Walking to the high tunnels and baby greens field this morning, my thoughts turned to what I would be interpreting had there been a tour group in tow. A scheduled Elmwood Stock Farm tour takes about two hours. We will see how many words it takes on a screen. Several chapters over the next few weeks, I’m guessing. Hope you enjoy.
My responsibility as a farm tour docent is to put the whole farm picture into perspective. While every farm tour is a little different, my basic tour script has six basic topic venues, each with talking points, props and messages to convey. For this self-imagining tour, let’s not focus on this year’s drought with crunchy grass and nonstop irrigation and instead visualize verdant fields with clusters of greenhouses and farm buildings strategically placed among ancient oaks.
As the tour guide, it’s interesting and important for me to size up the group. Always, some have done their homework, with questions in hand, while others just want to revel in the beauty of the farm and hear how organic food production works. Sometimes I can see it in their eyes that guests think with all this, we must be rich. By the end of the tour they realize we are blessed with a rich piece of earth for which we have been entrusted, but we work our butts off to not just keep it out of the hands of developers but make it better for generations to come. Here on the edge of suburban development, we could sell it for millions, but then what would we have, or do? Stewarding the land is a calling.
The backstory to what you will encounter on the farm tour is important, so we start our time together by gathering around the picnic tables that we use to feed the crew a farm-grown, chef-prepared lunch every day.
About the Bell Family
It was a foregone conclusion that Cecil Bell, Jr., would farm upon his and Kay’s return from military service, as he is a fifth-generation farmer. The couple bought Elmwood Stock Farm in the 1960s and proceeded to raise two children, Ann and John, while farming in partnership with Cecil’s dad, Cecil Bell, Sr., on Bel-Clair Farm, a few miles up the creek. Cattle roamed the hillsides and tobacco dominated farm life for decades.
Ann and John each went off to college, and over a period of years, each came back to work the farm in the mid-90s. Kay and Cecil were thrilled that their kids had looked over their options in the world and wanted to be right here, the sixth generation of Bells to farm. The kids were reminded that they were now grown-ups and had to earn their own keep. John raised crops and cattle, and Ann focused on smaller quantities of a variety of vegetables to sell at the farmers markets in Georgetown and Lexington and also managed a restaurant to support her farming habit.
John was growing wholesale produce—vast acreages of tomatoes and peppers. Thousands of dollars are invested in each acre before the first fruit is picked. You can imagine how threatening it would feel to see insects eating the leaves, damaging the fruit, even vectoring in plant-killing diseases. Being a conscientious business man, John kept the growers handbook on the dashboard of his truck to find which chemical combatant would eliminate the pest du jour. Being a thoughtful farmer, John wondered why he was seeing this pest this year, having never encountered such before. The chemical solutions offered by the “experts” seemed like a band-aid to a problem that could be avoided altogether. Plus, the idea of driving around with a hazmat suit, spraying stuff that can kill you, was not his image of farming.
Transition to Organic Farming
Now we’re in the late-90s, about the time that I met Ann at a sustainable ag conference in Memphis, Tenn. We realized we lived only 25 miles apart. At that time, I was running the Kentucky State University Research and Demonstration Farm near Frankfort, where we had been delving into the organic world on behalf of small-scale farmers. It was increasingly obvious that soil health is the key to plant health, which translates into a reduced or eliminated need for applications of toxic pest controls. John was ready to implement this plan from the grower’s perspective, and Ann wanted to be able to tell her customers no sprays had been put on their food. This is before there was a certified organic regulation, but it was obvious: Rotate crops and feed the soil.
Other sustainability-focused organizations helped solidify for us that healthy soil = healthy crops = equals healthy animals = healthy humans. Over the next 15 or so years, we converted the entire operation to meet the international gold standard for clean food: USDA Certified Organic, a rigorous, third-party-verified and annually inspected seal of authenticity. (More on this to come.)
From here, Elmwood Stock Farm steadily evolved from parallel production of semi-loads of food crops and a small farmers market table to the 35 to 40 acres of diversified produce that John manages today. We now also market grass-fed and -finished USDA Choice grade beef (John has even had two grade USDA Prime, which is unheard of for beef raised on grass alone), and similarly raised lamb, chicken, pork, turkeys and eggs.
Farmers markets were the backbone of the direct-to-customer side of the business for years, before Ann’s interest in the CSA Farm Share model came to the fore. Farmers markets and CSA were equal market outlets for many years, though now with COVID-19 upon us, the focus has shifted to providing all that we can for our CSA community.
The next farm tour chapter will focus on Elmwood Stock Farm’s interpretation of how to harness human capital to work with the laws of nature to grow the most wholesome food in the world. So get a bottle of water, tie your shoes, grab a sun hat or raincoat, and meet me back here next week. —Mac Stone