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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 dramatically��You couldn�t even give a hog away,� 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 year�s crop. The Tillerys consulted a financial advisor who told them they should declare bankruptcy, but they refused that option.

�It�s not just a living, it�s our culture, within our own family, and we don�t want to let that go,� she says. �It became a mission: this land that cost so much has got to be worth something; there�s got to be something we can produce on this land.�

That quest led Doug and Beth Tillery to new crops�berries and cut flowers�and new animals�beef cattle and both laying hens and chickens raised for meat.

The Tillerys� quest also led them to a new concept of farming�the set of practices that go under the name of �sustainable agriculture.�

�It was a whole new world,� she says. They changed their business model to direct marketing. Tillery brings her products two or three times a week to a farmers� market in Lexington, 80 miles from McKee, raising the chickens as what�s called �pastured poultry.� The chickens aren�t just free-range since that could mean only that they�re moving about inside a building, but they spend their days outside, on grass.

It�s a labor-intensive pursuit: �You�re babysitting these meat chickens because they�re so vulnerable� to predators, Tillery says, �and moving them to new pasture at least twice a day.�

Tillery talks as if she finds a sense of liberation and self-expression in this way of doing things. �I can do things the way I want to do, in the way I want to do it. I don�t have to use all these stupid chemicals. I don�t have to implant my steers� with growth hormones. Like the chickens, the beef is grass-fed, supplemented by a bit of grain once a day. �They�re out eating what cows eat, what their systems are supposed to utilize to make them a cow.�

Three pillars of sustainability
Sustainable agriculture is a trendy term. Even agricultural giant Monsanto has been trumpeting a commitment to sustainability. But it�s 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 isn�t an easy term to define; it�s 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 �pillars� 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: �Meeting the needs of the current users�food consumers�without hurting the future of producers and consumers.� He tells the story of a visiting executive from the Kellogg Foundation who asked how many sustainable farms there were in Kentucky.

�We don�t know yet,� a colleague of Meyer�s replied. �Ask us when the next generation takes over.�

�I thought that was so insightful,� Meyer says. �Because that�s the real goal, and a lot of this is an experiment.�

That forward-looking perspective makes it hard to assess how many farms right now are on the sustainable path. �Organic� and �sustainable� aren�t synonymous. Meyer gives the example of farmers who tell him �I don�t spray for all the bugs. I use an approach where I watch and if there�s a problem, I target that problem.�

�That�s, to me, a sustainable approach,� Meyer says. �It might not be organic, but you�ve really reduced the pesticides in the environment, you�ve minimized any residue problems. Even those small things like that, I think, are the path that takes us to a more sustainable future.�

Nevertheless, organic farming is considered by experts to be one of the leading sustainable practices, and there�s no question organic is on an upswing in Kentucky, even though the total number remains small. According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture�s 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 state�s Kentucky Proud campaign have been aimed at increasing what�s called �farm-gate impact��in other words, contributing to Kentucky farmers� income. One major success Stone cites was having Kroger increase its purchase of local produce from 5 percent of its total to 10 percent. �When a large retailer increases its purchases of local product by even a small increment, it has a huge impact,� he notes.

Consumers supporting agriculture
The interest in local food has spurred the growing number of farmers� 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 farmer�s harvest�in essence, advancing him capital and sharing in his risk.

One intriguing example is Louisville�s Grasshoppers Distribution LLC, which co-owner Susan Schlosnagle calls �a multi-farm CSA,� drawing on 40 different farms (including Shlosnagle and husband Doug�s 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).

�We want to buy enough of (farmers�) production that we make it worth their while,� Shlosnagle says. The co-op allows its producers to brand their own products. Schlosnagle�s eggs have become rather well known as Chelsey�s Eggs (after her daughter) and the beef is called Jared�s Grass-Finished Beef (after her son).

On her farm, she says, �sustainability and profitability go hand in hand.� By cutting down on �inputs� such as chemicals and fertilizer, they �increase profit and increase the health of the land. We feel like we�re building topsoil, because we�re constantly adding organic matter to it, from the rotation of the cattle and the chickens; the land is just a lot healthier.�

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. They�re processed in Bardstown��that�s the farthest distance they�ll go,� 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, �If 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.�

If one of his animals gets sick, he�ll treat it with medicine. �I�m not inhumane, if an animal�s sick I�m going to doctor that animal,� but it won�t become Better Beef. �I�ll sell it through the customary system�I do not have to feed that animal to my customers.�

As tobacco has declined from being the state�s 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 Governor�s Office of Agricultural Policy to diversify both agricultural products and market outlets. In the words of Mark Williams, the UK professor who heads the university�s program in sustainable agriculture, �The opportunity to find other crops has never been better than now.�

And Kentucky State University has become one of the chief places to explore what they might be. �We realize there are not a lot of things that can replace the entire income� from tobacco, says Dr. Marion Simon, small farms state specialist at KSU. �But we can distribute the income across several different commodities.�

KSU�s �Third Thursday Thing� 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. It�s drawn more than 18,000 participants since it began in 1997. The topics have included aquaculture, or farm fishing, which is designated as the university�s Program of Distinction (KSU�s researchers work with 29 varieties of fish and other aquatic species). They�ve talked about beekeeping, raising goats, growing grapes, and paw-paws; marketing, farm management, and organic production methods; they�ve 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 valuable�such as a meeting on how to build inexpensive equipment for goats from things �you might have hanging around the farm��and stimulating: �Even if you�re not interested in, say, paw-paws, you might pick up something of interest from that meeting.�

Healthy habit
UK�s Mark Williams points out that sustainability�s �social responsibility� pillar isn�t just a matter of preserving rural communities; it�s a question of health for every person in the state. �I�m sad to say, as a Kentuckian, we rank very low on many health-related issues, and many of them are diet-related. We�re killing ourselves with our agricultural illiteracy.�

UK�s Horticultural Research Farm runs a CSA from its organic acres; the customers are members of the university community. Williams says, �As the CSA goes on, we have people come up to us and say �I�ve actually changed the way I eat as a result of being in the CSA, and I want to tell you, I�ve never felt better,� or �I�ve lost 10 pounds,� or �I�ve changed the way I think about buying other things and eating in general, because I cook different than I used to.�

�Food is a great teaching tool. If we can get people to think about what�s 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.�


In addition to working on her farm, Beth Tillery is part of a group called Appalachian Alternative Agriculture of Jackson County (3AJC) that�s come together to create a commercial kitchen in the town of Annville, near McKee.

The project uses funds from Jackson, Clay, and Laurel counties� portion of the tobacco settlement (as well as money from the state�s portion of the tobacco settlement), a grant through the federal empowerment zone program, and a grant from the Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative; it�s on land donated by East Kentucky Power Cooperative.

The kitchen will be a place for farmers to do what�s called �value-adding,� such as baking, canning, and cutting cabbage into cole slaw.

There�s also a pad for a farmers� 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 project�eight years in the planning�Tillery sounds as excited as she does talking about her own farm.

�We don�t know what it�s going to turn into, it depends on what niche people find. We don�t 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.

�We�ve got the facility now where we can start something. We feel like it could turn into a million things.�


Kentucky State University�s Third Thursday Thing�that�s the official name�is free and open to the public, and as the name implies, happens every third Thursday of the month.

It�s 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 University�s Organic Agriculture Working Group at

If you�re looking for a farmers� market, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture keeps a list of registered markets in counties from Allen to Wolfe at

There�s also a list of registered CSAs. Go online to and type CSA in the search box for the link.


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.

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