By Carol L. Spence
Special to KyForward
When Delores Stephens ladles made-from-scratch Kentucky Proud taco soup into Matthew Tuttle’s bowl at Montgomery County High School, she becomes a link in a very short chain. After her are consumers, in this case students. Before her are the local processor and the Central Kentucky farmer who raised the steer that provided the beef that flavored the soup that Matt ate.
Montgomery County High Schools cafeteria is an example of one of the "links" in Kentucky's food chain.
A few years ago, Matt probably wouldn’t have eaten local food at school unless he brought it from home. Often processing was the missing link in the chain. But the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture and a group of dedicated Kentuckians are helping to strengthen the system.
They’d laugh at us
“Our ancestors a century ago would laugh at some of the conversations we’re having now,” chuckled Todd Clark, a first-generation, full-time farmer in Fayette County. “They would be confused about how we got to where we are. ‘What do you mean you’re going to do local food? Where else does it come from?’”
When Clark started farming, he went the conventional route, raising tobacco, hay and stocker cattle. At his peak, he grew 125 acres of tobacco. This year he planted 40.
“What I was doing was pretty traditional,” he said. “We’re still doing some of those things, but we’re trying to move in some new directions.”
Last year, Clark started finishing cattle, a decision that had its origin 10 years earlier after he enrolled in the UK Cooperative Extension’s Master Grazer School.
“That was kind of a light bulb moment for me,” he said. “I had heard of things like management-intensive grazing, rotating animals, rest periods, and all those sorts of things. But until I went to grazing school, I didn’t realize exactly what all that meant or to what degree it all worked. It was a pretty big moment.”
UK Ag researchers have shown that rotational grazing on smaller pastures increases forage and animal productivity.
“Most of this stuff is exciting to me just to see how simple it can be, how over-complicated we’ve made things,” Clark said. “That if you run chickens before or after the cattle, what effect it has. How the farm itself—the soil—seems to be improving just because of the different livestock.”
Over the years, Clark continued to enroll in extension programs—“I didn’t go to college, so I basically got my ‘college degree’ through Extension.” He decided to venture into the local market by raising poultry on a limited scale. But he discovered something that a 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture study showed: the high costs of on-farm processing can raise significant obstacles. Producing the birds was one thing, but getting them to the consumer turned out to be problematic. Clark could not process them himself, and the closest processor was three hours away.
Fortune favors the bold
That same study found that a local food supply chain often was not cost-effective without the infrastructure to move food from farm to market. Preston Correll, John-Mark Hack, and Richard McAlister shared some frustrations that reflected that deficiency in infrastructure.
“I love food. I love meat, and I was a bit frustrated about not being able to get the local meat here at the quality I wanted,” said McAlister, a Scottish stonemason who owns McAlister Stone in Garrard County.
Correll is a Lincoln County livestock producer whom McAlister describes as “a wee bit frustrated with getting his product to market in a fashion he was comfortable with.” College lecturer Hack has been a “tireless campaigner for small-scale ag,” beginning as an agriculture and natural resources extension agent and later as founding executive director of the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy under then-Gov. Paul Patton.
Richard McAlister, Greg Correll and John-Mark Hack are three of the four partners in Marksbury Farm Market in Garrard County.
The three men, joined by Correll’s cousin Greg Correll, decided to build something to fill the gap—Marksbury Farm Market, a USDA-inspected, full service processor and market.
McAlister approached his friend Bob Perry, the college’s resident chef and sustainable agriculture liaison, for help.
“I was able to help them in the planning phase through my contacts with other meat processors all over the country.” Perry said.
For two years before beginning construction, the men visited and studied plants in places like New York, Michigan, and Georgia.
“They toured everything,” Perry said. “Big plants, small plants. They really pulled the best of everything.”
Gregg Rentfrow, associate extension professor in UK’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences, also advised the partners.
