This is a photo of my great-great grandmother Effie Annie Earls. Effie grew up in Metcalfe County Kentucky where she along with the rest of her family grew most of their own food. There was nothing special or glorious about it...it was just part of life. A life where you depended on your family, neighbors and community to meet your basic needs. A lot has changed on Kentucky farms in the past 100 years.
Nathan grew up on a farm in Hart County (one county over from Metcalfe) on what we now call a conventional farm growing crops like corn, soy, wheat and tobacco. He was taught to work hard and depend on the farmers in his community. Like many young people growing up on a farm in Kentucky tobacco paid Nathan's way off the farm and into college so he could pursue a career. We met at Western Kentucky University pursuing degrees in agriculture.
This photo was taken on our first "date" touring irrigation systems on fruit and vegetable farms.
After graduation we were both hired by the University of Kentucky to assist tobacco farmers transition to fruit and vegetable crops. We were given the hard task to convince farmers who were losing their dependable tobacco crops to take a risk on fruits and vegetables. This wasn't always easy to accomplish considering fruits and vegetables are often times more difficult to grow, labor intensive and have an unpredictable market. We spent the next decade of our lives helping farmers stay on their family farms.
My high school job at a local orchard led me to pursue that degree in agriculture after witnessing the connection between people and seasonal food. I was fascinated with the enjoyment over the first peach of the season or the celebration of apples each fall. But even with a degree in agriculture and work experience in fruit and vegetable production we like many others were overworked and overwhelmed and eating the most convenient foods possible. When my second child was born and refused bottles of formula I began a breastfeeding relationship with her that changed my life. I began to look at food in a completely different way. Local food was a motivator for me to eliminate more processed foods from our diet and increase real, whole foods.
The first change I made to our diet was the green smoothie back in 2009. Later a farming woman reached out to me and offered to help me with simple recipes and a love relationship with local food and farmers began. This began our stronger connection to our community and the realization that everyone is capable of overcoming obstacles in their lives and finding their best.
About the time that I was adding green smoothies, fresh milk and brown eggs to our diet Nathan began growing over 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. He loves to experience the excitement from customers as they enjoy the variety of flavors available in diversified crops. In 2011 Community Farmers Market opened and we found ourselves surrounded by a group of farmers who both valued what we had to contribute to the market and our community and encouraged us to follow our passion to farm full time. In April of 2013, surrounded by supportive farmers, chefs, friends and customers we started our year round CSA.
The making of our multi-farm CSA is part of our family story. Woven through our childhoods, pathways to adulthood, becoming parents, and finding our voices as local food advocates you will find the farmers who help us feed 35 families, including our own. We went through undergrad in the agriculture department at WKU with the Coleman Brothers and now Tracy Coleman and his partner Chelsea Williams are owners of Crooked Creek Farm and contribute whole chickens and pork to our weekly boxes. Those peaches and apples I remember so fondly help us add variety to our summer and fall boxes. The farming woman who was willing to reach out to me when I started my path to whole foods now provides eggs, beef and pork to our CSA. The milk that took me beyond fruits and vegetables with local farmers is a staple for our customers each week. The cheese, corn meal, granola, fresh baked bread and soups come from real people with stories just like ours who want to be about something real and meaningful.
Read about our CSA from a share memebers perspective HERE.
We grow all of the fruits and vegetables provided in our CSA (outside of tree fruits) on a little over two acres. Each day is a balance of planting and harvesting as we move from one season to the next. Our business model is simple. Feed ourselves and 35 households well while creating growth in the local food system and more opportunities for consumers to support farmers. It's hard work and can seem so big, but I'm reminded that it's as simple as growing, preparing and eating food just like the Earls back in Metcalfe County (or as close as possible, I suppose).
Have our grandparents convinced us that gardens were easy to grow? We were there as seeds were planted and then again as fruit was harvested, but did we miss the breaking of ground, amendments to soil, training of vines and back breaking work of weeding and picking? Must we learn through our mishaps and failures that the harvest only comes after hard work and perseverance?
We've thought about this a lot lately as we have been reminded by another summer at how hard farming really is. In the present it's become a very idealistic way to make a living (captured on instagram and facebook). Like anything worthy of our time it's very hard work and important that the next generation is able to experience it fully so that they really know.
My wholehearted response to the concerns about the mom with all those kids, in line at Wal-Mart with a cart full of "insert any combination of junk food and sodas here".
I've heard this same exact scenario so many times in the past couple months that it tells me a few things. First, the impact of large corporations marketing junk food to families is out of control. Almost everyone at Wal-mart (not just moms) have shopping carts full of junk food. I really need to think more about that. Second, we are really quick to judge moms on how they pay for their food, what food they are purchasing and a long list of other things. Being a mom is really hard work and a little help with a lot of grace could go a long way to helping moms make healthier choices. I hear the concerns and realize how valid they are, but I don't think that those moms are the problem and here are a few of the reasons.
