In Kentucky alone, the number of registered farmers markets grew from 96 in 2004 to about 150 last year. That doesn't count roadside stands or local produce sold in supermarkets. Other farmers sell a portion of their crop to local consumers even before a seed is planted. Such business models represent a big shift away from the mass production emphasized on most American farms since World War Two.
Today, a four-day "local food summit" begins in Lexington. Public officials, farmers, chefs, cheese-makers and ordinary people who love good food will come together. They'll talk and learn about everything from edible lawns to raising goats in the city to public policies that can encourage the growing local food movement.
Consumers are drawn to local food for lots of reasons: freshness and quality, a desire to support local agriculture, environmental concerns.
For farmers it can be a bit more complex. Some think it makes economic sense, for others it's almost a religion. For Todd Clark, the bottom line always matters.
"You've got to be profitable, you can't go broke and still be sustainable, still be green."
A first- generation farmer, Clark manages the delicate balance between black and green by planting hay and tobacco, and with pasture-raised beef, chicken and, most recently, eggs. Although Clark farms about 1,000 acres, the 83 acres he owns in northern Fayette County is the heart of his operation.
Instead of herbicides, insecticides or synthetic fertilizers, Clark rotates his livestock…so their health and the health of his pastures is maintained. Chickens live in large, mobile hen houses so they can be moved daily, following the cattle. Each eats different grasses, the chickens feed on the fly larvae attracted by the cattle, and chicken poop fertilizes the grass…
"The grass or the pasture is the center of the enterprises, we're not producing any of these animals in a feedlot. …. It just seems like our centerpiece is the bluegrass so why not utilize what we're known for."
A lot of Clark’s meat is processed and marketed by Marksbury Farm. Since 2010, the operation has processed and sold local, naturally produced meat and other products. John-Mark Hack is one of the partners.
"We think it's a much more sustainable production model. Grass doesn't have to be replanted every year, it doesn't rely on a high level of mechanization and a high level of petroleum dependence…certainly one of the biggest reasons is what we have available to us here in Central Kentucky is a fantastic forage base."
Butchering a live animal into a cut of refrigerated meat adds a lot of value but is also a complicated, expensive enterprise subject to government regulation. And, unlike farmers growing for distant commodity markets, these local, small-scale growers must seek out customers.
Marksbury is a federally-approved meat processing facility, which means what's processed there can be sold in retail stores and to restaurants. That comes at a cost. For example, it must have a separate office and rest room for meat inspectors who are always on-site. The paperwork is also costly. Given such overhead, Mark-Hack says they cannot compete on price alone.
"We're not to a point yet where we've been able to bring down the price point where it's accessible to all of the general public like we would like for it to be."
Still, Hack says Marksbury's experience proves there's a market. In less than two years it has bought almost a half million dollars of chickens, cattle and pigs from local farmers that it processed and sold to local consumers.
Hack believes a growing portion of Kentucky’s consumers are willing to pay that extra cost.
"Consumers are becoming more and more discriminating about what they are ingesting. They understand that good food isn't cheap and cheap food isn't all that good."
Such thinking also powers a small farm in Fayette County owned and operated by Erik Walles. Late every winter, Walles sells subscriptions to consumers who want a share of his crop. At Berries on Bryan Station, about 85 to 100 families pay $450 each year for 21 weeks of vegetables and berries. The families share the risk and reward…in good years their baskets are fuller than in bad years. The business plan is known as community supported agriculture…or CSA.
"A conventional farmer often requires a loan from the bank and then once the produce is sold at the end of the season and then they pay back the bank loan, whereas with a CSA it really helps the farmer having the money up front."
A certified organic farm, there are no synthetic fertilizers or insecticides at Berries on Bryan station. Walles saves in chemical costs but must manage his plantings and his soils much more intensely.
Walles' farm is one of about 60 C-S-A’s registered with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. He also sells to Lexington restaurants, including a salad mix he grows throughout the winter in his greenhouses…
Also, throughout the winter, Walles is doing one of the jobs small, local farmers have that commodity operations don't--marketing. He meets with restaurant owners, stays in touch with former CSA members and looks for new ones.
So Walles, like Todd Clark keeps a lot of balls in the air throughout the year to be both green and in the black.
"After six years of operation, it's about break even. When you look at all the capital investment required -- farming is an expensive business -- and part of it is a lifestyle farm, we enjoy the lifestyle and the quality of life, and the farm is paying itself."
For more information:
Bluegrass Local Food Summit: http://www.kyforward.com/?p=10281
Marksbury Farm: http://marksburyfarm.com
Berries on Bryan Station: http://berriesonbryanstation.com
Clark Family Farm: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clark-Family-Farm/153315548051238