BY CHRIS ALDRIDGE, KENTUCKY PROUD CONNECTION
FRANKFORT, Ky. - The Kentucky Association of Food Banks helps 670,000 hungry Kentuckians each year. It also helps Kentucky Proud farmers who produce some of the food for those hungry Kentuckians through its Farms to Food Banks program.
One such producer is Courtney Farms near Bagdad in Shelby County. Mary Courtney and her husband, Shane, raise 25 acres of vegetables in addition to tobacco, corn, and soybeans. The Farms to Food Banks program bought thousands of dollars of drought-affected produce that the Courtneys couldn't sell to a commercial buyer.
"We're just one small family trying to figure out how to continue full-time farming," Mary said at a ceremony proclaiming September as Farmers and Food Banks Fighting Hunger Month Sept. 4 in the Capitol in Frankfort. "Whoever in this room that can be supportive of this program [should] not only help it continue but help it grow."
This summer's extreme heat affected the pollination of the Courtneys' 3 acres of cucumbers. They didn't meet the size and shape requirements of a national distributor that was lined up to buy them.
"When the heat comes in, the bees and the flowers can't work as well together," Mary told the crowd at the proclamation ceremony.
"What resulted were odd-shaped cucumbers," she added. "They would be OK at one end and pointed at the other, but there was nothing in the world wrong with them as far as nutrition and edibility."
The Courtneys couldn't afford to pay their 13 migrant workers to pick the cucumbers, and Mary feared the family would have to disc them under as compost in their vegetable patch.
"We could not afford, from a business perspective, to go in and harvest crops that we weren't going to be able to sell," she said. "It [migrant labor] is extremely expensive, and we really have to make each minute of their work bring a profit back to our farm. So it's a struggle whenever we have extra [produce] in the field and can't spend extra to get it picked."
Mary remembered talking with Tamara Sandberg, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks, at the Kentucky Women in Agriculture Conference. Through the Farms to Food Banks program, the association purchases surplus and No. 2 grade produce with minor blemishes or size discrepancies and distributes it to seven food banks that serve all 120 Kentucky counties.
"I called Tamara, and she said, 'We'll take 'em. We'd be glad to take 'em,'" Mary said. "That conversation made a difference to our family of over $17,000 this summer. That's a lot of money for us. That's a lot of money for our farm workers.
"We wouldn't have been able to pick those 3 acres of cucumbers had we not had a secure outlet. We would've basically let 3 acres of cucumbers go to total waste. So what would've been catastrophic for us was manageable. We were able to cover our expenses because of this Farms to Food Banks program."
Mary said this summer, the farm's fourth year growing fresh produce, is the first time they have grown vegetables that were not marketable. The Courtneys experienced the same rejection from a squash and zucchini distributor.
"The amount that they were supposed to purchase ended up dwindling down to about 10 percent," she said. "That was tough because you have to pick squash and zucchini at least every day and a half. If you quit picking it, your plants go to pot.
"Again, Farms to Food Banks helped us answer that need. We were able to continue harvesting squash and zucchini, not just to meet our needs but to meet the needs of a lot of hungry people."
If the Courtneys' workers picked too much Romaine lettuce, kale and beets, they were able to sell the excess to nearby food banks such as Dare to Care in Louisville and God's Pantry in Lexington.
"Inevitably, you can't pick exactly what you need," Mary said. "So food that would've otherwise been wasted was going to feed people, helping them and helping us."
Mary said Farms to Food Banks became like crop insurance for Courtney Farms this summer.
"Every penny counts," she said. "When it's November and we're going back through [the books], trying to figure out where everything went, I know that this [Farms to Food Banks] entry in our QuickBooks is going to be a big portion of it."