For those who drive around Lexington on any given day, Newtown Pike is a very familiar road. But what they might not know is that outside of town, on their way toward Paris, they will soon be driving through some of Kentucky’s great farmland. And it is there that I went a few weeks ago to visit with Kevin Evans and his daughter Jenny to talk with them about the joys of farming, as a business, in the Bluegrass.
Farming to most people brings to mind the dusty cultivation of land, the hard labor of planting and harvesting row crops, or the management of a cattle herd with the attendant feeding and mess of cleaning up after dozens of big animals. But when Kevin Evans thinks about farming, his ideas fit very nicely into the life of a Kentucky gentleman.
Kevin took his family’s tobacco farm and planted an orchard, planted pumpkins, beans, blueberries and a host of other crops that he saw as in demand by a growing population looking for homegrown goodness and locally produced food. What happened after that took even Kevin and Jenny by surprise.
“I was getting up very early in the morning and taking our products to local farmers markets all around the area every day” Jenny told me, “when it dawned on me that maybe we could find a way to get the customers to come to us. What happened next just kind of developed a life of its own.”
At first the idea was developed around a fall festival kind of concept where, as cool weather settles in families might venture out into “the country” to buy pumpkins and gourds and apples. Before long the Evans saw the potential for more in the way of entertainment and so built a play area with a farm theme and started a “pick your own” program that put people in closer touch with the apples and peaches they were buying. Before long the Evans had to set aside a large area of the farm to handle the crowds.
As we strolled around the farm store built inside their old tobacco barn, Jenny showed me the large walk-in cooler where they store their apples and their cider and talked with great pride about how the business is about to outgrow its space. She beamed a big smile as she described how many people now come to them at the farm. “We get schools from Paintsville, Louisville and even Indiana bringing buses of children here every year. We offer them an educational course on the lifecycle of the apple and then they get to see farm life up close. On some weekends our parking lots are brimming over.”
But selling apples and raising corn, beans and blueberries is just a part of the “business” at Evans Orchard. Now they have remodeled their original sales building next to the old tobacco barn into a “certified kitchen.” Equipped with all the modern stoves, ovens, fryers, freezers and sinks, the farm makes and sells food on site to the gathering crowds.
“People used to come here to visit and then say ‘We need to get something to eat. Is there any place close by?’ and it occurred to us that maybe we could start selling food, too. The idea really took off and now we sell our fried apple pies all year long as well as selling a special kind of pulled pork made by Brooks Meats of Walton where they use our apples in the process” Jenny told me.
But food, fun, fresh air, fresh produce and an up-close experience with a family farm isn’t what brought me to the Evans orchard in the first place. You see, as I traveled around Kentucky and Indiana researching how to make cider (the subject of an earlier set of articles). I kept getting the same suggestions from the people I met. “If you want to know anything about cider, you need to go see Kevin Evans.”
Why, you might ask, would other orchard owners and cider salesmen send me to Evans Orchards? Well, as it turns out, if you buy fresh apple cider at any other orchard store in Kentucky, odds are it was made at Evans Orchards, maybe under another label, but milled, pressed and bottled by Kevin Evans.
Kevin was kind enough to step away from his office work to show me around the cider production, and let me tell you it is quite a setup. It reminded me of the many hours I spent visiting with the old farmers along my road in Owen County who ran pristine dairy farms. I would often go to visit them at milking time. They seemed to enjoy the company during what was surely a very lonely job early every morning and just before supper every night. Kevin’s cider production facility reminded me very much of the milk parlors that I had seen over the years.
“You’re right” he said “much of what we use here is very similar to the kind of cooling tanks you would have seen on a dairy farm.” But instead of filling those tanks from an overhead milk conveyor system, Kevin fills them from a continuous press, a large sterile looking stainless set of rollers and cloth through which ground apples are pressed until all their sweet goodness flows out. From there the juice is pumped through a flash pasteurizing coil and then into the cooling tanks before bottling.
“We press a lot of our own apples” he told me “but we also buy apples from other orchards, press juice, and then sell them juice which they then sell at their own farms.” It was quite clear to me that the value added to selling cider rather than selling apples made good sense, much like how Kentucky’s history teaches us that there is more profit in selling corn by the jar, than by the bushel.
“Our cider is really apple juice and once pasteurized it loses none of its flavor,” Kevin said. So, I tried some and I couldn’t tell the difference between the kinds he pasteurized and that I was able to press at home. Sweet, good, full of body and a far better product than the clear stuff you buy at the grocery.
As we walked around the farm a bit I got the very real sense that what was going on here was something anyone with a vision, and the willingness to work could learn from. It reaffirmed in me the belief that more people should look at farming, in the Evans style perhaps, as a way to build their own business.
In the next article I will tell you more about my interview with Kevin and Jenny, my trip to their farm and then introduce you to the next phase of my information-gathering tour as I try to give you encouragement that you can control your future if you just see the possibilities right in front of you.
Marcus Carey is a Northern Kentucky lawyer with 32 years experience. He is also a farmer, talk radio host and public speaker who loves history and politics. He is a prolific and accomplished writer whose blog, BluegrassBulletin.com, is “dedicated to honest and respectful comment on the political and cultural issues of our time.” He writes a regular commentary for KyForward.