The Road Leads Home
CHICKENS DON'T SWEAT.
It’s not really something you think about, or grow up knowing, especially if your dad raises tobacco and grain, cattle and sheep.
But it’s one of the many agricultural details that Ann Bell Stone has learned in the 20 or so years she’s been raising food on the Scott County farm where she grew up.
The farm she thought she’d left for good when she was attending the University of Kentucky and studying consumer sciences.
The farm that wasn’t in her career thoughts while working as a legal secretary in Florida. “I did a lot of jobs,” during and after college, she says: retail, restaurants, bartending. “I was going to do anything except be stuck on this farm.”
Now she is a partner on one of the largest certified organic farms in Kentucky, Elmwood Stock Farm, growing food for people and restaurants to earn her living. Two generations of Bells, along with their spouses, work this farm that produces enough food at the height of the season to employ 25 full- and part-time workers, sell at five farmers’ markets in the Lexington- Georgetown area, feed 400 families who buy shares in the production and receive boxes of fresh farm food for 22 weeks of peak growing season, and sell wholesale beef, vegetables and tobacco.
It was while she was studying for her master’s degree in environmental science, after study abroad in Australia in 1993, that she began growing vegetables on a small piece of the 350 acres her father has owned since the 50’s. Both her grandfathers farmed in Scott County, but when Ann planted her first seeds, it was tough for young farmers to buy their own property.
“John always knew he was going to farm,” says Ann of her younger brother. When she returned to Scott County, John was already raising vegetables for the wholesale market and working with his father on the Black Angus cattle herd.
Typical of tobacco farmers, the men raised then sold young cows at auction for shipping out west to finish. John grew just a few produce items — peppers and pumpkins — in large amounts. Ann’s approach was to raise a wide variety of vegetables in smaller amounts to sell retail at farmers’ markets. The two thought over time one market would prevail. But Ann learned that diverse markets, like diverse crops, are the way to keep her farm healthy.
It’s all part of a big farming learning curve. She and John have kept both markets, and added others. “I wish I’d studied more biology and plant stuff,” she says about her college days. To catch up, she read everything she could about farming, and still attends farm conferences and workshops.
“I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t know enough to be afraid,” she says about her first days of farming. She had land and tools, bought seeds, hired her own help and started her farmers’ market crops. Her customers helped her learn what her vegetables should look like. “I still remember the guy who gave me the lecture about okra,” she recalls. “My okra was too long and too tough.” Selling at farmers’ markets is the fastest way to learn about quality, she says. “Your customers are going to reward you or make you suffer.”
Ann’s learned to mix the old ways with new technology. She learned from her father about rotating crops, planting cover crops that revitalize the soil and putting animals into the mix, all of which keep the land productive. She has Great Pyrenees dogs to discourage predators, and strings fishing line over fencing to keep the hawks away from poultry.
Old ways are combined with new technology, using modern hose lines to keep water in the chicken coop, black plastic to reduce weeds and keep the soil warm around plants, netting and electricity on portable fencing. “We’re always experimenting,” says Ann. They rely on lightweight collapsible fencing to keep their poultry. Portable coops for laying chickens and the turkeys are moved once a week; meat chicken pens are moved twice a day.
In the late 90’s, Ann met Mac Stone at a conference on sustainable farming. Manager of the Kentucky State University experimental farm at the time, Stone was farming organically on his own. Ann and Mac began farming together in 1998, becoming certified organic producers for the beef and vegetables, adding pastured organically raised poultry to produce chicken, eggs and turkey for the holidays. They married in 2002.
Through Mac, Ann learned that laying hens like winter better than summer. “Chickens don’t sweat,” she says. When it gets hot in the summer, the birds will quit laying. In cold weather, the Stones provide wind curtains around their portable chicken coop to keep the birds dry and keep the wind o them. When the hens can, they’ll venture out and scratch down through the snow to look for things to eat.
Raising chicken for meat was not the easiest step that Ann took along her farming path. Initially, the only USDA inspected processing plant was five hours from home, in Missouri, a trip that took two days. In a few years, one opened in Bowling Green, a 3½-hour drive each way, shrinking the trip to one day but still taking from wee morning hours until late at night. Last year, a new processor opened about an hour away.
Over the years, lines have blurred and changed delineating what farm work is whose responsibility. John has taken over the produce production, which now includes 60 items that grow nearly year round. Members who owned fall/winter farm shares in early December received two boxes one week. One box held Daikon radish, Kabocha squash, Black radish, Stripetti squash (like Spaghetti squash and a great thickener for soup), turnips, sweet potatoes, garlic, Butternut squash, potatoes and red onions.
Another held all the greens: red leaf lettuce, bok choy, chard, red mustard greens, green cabbage and beets. The farm also produces several types of dried beans, popcorn on the ear, fruit, flowers and lamb in addition to the chicken, turkeys and beef. And of course there are the normal tomatoes, corn, green beans and zucchini in season.
Once the produce is harvested, Ann takes charge of where it goes. In a converted horse barn retro-fitted with two refrigerators (to keep organic and nonorganic separate) and a freezer, produce is cleaned, sorted and packed according to where it’s going. In the winter, 90 share members either pick up their shares at locations in Lexington, or come to the farm. Those boxes are packed gently with vegetables, covered with a piece of tissue paper and a newsletter, and closed.
Some of the produce is packed for the farmers markets’ — indoors during cold months at Victorian Square across from Rupp Arena in Lexington. Other destinations include restaurants. Ann makes sure the produce is divided correctly. She also handles the marketing, including selling at farmers’ markets, communicating with share members, collecting and dispersing recipes and information about new products. Mac and Ann keep the chickens; John, Ann’s brother and Cecil, Ann’s father, tend the beef.
In her years as a farmer, Ann has learned that hail and wind can be as damaging as drought and flood, to bring turkey eggs to the house for hatching, to keep grazing cattle in fields away from the driveway, how to grow the right okra and how to raise animals in a way that complements the organic farming process — moving them often, keeping their water and food fresh, their shelters dry.
There are also some things you can never learn, she says, like why Brussels sprouts are beautiful year after year until, one year, the sprouts don’t tighten and the whole crop is compost.
When Ann returned to the farm in 1993, she says, “It was more a continuation” of the job mix. “I thought, ‘I’ll try this for a while.’” But farming has stuck. “It’s never the same,” she says, citing a benefit to the work. And she likes working with her family, enjoying a weekly family dinner when they try to gather and not talk all about farming. “And we get to eat the best food in the world.”