Land-use decisions in rural Fayette County require delicate balance

March 28, 2015

BooneCreekBurgess Carey rides a zip line at his controversial canopy tour, which city officials shut down. The dispute prompted a three-year examination of ways to add more public recreation and tourism opportunities in rural Fayette County which is ongoing. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

A tightly managed, three-year effort to expand public recreation and tourism opportunities in rural Fayette County started coming unwound Thursday as the Planning Commission prepared to vote on it.

Several commission members expressed concern that the proposed zoning ordinance text amendment, or ZOTA, which they and the Urban County Council must approve, would be too restrictive.

They started offering amendments, then put off the matter for more discussion until May 21 and a possible vote May 28. The delay was wise, because these complex zoning decisions have implications far beyond recreation.

The challenge with the ZOTA is striking the right balance of private property rights, public access and the long-term preservation of horse farms, other agriculture and an environmentally sensitive landscape that the World Monuments Fund has recognized as one of the most special and endangered places on earth.

It is important to note that the ZOTA wouldn’t change rules about what property owners can do on their land for their own enjoyment. It affects only new public recreation and tourism-related land uses, both commercial and non-profit.

Part of the problem with the ZOTA process has been that it grew out of a nasty dispute between Burgess Carey and some of his neighbors in the Boone Creek area off old Richmond Road.

Carey has a permit to operate a private fishing club on his property in Boone Creek Gorge. But he expanded it into a public canopy tour business, in which people toured the gorge from treetop platforms using zip lines and suspension bridges.

Neighbors opposed the business, and city officials shut it down.

Carey’s aggressiveness antagonized officials and made it easy for opponents to brand him an outlaw rather than debate the merits of having a canopy tour on Boone Creek. That’s a shame, because it is a well-designed, well-located facility that the public should be able to enjoy.

The Boone Creek dispute prompted the ZOTA process and made it contentious from the beginning. One result was that the city task force created to study the issue wasn’t as open as it should have been to public participation and diverse viewpoints. Hence, last week’s Planning Commission fireworks.

Suburban sprawl is incompatible with animal agriculture, especially high-strung racehorses. Development takes the Inner Bluegrass region’s valuable agricultural soils out of production.

That is why Lexington in 1958 became the first U.S. city to create an urban growth boundary. Without it and other rural land-use restrictions, horses and farms could have been crowded out of Fayette County years ago.

Farmers are understandably concerned about any nearby commercial development. But some other people think it is unfair for traditional agriculture to have a monopoly on rural land use.

The balancing act gets even more complicated in the environmentally sensitive and ruggedly beautiful land along the Kentucky River Palisades. It is an ideal place for low-impact outdoor recreation and environmental education. But most public access is restricted to the city’s Raven Run Nature Sanctuary.

Preserving these natural areas is complicated, because they need constant care to stop the spread of invasive plant species, especially bush honeysuckle and wintercreeper euonymus, which choke out native vegetation. It is a huge problem.

Much of the land along the river is owned by people dedicated to its care and preservation. Many spend a lot of money and effort fighting invasive species.

But, as a matter of public policy, it is risky for Lexington to count on landowners’ wealth and good intentions forever. It makes sense to give them some business opportunities to help pay for conservation, especially since much of this land is not suitable for traditional agriculture.

Most Fayette County rural land is zoned “agriculture rural.” The ZOTA proposal would create a new “agriculture natural” zoning option along the river with some different permitted uses.

Much of the debate about the ZOTA’s treatment of both zones is about what land uses should be “primary” by right and which should be “conditional,” requiring approval by the city Board of Adjustment. The conditional use process allows for more site-specific regulation, but it can be cumbersome for landowners.

Carey’s lawyer, John Park, who lives on adjacent property along Boone Creek, points out that poor farming practices in that area can be more environmentally destructive than some commercial and recreational uses. But state law gives farmers a lot of freedom from local zoning regulations.

One criticism of the ZOTA proposal — and other parts of Lexington’s zoning code, as well — is that in trying to regulate every conceivable land use to keep “bad” things from happening, the rules aren’t flexible enough to allow “good” things to happen.

These are complicated issues with a lot of good people and good points of view on all sides. More frank and open discussion is needed to reach something close to a community consensus.

Increasing public access to rural recreation and tourism is important, both for Lexington’s economy and quality of life. But it also is necessary for preservation.

People protect what they love. Finding more ways for people to connect with this irreplaceable landscape and agrarian-equine culture will nurture that love.


Developing local food economy is focus of new Lexington job

June 16, 2014

As a child growing up in Gratz Park, Ashton Potter Wright often walked downtown to the Lexington Farmers Market with her parents, who were early owners in Good Foods Co-op.

“They instilled in me that it’s important to know where your food comes from and to support local growers and business owners,” she said. “It makes sense to me, and I hope to help make it make sense to other people.”

That will be a big part of Wright’s new job as Lexington’s first local food coordinator.

Wright1Wright, 29, started earlier this month in the pilot position, where she will work with Central Kentucky farmers to help them find markets for their meat and produce. She also will help educate and create more individual and institutional demand for locally produced food.

