Strategies for Sustainable Farming
Learning how to balance resources on the farmï¿½in harmony with natureï¿½in order to provide a higher quality of life for farmers and communities, now and for future generations
Beth and Doug Tillery have been farming for 31 years on a 300-acre farm in Jackson County, near McKee, that they bought from his parents. They started out growing tobacco, raising hogs, and milking cows.
As the years went on, each of those products ran into problems. First, vertical integration of pork production dropped hog prices dramaticallyï¿½ï¿½You couldnï¿½t even give a hog away,ï¿½ Beth Tillery recalls. The price of milk took a similar plunge, and they stopped their dairy operation.
For 18 years, their tobacco crop allowed them to keep their farm. But then a hailstorm ruined that yearï¿½s crop. The Tillerys consulted a financial advisor who told them they should declare bankruptcy, but they refused that option.
ï¿½Itï¿½s not just a living, itï¿½s our culture, within our own family, and we donï¿½t want to let that go,ï¿½ she says. ï¿½It became a mission: this land that cost so much has got to be worth something; thereï¿½s got to be something we can produce on this land.ï¿½
That quest led Doug and Beth Tillery to new cropsï¿½berries and cut flowersï¿½and new animalsï¿½beef cattle and both laying hens and chickens raised for meat.
The Tillerysï¿½ quest also led them to a new concept of farmingï¿½the set of practices that go under the name of ï¿½sustainable agriculture.ï¿½
ï¿½It was a whole new world,ï¿½ she says. They changed their business model to direct marketing. Tillery brings her products two or three times a week to a farmersï¿½ market in Lexington, 80 miles from McKee, raising the chickens as whatï¿½s called ï¿½pastured poultry.ï¿½ The chickens arenï¿½t just free-range since that could mean only that theyï¿½re moving about inside a building, but they spend their days outside, on grass.
Itï¿½s a labor-intensive pursuit: ï¿½Youï¿½re babysitting these meat chickens because theyï¿½re so vulnerableï¿½ to predators, Tillery says, ï¿½and moving them to new pasture at least twice a day.ï¿½
Tillery talks as if she finds a sense of liberation and self-expression in this way of doing things. ï¿½I can do things the way I want to do, in the way I want to do it. I donï¿½t have to use all these stupid chemicals. I donï¿½t have to implant my steersï¿½ with growth hormones. Like the chickens, the beef is grass-fed, supplemented by a bit of grain once a day. ï¿½Theyï¿½re out eating what cows eat, what their systems are supposed to utilize to make them a cow.ï¿½
Three pillars of sustainability
Sustainable agriculture is a trendy term. Even agricultural giant Monsanto has been trumpeting a commitment to sustainability. But itï¿½s popping up in all sorts of Kentucky locations, in the universities (UK has a degree in sustainable agriculture; Kentucky State is building a $4.8 million Center for Sustainable Farms and Families), and on farms across the state.
It isnï¿½t an easy term to define; itï¿½s really a way of looking at all aspects of the food system and trying to find the best way for it to go forward. Many people who work in the field talk about three ï¿½pillarsï¿½ of sustainability: environmental stewardship, economic profitability, and social responsibility.
Another crucial component is time. Lee Meyer, a UK professor who specializes in agricultural economics, gives this definition of sustainability: ï¿½Meeting the needs of the current usersï¿½food consumersï¿½without hurting the future of producers and consumers.ï¿½ He tells the story of a visiting executive from the Kellogg Foundation who asked how many sustainable farms there were in Kentucky.
ï¿½We donï¿½t know yet,ï¿½ a colleague of Meyerï¿½s replied. ï¿½Ask us when the next generation takes over.ï¿½
ï¿½I thought that was so insightful,ï¿½ Meyer says. ï¿½Because thatï¿½s the real goal, and a lot of this is an experiment.ï¿½
That forward-looking perspective makes it hard to assess how many farms right now are on the sustainable path. ï¿½Organicï¿½ and ï¿½sustainableï¿½ arenï¿½t synonymous. Meyer gives the example of farmers who tell him ï¿½I donï¿½t spray for all the bugs. I use an approach where I watch and if thereï¿½s a problem, I target that problem.ï¿½
ï¿½Thatï¿½s, to me, a sustainable approach,ï¿½ Meyer says. ï¿½It might not be organic, but youï¿½ve really reduced the pesticides in the environment, youï¿½ve minimized any residue problems. Even those small things like that, I think, are the path that takes us to a more sustainable future.ï¿½
Nevertheless, organic farming is considered by experts to be one of the leading sustainable practices, and thereï¿½s no question organic is on an upswing in Kentucky, even though the total number remains small. According to the Kentucky Department of Agricultureï¿½s Marketing Division, there are now 99 organic farmers in the state; there were 23 two years ago.