I've been one of those kids.
I was raised by a single mom with disabilities and no personal transportation. For most of my childhood we depended on others for rides to the grocery store or had to walk long distances to bus stops. We were never really sure when our next trip to the grocery store would be and this made packaged, light weight and overly processed foods both convenient, easy to carry and they just so happened to be very tasty. I remember the looks we received when my mom used her government funded assistance to purchase our food. Over time I learned to just look at the floor or try to appear as if I was with someone else when we approached the check out counter. If you were wondering if kids notice your looks, they do. Those are some of the hard memories, but fortunately I had others like the neighbor who shared food from her garden or the family who invited us over for delicious, healthy food. Those moments when my body received the nutrition it craved left lasting impressions that helped me make better food choices later.
I've been that mom
When we had our first couple of kids we were overworked, overwhelmed and uneducated when it came to healthy food options that were realistic on our budget and schedule. We started our son on whole foods, but somehow as he became a toddler we started to rely more and more on convenient foods. He not only recognized McDonalds, but would ask for it. Junk food became a tool that I used to simply cope with the hard days of juggling full-time work, stress and exhaustion. I distinctly remember the time when a "foodie" pointed out that while we were selling watermelon and tomatoes at the farmer market everyone noticed that we eat a lot of fast food. It hurt. I wanted to do better, but it wasn't until we changed some of the underlying reasons we were eating poorly and surrounded ourselves with loving mentors that we were able to make that happen.
People really do change when they are ready
A lot of people are surprised that "I haven't always eaten this way" (unless they knew me in the past). I've spent a lot of time thinking about all the reasons we have changed our eating habits and what has motivated us to do so. After some personal health problems a few years ago I began to eat healthier before encouraging my family to do so. We spent a lot of time with farmers and I found that limiting myself to mostly fresh, locally grown foods was a great way to keep us on track. It was good timing with movies like Food INC and writers like Michael Pollen becoming well known. It was when Nathan's mom was diagnosed with advanced diabetes and liver disease that we finally found the courage to drastically change our eating habits. That in turn allowed us to have the energy and mental clarity to pursue farming full time. But this was a process and happened slowly over time. I'm thankful for those who offered me grace along the way and realistic that I'll continue to need that as some seasons of life are busier and more chaotic than others. It really is a cycle and part of the process of learning, growing and finding our own path.
What to do when we are concerned
I completely understand why you are concerned. I'm concerned too. We aren't meant to eat this way and things need to change. We are facing real problems in the health and nutrition of our families. Food insecure, under served, low-income, first world malnourished children, government program participants ...I've decided that there really isn't a correct way to describe something that shouldn't exist. Until solutions to the major issues are found there are things we can do to make a difference one household at a time like getting involved in the Food for All Community Garden to benefit the refugee CSA, HOTEL INC providing locally grown food and teaching people how to use it, the Barren River Food System Alliance with support from Community Farm Alliance and the Double Dollars program that launched yesterday at Community Farmers Market Bowling Green. The double dollars program partners private funding from local businesses and individuals with government funded nutrition programs to help real people eat better food and keep more dollars in our local economy. These large systems do not always work, but some of the most caring, loving mothers I know are receiving assistance from government nutrition programs. The education from these programs gives them the support they need to breastfeed, make better first food decisions and many are bringing back family dinner time.
The most important thing we can do is find compassion.
I'm hesitant to write about vulnerability in a place dedicated to farming and simple living, but in an effort to be BOLD in places that make me scared to death I'm going for it.
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly..." Theodore Roosevelt
What I've learned along the way is that to be fully present, to show up, to dig deep into our lives we must be willing to be vulnerable. And vulnerability is hard work (in fact, it really stinks at times). From the beginning my calling has been to speak up for families and help them overcome the obstacles in their lives that keep them from their best. I love this work and truly believe in it. But over and over again I kept facing the same thing. I couldn't put my finger on what it was until I finally recognized it as shame.
I'd show up, express my thoughts in a vulnerable way and moments later that feeling of dread would take me over. I'm not worthy to be doing this work. Who do you think you are to be offering advice to other people? You are just asking for others to call you out on your imperfections. My calling and my shame were linked to one another. My past (full of insecurities, difficult circumstances and several bad decisions) had given me the dedication and gumption to help others on a similar journey, but it was the same thing that would halt me in my tracks and make me question myself.
"If we want to be able to move through the difficult disappointments, the hurt feelings, and the heartbreaks that are inevitable in a fully lived life, we can't equate defeat with being unworthy of love, belonging and joy. If we do, we'll never show up and try again." Brene Brown
I can't say that I've overcome shame or the insecurities that rise up when I do something vulnerable. That brings me back to my fear of talking about vulnerability in a place dedicated to the joys of life on a farm. What if no one "likes" my post? What if people are uncomfortable by my vulnerability? What if someone thinks I'm talking about them and not myself?
