Ben Abell didn't grow up on a farm. He grew up in Frankfort, with a lawyer father and a stay-at-home mom.
But days spent with his family in a large family garden – "we would put away tons of green beans, tomatoes, pickles, pickled peppers," he recalls – imprinted on young Ben, and started his passion for growing food. He joined the Future Farmers of America club at his high school, whose progressive advisor taught food production and diversification.
From there, Abell went to study natural resources management at the University of Kentucky and cobbled together a degree that included agriculture classes, mingling the two. Those were the days before the university started its Sustainable Agriculture program.
After graduating, Abell went to work for a nearby farm that grew certified organic produce for consumer markets, but also grew wholesale vegetables conventionally, allowing Abell to develop skills in both. After a year, he was hired by UK to manage South Farm, where production is organic and research farming yields commercial volumes. He spent six years there, developing expertise that is not entirely normal for Kentucky farmers, who, if they grow organically, often concentrate on consumer sales like farmers' markets and community- supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription programs.
Abell transitioned slowly into a full-time farmer, still practicing certified organic methods. He found property in Fayette County that was certified organic and grew crops that required little tending while he maintained his day job. Sweet potatoes and butternut squash can be planted and forgotten until harvest. Once harvested, they can be stored and sold over time. He was certified organic, but few of his buyers were interested in paying the premium that many farmers get with organic produce.
Two years ago, Abell took the leap from paycheck to entrepreneur. He found land to lease in Jefferson County, renamed his project Rootbound Farm from the previous name of Abell Organics, and began the work of transitioning the hard-packed soil of conventional row crops into the biodiverse soil of an organic farm. He continued growing sweet potatoes and butternut squash for wholesale markets, adding tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and other crops destined for wholesale.
This is the first year that Abell and his wife, Bree Pearsall, have taken on more direct markets. They sell 14 to 18 types of produce at the St. Matthews Farmers' Market in Louisville every Saturday; they sell to a few restaurants and some retail groceries, like Rainbow Blossom and Root Cellar. At each of these venues they certainly earn more per piece than they would selling wholesale, but they sell many more pieces to large buyers.
Abell calls direct marketing a "learning experience" for them. Preparing for a four-hour farmers' market that yields $500 takes as much labor and time as picking $4,000 worth of tomatoes, the crop that Abell calls their "bread and butter." Next to the two-and-a-half-acre market garden with a variety of produce is an eight-acre stand of staked tomato plants. During tomato season, Abell's five employees will pick tomatoes for 12 hours a day.
"Wholesale stuff presents the best opportunity for me, based on my skill set," says Abell. "Besides, it's fun. You feed so many people. Growing organic food on a large scale might make it more available to people who don't always get organic," he added. In fact, for the last two years, his organically grown butternut squash and sweet potatoes have been used in meals in county school lunches including Jefferson, Fayette and Henry.
But Pearsall, who maintains a part-time job as a social worker while she has taken on some of the marketing work for the farm, thinks direct markets still need some exploring. The couple might need to take on another farmers' market, or use their produce in value-added products like salsa or marinara, or even just spend another year or two to become familiar to shoppers. And becoming certified organic will set them apart – certified organic produce growers are rare at Louisville markets.
It's this ebb and flow of information and experience that will help them determine if they are farmers for the long term. Abell isn't sure.
"Farming is partly so enjoyable because you have to be a jack-of-all-trades," he says. "You have to be a biologist and a botanist, an engineer and a mechanic, a CPA and a CEO. It's been really exciting to build a family business."
But, he adds, "We're not sure if it's sustainable economically."
They'd like to earn enough to save for retirement. They'd like to pay their employees a living wage and give them some benefits. They'd like to be able to retain good employees, a challenge if you employ them only seven months a year.
"One of the most critical things is trying to figure out how do you build a good crew," says Abell.
And he faces the same entry challenge as any young farmer: access to capital. Last year he harvested thousands of pounds of sweet potatoes by digging them out of the ground. This year, he's increased his potato plantings and, with a 0% loan from the crowd-funding source Kiva Zip (Zip.Kiva.org), has purchased a mechanized sweet potato harvester. A refrigerated truck was another expensive necessity. Reinvesting all profits into capital-intense purchases makes it difficult to purchase land, build a house, and acquire savings.
On the other hand, says Pearsall, "it's really encouraging too because there are a lot of people rooting for [us]." The landowners, the agriculture community, friends and family have all provided moral support and more. Abell's dad, retired from his work as general counsel for various governmental entities, drives a tractor. His mom, retired after 10 years of work at Wilson's Nurseries in Frankfort, helps at the farmers' market. Abell's brothers and Pearsall's brother have all put in time, sometimes whole seasons, helping out.
"It's actually one of the best things about doing the farm," Abell says about family assistance.
"This year has been really exciting because Bree's been able to double down and take it to the next level," says Abell. But in the end, "farming is not glamorous," he says. "We love it, but at the end of the day it's work, and it's not an easy job." This year, or next, he thinks they'll know if they're in it for the long term.
When It's USDA Certified Organic
Organic farmers follow specific practices in order to be certified by the federal Department of Agriculture National Organic Program, which regulates organic farming practices in the U.S. There are about 100 certified organic farmers in Kentucky.
Organic farmers don't use synthetic pesticides (except for a few least-toxic materials that have no natural alternative), they don't use synthetic fertilizer, sewer sludge or genetically engineered plants. In animal production, feed must be organically certified (no GMOs) and antibiotics and growth hormones are forbidden.
Many organic growers will suggest they are different because of what they do, not what they don't do. They must form a plan, follow it and show it and its results to a third-party auditor. This plan includes ways of preventing, rather than eradicating, diseases and pests. Organic methods including building soil fertility and microorganisms by using compost and cover crops. Organic farmers rotate crops to interrupt pest and disease cycles and use other methods to manage their crops. They keep records of their management practices and are audited once a year to make certain they are following these practices.
While "natural" is often equated with "organic," the term "natural" has no recognized definition and differs with the food it describes. The FDA allows processors to use the term on processed food if it doesn't contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. Farmers use the term as shorthand to say they don't use pesticides or synthetic fertilizer.
It requires three years to transition conventionally farmed fields to become certified organic. Ben Abell is in his second year of transition.