The Gahn family is captured on a break from making Sweetgrass Granola: Carolyn, Jacob, Ellie, and Finn. (Photo by SaraVard Von Gruenigen)
By CHRIS ALDRIDGE, Kentucky Proud Connection
CRAB ORCHARD, Ky. – Jacob and Carolyn Gahn were just looking for something healthy to make for breakfast.
Little did they know that their creation inside a little hunting cabin in rural Boyle County would evolve into a thriving Kentucky Proud business five years later.
They started experimenting with making different breakfast foods as an alternative to the heavily-processed, sugary boxed cereals. Working to adhere to a diet more in line with the principles of nutritionist Weston A. Price, they wanted a cereal free of unrefined sugars and preservatives.
“We wanted a healthy breakfast that we could make,” Jacob recalled, “and granola seemed like a natural choice.”
The first batches were sweetened with maple syrup until Jacob remembered watching sorghum being pressed into syrup at a festival. Kentucky and Tennessee are the nation’s two leading producers of sorghum.
“I thought, ‘This is so cool – sugar from the Bluegrass. Amazing!’” Jacob said. “So we started using it and baking with it because it is so unique, so Kentucky.
“Our granola evolved once we started putting sorghum in it,” he said. “It’s an easy sell because it tastes good and has all these benefits, nutritionally and environmentally.”
Sweetgrass Granola is made and packaged by hand by the Gahns in a commercial kitchen in the farmhouse of their remote Garrard County farm. It is sweetened by ingredients sourced from two Kentucky Proud producers: sorghum from Townsend Sorghum Mill, a Homegrown By Heroes farm in Montgomery County, and honey from Sutton Honey Farm right down the road in Garrard County. Sweetgrass Granola also uses pecans from Kight’s Pecan Orchard in McCracken County.
Sweetgrass Granola is getting easier to find. Whole Foods Market now carries the 12-ounce bags in their Lexington and Louisville locations.
“In places like Whole Foods, where most things are not Kentucky Proud or from Kentucky, it really helps to have a recognizable, visible label that says, ‘This is from Kentucky,’” Jacob said.
You can also purchase Sweetgrass Granola at Good Foods Co-op in Lexington, Rainbow Blossom and Earth Fare stores in Louisville, Marksbury Farms in Lancaster, the Sweetgrass booth on Saturday mornings at the Lexington Farmers’ Market in downtown Lexington, and Green BEAN Delivery’s Kentucky food hub in Louisville, which also services Lexington. You may order directly from the Sweetgrass website, www.SweetgrassGranola.com, and get free shipping on any or all of its four varieties of granola.
Sweetgrass Granola is served at several central Kentucky restaurants and Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg.
“Business has definitely grown quite a bit,” Jacob said. “We’ve doubled our gross every year. We’ve grown along with the market, and the market has grown, especially the local retailers.”
The Gahns had been on a cross-country odyssey before putting down roots on their 68-acre farmstead near Berea. Jacob, a Winchester native who grew up in Lexington, and Carolyn, who is from Florida, met while both were attending the University of Kentucky. They were just friends until, by coincidence, their fledgling careers took them both to New York City after graduation.
“We maintained a friendship and started to date,” said Jacob, who worked as a computer programmer from a company that developed software used by TV stations.
Carolyn, meanwhile, was following her dream of working on Broadway. “I majored in theater at UK, and New York was just the place to go,” she said. “I worked in theater management, production management. I had an internship at first, then I did a lot of freelance work.” Carolyn soon became weary of working two jobs – her dream job and a 40-hour-a-week office job to pay her living expenses.
Inspired by Berry, Hawken
Books by Kentuckian Wendell Berry and Paul Hawken’s “The Ecology of Commerce” sparked a fire that motivated them to give up big-city life and move to the countryside, “Green Acres”-style.
“Realizing the extremely long link between us and our food, it didn’t really sit right with us, and it kept building up, so we decided to do something about it,” Jacob said. “I felt like we had to take some responsibility.”
Since neither Jacob nor Carolyn had a farming background, they decided to learn hands-on.
“We started this whole farming thing from scratch,” Carolyn said. “We’ve been learning as we go. It’s been a slow process, but we’ve learned so much.”
The Gahns began by “WWOOFing,” which stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
“It’s like a work share,” Jacob told the website Sustainable Kentucky. “You work on the farm in exchange for a place to stay and eat. It can be a short time, just one week, or several months. You get a list of organic farms that are hosting WWOOFers and email the farmer to see if they have the space for you. You can do it in every country in the world. It’s a cool way to travel and see how families live.”
After learning organic farming in California, they decided to apply what they learned in an apprenticeship for a season at Rolling Fork Farm near Gravel Switch, Kentucky. The Gahns set up shop at the Lincoln County Farmers’ Market in Stanford.
“We were the farmers that had the odd crops, like purple green beans,” Carolyn said, laughing. “People would say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you could grow that. Now, I’m gonna go over here and buy some corn.’”
It was at the Stanford farmers’ market that Sweetgrass Granola made its commercial debut.
Three years ago, the Gahns bought their current farm and large two-story house, which was built by an Amish family. Now, they have a 2-year-old son, Finn, and Carolyn is expecting another child soon.
“It seemed like a beautiful thing, a romantic thing, to raise children in a rural area, to grow food raised to your standards,” Jacob said.
A large laundry room off the kitchen became their commercial kitchen. It remains the source of every bag of Sweetgrass Granola.
Granola and more
The Gahns don’t limit themselves to granola. Last year, they sold almost 2,000 free-range chickens to Harvest Restaurant in Louisville and raised two grass-finished beef cows.
They have a herd of dairy goats, which they milk to make cheese, and a high-tunnel greenhouse, where they’re growing mostly spinach and some beets this winter.
“Our main goal is to grow our own food,” Jacob said. “We’re able to grow our own meat and some of our vegetables.”
Since sorghum is the key ingredient in their granola, they have started a half-acre stand. “It’s just for practice right now,” Jacob said, “but we’ll use that little bit and someday grow more.”
With 40 acres of woods, the Gahns are dabbling in shiitake mushroom production. They plan to keep some bees to produce their own honey and start a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to help sell their produce.
“I have big goals,” Jacob said. “This is a family business, and I want Finn to be a part of it, to interact with people at the farmers’ market, to bake granola with him, and press sorghum with him.”
Carolyn is already dreaming up ways to get her toddler involved in Sweetgrass Granola production.
“We have to put our labels on our bags,” she said. “A 2-year-old should be able to do that, right?”