Another aspect of sustainable agriculture is an increased interest in buying food grown and raised locally. According to Mac Stone, executive director of agricultural marketing for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, in the past several years the incentives in the stateï¿½s Kentucky Proud campaign have been aimed at increasing whatï¿½s called ï¿½farm-gate impactï¿½ï¿½in other words, contributing to Kentucky farmersï¿½ income. One major success Stone cites was having Kroger increase its purchase of local produce from 5 percent of its total to 10 percent. ï¿½When a large retailer increases its purchases of local product by even a small increment, it has a huge impact,ï¿½ he notes.
Consumers supporting agriculture
The interest in local food has spurred the growing number of farmersï¿½ markets. According to the Department of Agriculture, there are now 137 registered with the state, and the total number of vendors is also increasing. Another model is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), in which consumers typically pay in advance for weekly shares of a farmerï¿½s harvestï¿½in essence, advancing him capital and sharing in his risk.
One intriguing example is Louisvilleï¿½s Grasshoppers Distribution LLC, which co-owner Susan Schlosnagle calls ï¿½a multi-farm CSA,ï¿½ drawing on 40 different farms (including Shlosnagle and husband Dougï¿½s Dutch Creek Farm in Shelby County, where they have pastured laying hens, free-range turkeys, grass-finished beef cattle, and are getting ready to add organic lamb). They also sell registered Angus breeding stock.
In 2008, its first full year, they had 75 CSA customers, while retail and restaurant customers made up the bulk of the business. In 2009, the number of CSA customers grew to 400 (their goal for the year).
ï¿½We want to buy enough of (farmersï¿½) production that we make it worth their while,ï¿½ Shlosnagle says. The co-op allows its producers to brand their own products. Schlosnagleï¿½s eggs have become rather well known as Chelseyï¿½s Eggs (after her daughter) and the beef is called Jaredï¿½s Grass-Finished Beef (after her son).
On her farm, she says, ï¿½sustainability and profitability go hand in hand.ï¿½ By cutting down on ï¿½inputsï¿½ such as chemicals and fertilizer, they ï¿½increase profit and increase the health of the land. We feel like weï¿½re building topsoil, because weï¿½re constantly adding organic matter to it, from the rotation of the cattle and the chickens; the land is just a lot healthier.ï¿½
Some farmers take the idea of direct marketing even farther than the CSA. Mississippian Stan Pace has worked in a number of agricultural jobs over his career, but he had never owned his own farm until 2007, when he bought 165 acres in Garrard County and named it Lone Tree Cattle Company. He produces between 150 and 250 head of grass-finished cattle there each year. He buys calves from local producers who have never given them the antibiotics and hormones typical in large-scale beef operations. Theyï¿½re processed in Bardstownï¿½ï¿½thatï¿½s the farthest distance theyï¿½ll go,ï¿½ he says.
Then he sells much of the beef in his Better Beef store in Berea. While packaged hamburger from a conventional source will contain meat from a number of different cows or even come from several different counties, he says, ï¿½If you buy a package of ground beef from me, or a producer like me, it came out of the same cow and I can tell you which cow it was.ï¿½
If one of his animals gets sick, heï¿½ll treat it with medicine. ï¿½Iï¿½m not inhumane, if an animalï¿½s sick Iï¿½m going to doctor that animal,ï¿½ but it wonï¿½t become Better Beef. ï¿½Iï¿½ll sell it through the customary systemï¿½I do not have to feed that animal to my customers.ï¿½
As tobacco has declined from being the stateï¿½s dominant crop, one corollary has been a search for new commodities to take its place. Some of the money from the 2005 tobacco settlement is being administered by the Governorï¿½s Office of Agricultural Policy to diversify both agricultural products and market outlets. In the words of Mark Williams, the UK professor who heads the universityï¿½s program in sustainable agriculture, ï¿½The opportunity to find other crops has never been better than now.ï¿½
And Kentucky State University has become one of the chief places to explore what they might be. ï¿½We realize there are not a lot of things that can replace the entire incomeï¿½ from tobacco, says Dr. Marion Simon, small farms state specialist at KSU. ï¿½But we can distribute the income across several different commodities.ï¿½
KSUï¿½s ï¿½Third Thursday Thingï¿½ has become a widely attended (and imitated) series of programs on various farm topics, oriented in particular to the interests of small and minority farmers. Beth Tillery notes that Third Thursday Thing programs were instrumental in their switch to sustainable agriculture. Itï¿½s drawn more than 18,000 participants since it began in 1997. The topics have included aquaculture, or farm fishing, which is designated as the universityï¿½s Program of Distinction (KSUï¿½s researchers work with 29 varieties of fish and other aquatic species). Theyï¿½ve talked about beekeeping, raising goats, growing grapes, and paw-paws; marketing, farm management, and organic production methods; theyï¿½ve had sweet corn tastings, run health fairs, and looked at ways of managing stress on a farm.
