said, “and built an addition on to the house we were living in at the time and have owned acreage in several different places but this is the first real farm we’ve had”. Designed by Debbie & Jeff using the Not So Big House Plan as a model, the house has no hallways, every room on the main floor is used every day, there are two bedrooms on the top floor and
the winery is on the ground level. A fairly recent addition to the house was the solar panel which makes their home even more efficient.

The house took Jeff three years to build. His years of experience working in everything from hotels, to owning apartments to carpentry to working on the railroad came in real handy.

Recently retired, Debbie admitted to having an off-farm job, working in education for thirty-two years which “made things click a little better. Without that, it would have been really, really challenging.”

When I asked who the farmer in the family was, both Debbie and Jeff pointed to Micah. While he got his formal education in AG and forestry, Micah claims to have gotten most of his knowledge from actual hands opportunities at workshops and working on other people’s farms. 

Micah appreciates what he has learned from others and shares that knowledge by providing workshops himself. Most recently he has done workshops on fermentation, tanning and mushrooms. Interest has varied between topics, one of his most successful was at the Market on Main in Somerset, Kentucky, where he taught a full house the benefits and how-to’s of fermentation.

Most of the food that is grown on the farm is for the family’s use though, Micah has sold the excess at the farmer’s market, along with handmade veggie pizzas. He is also growing beef and this fall hopes to have quite a bit ready for sale. I asked him if he managed to make money selling the food he grows, his response was:

“I think what I’ve found is, I see a lot of people who under price their product because they assume that people won’t pay the higher price or it’s what other people are selling it for. My view is that I price a product at what I think the value is. So if it’s a high quality product that I’ve put a lot of time and effort into, then I’m going to price it higher. And I found there are people out there that are willing to pay more for a high quality product.”

Currently, Micah is growing several different breeds of cattle. Most of the herd is Dexter, an Irish dual purpose breed that can be used for both milk and meat. “They are small and easier to fill out. They are also more efficient grazers so you can have more cattle on smaller acreage. They are good for homesteaders.” He also has some Scottish Highlanders (the cute furry ones) and Belted Galway with a Jersey for milk.

“All my cattle are 100% grass fed so we spend a lot of effort on our grasses” Micah told me. Jeff knew early on that the pasture land on the farm needed work. “It had been over grazed and was really in bad shape.”  So about fifteen or so years ago, they planted 24 acres in native, warm season, tall grasses that are managed by controlled burning. “The grasses thrive on burning and it keeps the competition down. The grasses and clovers you are used to seeing in lawns are cool season grasses, mostly from Europe. They put on most of their growth in spring and fall during wet seasons. The native warm season grasses mature in mid-summer and can grow to six or more feet. We use both for our cattle.”

During the interview I noticed that Debbie and Jeff deferred to Micah often when I asked questions about the farm. Debbie pointed out that their farm was multigenerational. “While Micah has the formal education, Jeff has the hands on experience. If Micah is trying to fix a piece of equipment, he has Jeff to fall back on. We all learn from each other and are motivated by each other.”

When I asked them to tell me about a typical day, Debbie said, “There is no typical day. Days are really long in spring and summer and winter is for catching up on reading and such.” Micah said that the variety was one of his favorite things about working on the farm. “Every day is different. Some chores have to be done every day. But some only have to be done every so often, like pruning. Last month I spent a couple days pruning the orchard but I won’t have to do that for another year.” 

As we were finishing up the interview, I asked if they had anything to tell me about that I hadn’t asked and Jeff spoke up. He told me that his dad had grown up in the depression and had to live with his uncle to keep from starving. “There was a thing called the three C’s—the Civilian Conservation Corps—and he joined it. It seems like the dust bowl was going on around then. Nobody was taking care of the land so the three C’s worked to restore the land. There were like the first environmentalists.”

Watching a documentary about the Civilian Conservation Corp recently was a moving experience for Jeff. “My dad taught me two things, leave the land better than when you found it and take care of your tools. I think he learned that in the 3 C’s. It was like his legacy handing that down to me and to Micah.”

Just before we finished up Debbie showed her true colors as an educator and mom. “I just want to say that Micah is real interested in sharing the model of what we are doing on the farm.”  So if you would like to learn more about what Micah and his family are doing as they build their sustainable farm, contact them through their website www.cedarcreekfarmky.com. You can find them on Facebook too.

After the interview was over, I was treated to a tour of the farm’s garden and orchard, a wonderful brunch of duck eggs, and mushroom gravy over biscuits. I also had my first ever taste of kimchi and a stroll through the farm’s newest addition, a walking trail.

During the two hour trip home, I had plenty of time to think about all I saw and experienced at Cedar Creek Winery and Farm. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the farm settled contentedly over me and I thought how grateful I was to have had the opportunity to visit folks like the Wiles family who are intentionally building lives and homes intertwined with the natural world.

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