The thing about shame is that it can cause us to become critics of others or at it's worst begin disengagement with the people we care about most. For that reason I've become determined to recognize it, name it and move away from it before I allow it to hurt others...especially my family. Because in the end food, birth and community is all about our relationships with others and without vulnerability in those relationships we lose the true meaning of life. I want you to know that if shame or fear hold you back from time to time that you are not alone!
We've been known to use the popular phrases "everything I want to do is illegal" and "I'm just trying to feed people" on our small-scale Kentucky farm. When you work long days in extreme heat and you're up against large corporations who sell convenience and extreme taste it's hard not to have moments of defeat. But we're complaining less and focusing more on positive change by collaborating and getting our voices heard. Here are a few ways that a second generation Kentucky farmer and a mama with big hopes and dreams is making that happen right where we live.
1. If you are a vendor at a local farmers market...volunteer! Get there early and help put out signs, establish a market booth and educational programs, offer to help with social media, weekly newsletters and other marketing. I know it's a lot of work to pick all day Friday, wake up early on Saturday morning and set up your booth, but there's a lot of work to be done to make a market successful and somebody's got to do it. Dedicated farmers develop committed volunteers!
2. Sell your products somewhere other than a farmers market. Contact a school or chef and ask them if they want to buy your food products. If you don't get an answer by phone or email go into the restaurant, but not at lunch time! Make it easy on them. Stop in with some samples of your product and ask if they would be interested in purchasing from you. If they say, "I'd like 10 pounds of tomatoes a week" don't wait until they remember to call you. Put it on your calendar and stop in at regular times when it's convenient for them. We're competing with the convenience of large middle men and it's up to us to make it work! Selling to local restaurants is a great way to extend sales outside of farmers markets, grow the local food system and create positive energy among consumers. Make the most of the farm to table connection with unique marketing. Huge impact is seen when a farmer shares the product leaving the farm on facebook or twitter, the chef puts your name on the menu and loyal customers excitedly shares a photo of what's on their plate! It's worth the extra time to build partnerships.
3. Engage local government agencies, non-profits and organizations. I guarantee you that most professionals working in the previously mentioned fields have seen local food grants, healthy food initiatives, and nutrition programs focusing on obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease come across their desks and in their inbox's. Seek out relational professionals who have the time, ability and passion to work with you on creating change for local food. Think collaboration and negotiation as you work together! If you are a small-scale farmer you've probably spent many hours thinking about healthy dirt, lacto-fermentation, real butter and monsanto, but realistically not everyone spends most of their waking hours contemplating these things like we do. Many professionals working in public health or service to food insecure populations have been spending time thinking about a lot of other really important things. Take time to listen to what they have to say. See if there is a project they are working on that you can dedicate your time or fresh product to. Consider partnering on a Food Day or meet your farmer event. Food Day is an excellent collaborative effort among foodies like Michael Pollan & Marion Nestle and government organizations like the USDA and Surgeon General's office.
4. Think about the next generation. We are in a very unique place in history for Kentucky farms. We're at the point where everyone is taking notice to how we farm, eat and engage within our communities. One of the most important things we can do is to ditch the corporate business model and embrace transparency, hard work and generosity. Work with the farmers around you (there's plenty of business for all of us). Invite young farmers (or those thinking about farming) to volunteer on your farm. Offer them some land if you have it. Most importantly, encourage your children to consider farming or food related business opportunities! Find ways to connect with other farmers through the Agriculture Legacy Initiative.
5. Apply for small-scale grants. We know that the large corporations and mega farms get most of the farm subsidies and we've been watching what's happening with the new farm bill. But there is a way that you can make a difference for smaller farms in Kentucky while helping your own operation. Apply for Kentucky Proud marketing funds, the Kentucky State Small-Scale Grant Program and Agriculture Development Funds. Work really hard on writing a successful grant. Get help from KCARD, attend the Kentucky Fruit and Vegetable Conference and ask a farmer who's received funds from these programs to help you out. Commit yourself to your project, share the success that the funding provides and use it to help others. These small-scale grants will continue to increase if we apply for them, use them and promote them!
6. Get involved in policy change. Become Kentucky Proud and join Community Farm Alliance. Like the idea of HB 391 (Home Processing of Products), but know that as a busy farmer you don't have time to make salsa during tomato season? Get involved in new policy that makes it more feasible for farmers to increase productivity, meet a growing demand of local food consumers and help create job growth. If you are in the Berea, Louisville or South Central, Kentucky areas contact Community Farm Alliance and consider joining the Food System Assessment projects that are underway. Stay up to date with progressive regional food blogs like Sustainable Kentucky and Savoring Kentucky.
