University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment
LEXINGTON, Ky. – A small group of Cooperative Extension agents and specialists from around the country visited Lexington recently and left three days later with an appreciation for central Kentucky's food system and the farmers who supply it.
"I did not expect to come to Lexington and find this very sophisticated, high-end market, and a whole bunch of producers equally sophisticated, figuring out how to service that [market]. That does not exist everywhere," said Thomas Maloney, senior extension associate in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Maloney was one of eight Fellows who came to Kentucky through a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, commonly known as SARE, and the National County Agents Association. Every six months during the two-year program, the Fellows visit one of the country's four geographical regions. In 2012, the Northeast sponsored the trip, which was hosted in Maryland. Lexington hosted the southern part of the program. In six months, the group will travel to Iowa.
University of Kentucky Professor Lee Meyer, an economist and sustainable agriculture specialist, lined up rural and urban farms, food processors, and restaurants for the guests to visit. He concentrated on two overall themes for the tour: the impact of nontraditional agricultural enterprises, such as equine and aquaculture operations, on sustainability and the changing tobacco enterprise.
"One of the purposes of these trips is to help these agents and specialists see things in a new light and help them change their practices," Meyer said. "Even more importantly, however, is to give them the basis for them to be leaders in this field."
The first 24 hours of their visit included stops at equine businesses Bittersweet Acres Farm, a horse boarding operation in Fayette County, and WinStar Thoroughbred Farm in Woodford County; FoodChain, an aquaculture farm in inner-city Lexington; and Kentucky State University's Aquaculture program and Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort. During their second day in town, they visited the Clark Farm in northern Fayette County, the Greathouse Farm in Woodford County, Four Hills Farm in Mercer County, and Marksbury Farm Market in Garrard County. They rounded out their trip the next day with morning sessions in Lexington at Good Foods Co-op and the UK Horticultural Research Farm.
During one of the afternoon "debriefing" sessions, Maloney brought up the important role consumers and processors have in building a successful local food system.
"The thing that I find fascinating is that [here] the consumers and the processors are pulling the farmers," he said. "So often, we've seen farmers producing things and then trying to figure out how they're going to market their products. It's exciting to see [what's going on here]."
Delia Scott, horticulture extension agent in Fayette County, and Keenan Bishop, agriculture and natural resources extension agent in Franklin County, weren't surprised with the strength of the local food system; as agents, they play a vital role in it. The two agents joined the Fellows for tours of operations with which they had some familiarity.
"I'm looking at it through a different set of eyes, really from an outsider's perspective, because they [the farmers and owners] give us an inside scoop on things," Scott said. "Hearing the Fellows' different viewpoints about the strengths and weakness of each operation as it relates to sustainability has been interesting."
Bishop joined the group for networking reasons, and also to educate himself so he can help his clientele.
"Sustainable agriculture has a different definition for everybody," he said. "This is not only about educating the public about what is sustainable, but we've got a lot of young folks who are interested in getting back into farming and don't necessarily want to do it the traditional way. That doesn't necessarily mean they want to do it organically, but they want to be more sustainable. It is possible to do it commercially, and that's what we've been discussing this whole trip."