“We talked about the volume that they wanted to put through there versus whether that volume existed on a consistent basis,” Rentfrow said. “The local movement is gaining momentum. From a livestock standpoint, it creates unique challenges because of the size and volume of animals and what you need to do from a legality standpoint.”
Making the most with what you have
Meat, unlike horticultural crops destined for a farmers market, must be inspected and approved by the USDA in order to be sold in cuts to consumers.
Marksbury Farm Market is a USDA-inspected, full-service processor.
“The challenge we have is to help farmers understand the law. And the challenge we have with the public is they like the concept of locally produced products, but they’re most familiar with the way things look in the grocery store,” Rentfrow said. “That’s where I come in. If we’re going to do these market chains for local products, (farmers) need to find processors who can break down the animal so the cuts look familiar to the customer.”
Rentfrow, a former commercial butcher, has conducted meat cutting trainings at Marksbury. He’s also one of the principal investigators in the College’s Food Systems Innovation Center.
The center assists in the production, processing, and marketing of local and national food products. Much of FSIC’s work is to help farmers transition from tobacco dependence to value-added food production. From his standpoint, if a business wants to be sustainable, Rentfrow knows it’s important to use the entire animal.
“I think what’s really helped them (Marksbury); they’ve gotten into making other products than simply cuts of fresh meat,” he said.
Marksbury partner Hack believes that their full commercial kitchen, smokehouse, and chef have set them apart. “We’re able to add value in a variety of ways to all of the products that are coming out of here.”
It starts on the farm
Half of Marksbury’s business is contract work for farmers who already direct market. But the processor also has agreements with approximately 45 other producers who agree to Marksbury’s guidelines, which include on-farm visits from Marksbury personnel and customers, as well as sanitation and diet specifications and restrictions on using hormones, steroids, and antibiotics.
Clark raises poultry and 200 head of beef for the Marksbury brand.
“I had a good run with the stockyards, but I’d rather be involved with food than just being part of the system,” Clark said. “There’s satisfaction in knowing you did a good job and feel comfortable with someone eating what you produced.”
More than a fad
Hack has strong opinions about local food.
“I think it’s important to point out that the local food interest is not a fad,” he said. “It’s the beginning of a trend and the reorientation of the food system from the ground up.”
Julie Tuttle, nutrition director of Montgomery County Schools, incorporates local foods into their food system and tries to include healtier food options for student meals.
Julie Tuttle believes part of that reorientation can start when consumers are young. Tuttle, Matt’s mom, is nutrition director for Montgomery County Schools–the first in the state to be named a Kentucky Proud School System. She sees the cafeteria as an extension of the classroom.
“We’re a learning laboratory and a learning environment just like their classrooms are,” she said. “We’re teaching them to make healthy choices.”
Montgomery County High School’s kitchen hops with enthusiastic staff. Some of what is prepared for breakfast and lunch is made from scratch, and Tuttle gets as much local product as she can. A lot of the ground beef her cooks use is processed and delivered by Marksbury, about 60 miles away. She works closely with her county’s Extension office—perhaps even more closely than most, since her father is the ag agent, Ron Catchen. Catchen has helped her make connections with local farmers, and she has reached many through the local farmers market.
Tuttle is excited about her Beef Project, a farm-to-plate program she hopes will be the first in the nation this fall. High school students will raise cattle through a classroom project tied to FFA. A local USDA-approved facility will process the meat, and Tuttle will serve the resulting ground beef at the high school.
“It’s a true farm-to-table experience for them,” she said. “This is so new that the USDA is even helping us finish out the guidelines and get the food in here properly.”
In a short chain, Clark, Marksbury Farm Market, Tuttle, and UKAg are building stronger links to good food.
“We want to bring people along to the notion of reconnecting with food in a way that represents an entirely different kind of relationship,” Hack said.
(Photos from UK College of Agriculture)
Carol Spence is editor of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s Ag Magazine. This story appeared in the Summer 2012 issue and is reprinted with permission.