People are people. Collaboration takes hard work. Our food system has done some really crazy things over the last 100 years and we've got a long way to go. But as farmers we are strong, courageous and have powerful voices that need to be heard. Things won't happen the way we want them to overnight, but they won't happen at all if we don't get involved and work for it. Have your own ideas on what Kentucky farmers can do to create positive change? Leave a message below letting us know!
Food insecure, under served, low-income, first world malnourished children, government program participants ...I've decided that there really isn't a correct way to describe something that shouldn't exist. Until a solution is found you can help us make a difference one household at a time by getting involved in the Food for All Community Garden to benefit the refugee CSA, HOTEL INC providing locally grown food and teaching people how to use it, the Barren River Food System Alliance with support from Community Farm Alliance and the Double Dollars program launching soon at Community Farmers Market Bowling Green. The double dollars program partners private funding from local businesses and individuals with government funded nutrition programs to help real people eat better food and keep more dollars in our local economy.
A sweet friend of mine once said, "Someone may love the poor, but that doesn't mean that they will want to eat, shop and work along side them." Her comment has had me thinking a lot lately about how we value one another. What if someone has little in financial gain, but everything in character, grace and love for others? How is that reflected in my own life? A farming wife with dirt under my fingernails, reaching for mosquito bitten children (a bit wild from farm life) and driving a vehicle that is dependable, but worn from wear. Does my wit, hard work and determination allow me these things in a world that expects something more? I'm hopeful that I will continue to add complexity to the value system by which I measure others and how I allow myself to be measured as well.
Growing up on a commodity crop farm in Central Kentucky, it seems I have always had Kentucky soil under my fingernails and in my veins. I have grown up knowing that the seeds of spring pay the bills of fall and all the hardships and joys that come in between. We small farmers choose to farm for the friendships, community, and an honest way of life. I left the family farm for higher education and spent 11 years of my life working for the horticulture department at the University of Kentucky. In those 11 years, I helped many small family farms fight to offset the income loss of tobacco with vegetable production. Some failed and some succeeded, but in helping these families across Kentucky, I have come to realize that farmers have a greater picture of life than just the bottom line of a business plan. They want to feel value in what they are doing and worthy of their spot in the world. Whether organic, conventional, or somewhere in between, all small farmers are seeing the same struggles of living out a dream of a sustainable way of life. This is where my passion for farmers markets and other local food production has grown. It’s a great way to connect consumers to producers of all kinds and neighbors are helping neighbors in what is a true profit margin.
For several years of our life we were able to give a lot of time, energy and finances to serving others. I became a stay at home mom reconnecting to what that meant for our family and Nathan had a regular 9-5 job. As we began to transition to small-scale farming in 2010 we took some time to write down some holistic life goals for our family:
Time spent working, playing and learning as a family
A slower, more peaceful life
Enough margin in our life to be there for others when they need us
Investment in faith, health, personal growth
We took it a step further and listed all the ways we could make that happen. Reducing our workload, prioritizing our commitments and a daily commitment to balance. But to be honest the last two years of our lives haven't looked that way. A month after we wrote those words we were in a car accident, our daughter was diagnosed with severe sensitivities and Nathan's mother was diagnosed with a life threatening disease. Staying true to our commitment to farm full time was difficult. We had come out of a time in our lives where we had been able to serve others and we found ourselves needing to be served. Thankfully we were blessed with compassionate people who surrounded us with love and a lot of hard work!
Today was a monumental day in our journey to finding more peace. For the first time in two years we were able to see a glimpse of what those words on paper were supposed to mean. A neighbor needed help and Nathan was able to stop what he was doing and jump in on a project for as long as was needed, when there were errands to run in town we all jumped in the car and went together. I had enough space in my day to respond to emails with the time and emotional investment my friends deserve. While we've learned that farming full time means we will always need a strong network of community around us it sure feels good to have more time to serve them back!
The past is the past. Good, bad and everything in between. While we learn from the past the present is where we are given the opportunity to live. It's where we do the hard, back breaking work we are called to do. Tomorrow is not promised which reminds us to make the most of today.
farm. eat. connect. grow. write. collaborate. believe. empower. market. sustain. teach. engage.
Nathan moved off his traditional family farm in Hart Co. Kentucky to go to college and find a career. Twelve years later he finds himself back on a Kentucky farm farming full time. This time he's growing fruits and vegetables and building partnerships with other farmers to build a Community Supported Agriculture program. Nathan will be sharing tips on practical farming skills, farmers market development and balancing life on a farm.
Michelle is a wife, mom, writer and advocate for food, birth and community. She works along side her husband on the farm to develop weekly food subscriptions that help families overcome obstacles to eating healthy, local food. Michelle will be sharing thoughts on our food system, balancing motherhood with personal passions, collaboration and grassroots marketing for both farmers and markets.