By George Turner,
In the hills and valleys of Eastern Kentucky is Breathitt County, spanning around 492 square miles of land and home to just under thirteen thousand people. According to the USDA Ag Census report, Breathitt has 120 farms that occupy 22,224 acres and grow a variety of products from sweet corn and vegetables to cattle and hay. I spent the last month or so exploring the food and farm community of Breathitt county, and met some amazing people who are doing the hard work to keep their farms in production.
Here are their stories…
When we eat a blueberry or get a spoonful of honey, many of us don’t really think about the person or people who planted or harvested it. We just don’t naturally think of the families that work these farms and sell the products. One such person who keeps bees and has blueberry bushes is Jeff Howard.
Jeff grew up farming with his family which continued some into his adult life. He also was a coal miner, where most of his income came from. When the mine jobs began drying up, he found himself like so many other miners, unemployed. Following his instinct, Jeff returned to farming. Today, Jeff sells his honey, blueberries and a variety of other products at the local farmers’ market.
In an interview with Jeff, he spoke of getting the various classes and certifications that he had to have in order to sell at the Farmers’ Market. He was able to enlighten me on the value of being a member of the farmers market co-op. One thing that resonated with me was when he said, “George, when we buy food from the stores, it comes from large commercial farms that has to truck it in to us. When we buy from local farmers, we get quality food that is fresh and safe.” Having the opportunity to speak with Jeff made me realize that when we invest locally, our money doesn’t go to some company that is traded on the stock market and treats their fruit and produce with who knows what chemical. Instead, when we buy from local farmers it helps them pay for their farms and allows their families to earn a living.
As Jeff returned to farming after mining coal was no longer an option for him, CFA also recognized that agriculture is critical to a just transition in Kentucky and has devoted the past decade to local food systems work as a piece of that just economic transition from coal mining and tobacco production. CFA has been actively involved in the regional conversation around a just transition, and most recently signed onto a national letter endorsing the RECLAIM Act which would promote jobs and economic development in areas most affected by the coal industry’s decline.
While the region transitions, some are returning to farming, others are scaling back. In an interview with Anthony Holbrook, I learned that sometimes decades old businesses can’t compete with large mega farms. The Holbrook family ran a successful greenhouse business for thirty years. Anthony told he about how he and his parents would love to have friends, neighbors and even folks come from the surrounding counties to the greenhouses and share stories, farming experiences, and laughter.
I asked Anthony what he thought was the biggest reason that their business started to suffer. He relayed that there was a decline in farming. The decline was due to an aging population, people selling their farms to folks who wasn’t interested in farming and wanted to develop land for other purposes. Another reason that he pointed out was that stores could sell fruit, vegetables and other food products for a cheaper price than what farmers could compete with. In the case of the Holbrooks, the greenhouse wasn’t their only income but, it was a passion that the family had. It was a thing that created community through the feeling of growing and harvesting fresh food.
Another family farmer, Jannelle Fugate, shared her experiences with farming on her family farm. As a young girl, Janelle and her Dad ran the farm, together. She expressed finding enough help and viable markets appear to be her biggest concern. She said that when she was young, it seemed like her dad always had enough workers to do everything that needed to be done. Now days, she reported, she can’t find enough available help. When asked why she thought this was the case, her first reply was, “folks who will work already have a full-time job and usually a part time job to boot. This seems to be a common challenge within multiple farmers who are doing small scale production. As our conversation continued, Janelle shared more on the second big issue: the need for markets that were closer geographically. With her farm focusing mainly on cattle, the best paying livestock market is a two-hour drive for her. The cost for her to take her animals to market, or even to a processing facility really would cut into her overall profit.
Even though her farm’s focus is on cattle, she and her family still tend a garden for themselves. She was proud to mention that she had over one hundred tomato plants planted. I asked if she sold any of her garden food at a farmers market and was surprised when she gave a blunt no. The garden stuff is for her family. They can or freeze most of their harvest. They also like to take excess food to elderly neighbors and give it to them.
Over the past few months of interviewing farmers. I learned that farming is definitely a family affair that brings everyone together. It is a passion and a source of income. It is a special vocation that requires work, planning, patience and community. Our farmers are preservers of not only food, but of heritage, traditions, and the land. We can support them by visiting a local farmers market. To find a local farmers market near you, please visit Community Farm Alliance’s website cfaky.org and check out the Farmers Market Support Program interactive map.
Additionally, Community Farm Alliance also works to support viable markets for producers in Eastern Kentucky through our Farm to Table staff team’s technical assistance work, and advocating for both state policies like HB 166 around state parks local food purchasing (CFA introduced and passed in 2011) as well as national policies like the Kids Eat Local Act which would make it easier for family farmers to sell to schools by simplifying school meal program local food purchasing guidelines