Dana Lear, who raises goats and horses and cuts hay on a small farm in Lincoln County, has found the Third Thursday Thing to be valuableï¿½such as a meeting on how to build inexpensive equipment for goats from things ï¿½you might have hanging around the farmï¿½ï¿½and stimulating: ï¿½Even if youï¿½re not interested in, say, paw-paws, you might pick up something of interest from that meeting.ï¿½
UKï¿½s Mark Williams points out that sustainabilityï¿½s ï¿½social responsibilityï¿½ pillar isnï¿½t just a matter of preserving rural communities; itï¿½s a question of health for every person in the state. ï¿½Iï¿½m sad to say, as a Kentuckian, we rank very low on many health-related issues, and many of them are diet-related. Weï¿½re killing ourselves with our agricultural illiteracy.ï¿½
UKï¿½s Horticultural Research Farm runs a CSA from its organic acres; the customers are members of the university community. Williams says, ï¿½As the CSA goes on, we have people come up to us and say ï¿½Iï¿½ve actually changed the way I eat as a result of being in the CSA, and I want to tell you, Iï¿½ve never felt better,ï¿½ or ï¿½Iï¿½ve lost 10 pounds,ï¿½ or ï¿½Iï¿½ve changed the way I think about buying other things and eating in general, because I cook different than I used to.ï¿½
ï¿½Food is a great teaching tool. If we can get people to think about whatï¿½s on their fork, or on their plate, then all of a sudden people can put into practice their belief system. And there are very few things you do on a daily basis that allow you to put into practice what you believe in.ï¿½
JACKSON COUNTY FARMERS' KITCHEN
In addition to working on her farm, Beth Tillery is part of a group called Appalachian Alternative Agriculture of Jackson County (3AJC) thatï¿½s come together to create a commercial kitchen in the town of Annville, near McKee.
The project uses funds from Jackson, Clay, and Laurel countiesï¿½ portion of the tobacco settlement (as well as money from the stateï¿½s portion of the tobacco settlement), a grant through the federal empowerment zone program, and a grant from the Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative; itï¿½s on land donated by East Kentucky Power Cooperative.
The kitchen will be a place for farmers to do whatï¿½s called ï¿½value-adding,ï¿½ such as baking, canning, and cutting cabbage into cole slaw.
Thereï¿½s also a pad for a farmersï¿½ market and a docking station for a mobile poultry processing unit (previously, Tillery would have had to drive her chickens to Kentucky State University to use the facility). The operation is state inspected, which allows her to sell her poultry anywhere in the state.
Talking about the projectï¿½eight years in the planningï¿½Tillery sounds as excited as she does talking about her own farm.
ï¿½We donï¿½t know what itï¿½s going to turn into, it depends on what niche people find. We donï¿½t know if people want to just drop their stuff off there and then have somebody do it (funds have been set aside for a facility manager), or if farmers want to come and do it themselves and then collectively sell it. The whole idea is set up so that the farmer can make the money, and not lose it to a middleman.
ï¿½Weï¿½ve got the facility now where we can start something. We feel like it could turn into a million things.ï¿½
THINGS TO LEARN, VEGETABLES TO EAT
Kentucky State Universityï¿½s Third Thursday Thingï¿½thatï¿½s the official nameï¿½is free and open to the public, and as the name implies, happens every third Thursday of the month.
Itï¿½s held on the KSU Research and Demonstration Farm, 1525 Mills Lane in Hatton, about 10 miles from Frankfort. A schedule, history, and directions can be found on the Web page of Kentucky State Universityï¿½s Organic Agriculture Working Group at http://organic.kysu.edu.
If youï¿½re looking for a farmersï¿½ market, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture keeps a list of registered markets in counties from Allen to Wolfe at www.kyagr.com/marketing/farmmarket/directory.htm.
Thereï¿½s also a list of registered CSAs. Go online to www.kyagr.com and type CSA in the search box for the link.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: LEARN MORE, LINK UP
To learn more about the key considerations of sustainable farming from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, and how producers and consumers can link up to locate businesses and markets of agricultural products in Kentucky through the MarketMaker database, go to Learn more, link up.