In what can be seen as a twist on tradition of sorts, the Kentucky Horticulture Council (KHC) would like to see farming become more citified.
More precisely, the KHC is working to open avenues for Kentucky’s fruit and vegetable farmers to get their produce in high-population areas of the state. The local food movement of the past few years can help reach that goal, says Jeff Hall, executive director of the KHC.
“We’ve really focused on trying to improve market access, particularly into our urban areas,” Hall says. “The mayor of Louisville, for instance, has really made it a big point to support local food initiatives, so our side of it has been getting new growers and working with growers who are already out there to ensure we’re putting the quality and consistency into those markets.”
Established in 1991, the KHC has members from a variety of groups, including the turf grass, nursery and bedding plants industries. Membership also comes from operators of vineyards, greenhouses, garden centers and landscaping businesses.
But it especially shines through its representatives of fruit and vegetable growers.
“I can tell you that farm income from horticulture has consistently increased every year for the past 10 years,” Hall says. “There’s a lot of emphasis on local foods, and that demand has made us realize that if people are going to ask for it, we have to make sure we’re prepared to provide it.”
‘Right Soil, Right Climate’
Blueberry farmers sure seem prepared. The number of producers has grown substantially in recent years, especially since the Kentucky Blueberry Growers Association (KBGA) was established in 2002. The state had fewer than 10 blueberry farmers 20 years ago, and there are now about 300, according to Larry Martin, founder and president of the KBGA. “We just have an incredible niche here,” he says. “It’s a growing industry in Kentucky, and it’s going to blow people away with what we can do with blueberries here.”
Martin can talk about the fruit until he’s, well, blue in the face. He and his wife, Jenni, moved to Kentucky in 1995 from Michigan, where Martin grew up on a blueberry farm and later bought his uncle’s farm.
“I just took something I knew from there as a child and brought it down to Kentucky,” Martin says. It’s the right soil, the right climate.”
A big boost to Kentucky’s blueberry industry was the completion of the Blueberry Marketing and Warehouse facility in Edmonton in 2013. It’s a place where farmers can bring their blueberries to be washed and dried, packaged, and marketed. The facility has a certified kitchen that can turn out value-added products such as blueberry breakfast bars that are sold to several schools throughout the state.
Family Farm, Indeed
Danny Van Meter is also finding a good value in selling to school districts, which he does through the National Farm to School network.
He and his wife own a five-generation family farm in Clarkson, where he starts the growing season with strawberries and ends with pumpkins. He grows other produce as well, including sweet corn, tomatoes and melons.
“My wife and I are blessed with 10 children ages 2 to 24,” he says. “We get help from all of them, even those not old enough try to help.”
The three oldest children are in college, and their part of the business is through farmers markets.
“We used the [Kentucky Proud] grant to get packaging for strawberries and signs and things like that,” Van Meter says. “That organization has been a great help.”