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Always evolving farm makes for long hours, fatigue, but Quarles family in it for long haul

By Stephen Burnett
KyForward contributor

Daylilies, market fruits and vegetables, cattle and sheep – oh my!

With the latest addition of sheep – and a barn full of their bleats (newborn lambs) – it seems the road to farming success keeps branching off into unchartered territory for the Quarles family farming operation. Yet, despite the continuous learning curve, the long hours and “chronic fatigue,” the Quarles could not be more dedicated to ensuring their success in the always evolving farming business.

This lamb is one of several sheep born on Quarles Farm in Frankfort in early February, the first sheep on the family-owned farm since the 1960s. (Photo submitted)

And there appears to be plenty of it – success, that is. They – and their products – are mainstays at several area farmers markets and their name is becoming synonymous with an increasing awareness of the importance of family farms.

The Quarles family also could not be more proud of their newest arrivals to the farm located in Frankfort, which have filled one of the 300-acre property’s barns with newborn lambs, and learning how to raise them successfully.

“I’ve never raised sheep,” Miranda Quarles admitted. With her other siblings she is part of the farm’s second generation. “There’s been a lot of learning with them. … One good thing about farming is you’re going to learn something every day.”

In the past few years, Quarles farm’s starting family has found a whole lot more to learn, especially given their increasing popularity among many farmers markets in the Bluegrass area.

“We are calving out our spring herd and have been having babies for almost a month,” Miranda continued. “Cattle are getting ready to move to spring and summer grass, and our sheep are bouncing around in the barn when they are not sun bathing in the field. We are getting heifers ready to breed and feeder steers gathered for spring markets.

“Before we actually got into the farmers market side of things, we were just mainly a cow/calf operation,” Miranda said. “It was my mother and father who took it on from there.”

Farm growth

Miranda’s mother, Jan, had long enjoyed collecting daylilies. Then an acquaintance happened to suggest she sell some of them. The family took their flowers to a local farmers market, and they proved a hit. Now called Quarles Daylilies, that was the start of more market ventures.

“She can come up with some very interesting combinations of bread,” Miranda said. Those are bestsellers, along with more in the farm’s repertoire, and are now named Jan’s Delights.

The family began exploring other options. By then many consumers and farms were pushing for organic offerings, but becoming certified organic is an expensive and time-intensive process, Miranda said. “We didn’t see an offering for a sustainable grain-finished beef or grain-supplemented beef. And that’s what we do. We supplement our cattle.”

Miranda herself manages breeding records and genetic selection of the cattle operation, Quarles Quality Beef, which includes pasture-grazed Simmental-Angus crossbred cattle.

“We take care of our cattle and our animals better than we take care of ourselves, because their comfort and their life comes first,” Miranda said. “We take care of them, they take care of us. … We treat the ground with respect. We treat the animals with respect.”

Following their cattle success, the farm added its sheep by purchasing several from someone in New Haven last summer. They are Katahdin sheep, so they don’t require shearing.

Jan Quarles tends to the garden at Quarles Farm. Her enjoyment of collecting daylilies turned into bigger business for the farm, leading to added produce, cattle and sheep. Working around other jobs, they then sell those products at farmers markets across the state. (Photo submitted)

Meanwhile, Jan is doing the same with thousands of varieties of daylilies, baking vegetables and scheduling for markets. “During the days my father and mother feed cattle, tend to cattle,” Miranda went on. “She does a lot of canning in the winter. We will freeze product like our tomatoes and whatnot to make salsa in the winters.

“Right now what we’re trying to do is get the vegetable crops in the ground,” Miranda said. “Mainly right now we’re working on pasture renovation.” That includes fertilizing their hay crop and preparing equipment ready to go. “It’s basically the ‘hurry up and wait’ time,” she said.

Until the ground dries from winter snows and rains, they can’t renovate the pasture, she explained. “And this wind is just helping us immensely, drying the ground out right now.”

Morning markets

For Miranda, any farm work must be done in the very early mornings or afternoons and evenings. At the end of the week she may have put it at least 150 hours a week.

“Gotta pay the bills,” she said. “I work off the farm as well.” That’s at a local feed company as a feed dispatcher and truck-loader until 5 p.m. on weekdays. “Gotta have health insurance somehow. But you know, it’s in our blood. It’s what we do. And it’s not a job for us; it’s a way of life.”

Meanwhile one sister, Kate, is still in high school and readying for college, and another sister lives in Oklahoma but helps out at her former homestead whenever she is in town. Their brother works for a public school system and also helps when he can, Miranda said.

Those still living at the farm start at 4 a.m. Saturday mornings, and during summer market seasons it’s not uncommon for the household to light up at 3:30 a.m. so their trucks can leave at 5:30, in time to begin setting up at 6 for markets that start at 7. When the markets are over the family returns home, works late and gets sleeps for only a few hours before starting again.

Shoppers at farmers markets in Lexington at Southland Park, Cheapside Park and Victorian Square will find Quarles Farm represented there. They’ve also been active in Frankfort and Louisville, including St. Matthews. “We’re everywhere!” Miranda said.

But it always takes a lot of effort, and sometimes caffeinated Mountain Dew, to be everywhere.

“We always kind of laugh and joke, but Sundays when markets are through … everybody has their job that we go do,” she said with a laugh. “We love each other, but we try not to speak to each other, because nobody wants hurt feelings because we’re running on little to no sleep.

“Yes, we’ve got a smile on our face, and yes, folks, we’re dead tired!”

Farm future

That day the family was preparing for more markets, including the Douglass Loop Farmers Market in Louisville, planned to open March 23, and back at Cheapside and Victorian Square in Lexington. “Hopefully we’ll be able to see a couple of basketball fans come on through and stop in and see everybody there,” she said. “Just more of the usual crazy busy time.”

From there they’ll soon begin more planting and harvesting their winter crops.

Before Saturday, March 23, Miranda was also planning to trim their sheep’s hooves, and for a scheduled visit by a Girl Scouts troop at 2 p.m. They will likely get a surprise treat, she added — “Hopefully if everything goes right there’ll be some pumpkin chocolate chip muffins for them.”

Others can tour the farm, after calling in advance to schedule at 502-803-7292.

But despite the early and late hours, chronic fatigue and constant labor, the work is worth it. “There’s something rewarding to be said when you walk out in a field and you see a calf for a first time, or you help a calf up … or anybody walks through the lambing barn and holds a baby lamb for a little bit and then puts it down. The fact that you’re bringing life, you’re progressing.”

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