“With local food, you’re not only helping the economy and the environment, but you’re getting great, healthy, delicious food that’s grown by somebody nearby,” she said. “We’re keeping dollars in the region and improving the health of the region.”

Wright will be part of the city’s Office of Economic Development. The job is funded through private grants, agriculture development funds and $25,000 from the city. Steve Kay, an at-large member of the Urban County Council, worked for several years to create the job.

“It’s exciting, but it’s a bit overwhelming,” Wright said. “There’s so much that can be done and so much that needs to be done.”

Wright brings a strong background to the job. After graduating from Henry Clay High School and Rhodes College in Memphis, she worked at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and earned a master’s degree in public health from Georgia State University while her husband, Jonathan Wright, went to Emory University’s law school.

Last fall, Wright finished her doctorate in public health at UK and went back to Atlanta for a fellowship at the CDC. She also worked in Lee County, helping create a program where local farmers provided food for schools.

Kay assembled an advisory committee a couple of years ago that includes a who’s who of local food players, including Nancy Cox, the new dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture; chef and restaurant entrepreneur Ouita Michel; youth nutrition activist Anita Courtney and Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm, a national leader in the organic farming movement.

Wright said she will begin by working closely with the advisory committee to assess needs and opportunities, both immediate and long-term.

“Everyone has an opinion about what needs to be done,” she said. “So these first few months are going to be spent listening and understanding.”

There also are good ideas to be gleaned in Louisville, where Sarah Fritschner, a former food editor at the Washington Post and The Courier-Journal, has been the farm-to-table coordinator since 2010.

“There’s a lot to be learned from her and also from cities across the country that are doing similar work,” Wright said, citing Baltimore and Asheville, N.C., as examples.

Wright sees opportunities to educate young people about the importance of healthier eating and local food. Wright previously worked with Courtney on her Tweens Coalition and Better Bites youth nutrition programs, as well as her effort to bring fresh produce to two small markets in low-income Lexington neighborhoods.

Much of Wright’s job will involve connecting local farmers to schools, hospitals and other institutions that could purchase their food. She said public schools already buy some local food, but could do much more if they had the right help.

Eventually, she hopes to develop more infrastructure for the regional food economy. Those include more local meat processing plants, such as Marksbury Farms in Danville, as well as aggregation, processing and distribution facilities for local vegetables and fruits.

Also, the region needs more commercial kitchens where farmers can take what they grow and turn it into value-added products, such as preserves and sauces, and process food for consumption off-season. Wright also is intrigued by the use of Internet technology to connect producers with consumers.

“People have been interested in local food here for years,” she said. “But there are so many people and groups working on it here now that the time feels really right for the next big step.”


Alltech’s business strategy is to embrace change, not fight it

May 20, 2014

Alltech1Alltech founder and president Pearse Lyons, left, presented the Humanitarian Award to Lopez Lomong at Alltech’s symposium Monday. Lomong was kidnapped by soldiers in his native Sudan at 6, but eventually became two-time Olympic runner. Photo by Tom Eblen

Nobody likes change — it’s human nature. Kentuckians seem especially averse to it, which is ironic considering our heritage.

Two centuries ago, the pioneering risk-takers who came to Kentucky seeking a better life were on the cutting edge of change in America. But their adventurous spirit was soon replaced by a cautious, conservative mindset.

Too many Kentuckians fear innovation, mistrust higher education, deny science and instinctively oppose new ideas and ways of doing things. That is one reason I attend the Alltech Symposium each May. It is always an eye-opener.

The 30th annual Alltech Symposium, which began Sunday and ends Wednesday, brought 1,700 people from 59 nations to Lexington Center. The theme was “What If?”

The discussions — simultaneously translated into four languages — revolved around a question no less audacious than how a world of 9 billion people will feed itself in the year 2050.

Alltech began in a suburban Lexington garage in 1980. The privately held animal nutrition, food and beverage company now has operations in 128 countries and annual sales of $1 billion. The company’s energetic founder and president, Pearse Lyons, who turns 70 in August, has set a sales goal of $4 billion through growth and acquisition during his lifetime.

Lyons is not a native Kentuckian, but perhaps the next closest thing: an Irishman. Alltech has been wildly successful because Lyons and his wife, Deirdre, have used their complementary skills to create a company that tries to embody the strengths and avoid the shortcomings of both cultures.

“Sometimes I think we’re our own worst enemies,” Lyons said, noting that both Kentuckians and the Irish have often been stereotyped as backward.

Alltech’s often-contrarian approach to business is about problem-solving through science, education, innovation, sustainability, creativity, challenging boundaries and anticipating global needs. “We’ve built a business by walking the road less traveled,” he said.

Alltech’s science is based on natural ingredients and processes. That has been controversial, because many corporate agriculture models rely heavily on artificial chemicals. But the strategy has become a plus with consumers who worry about food safety and nutrition.

Lyons said Alltech’s stand against the routine use of antibiotics in food animals has cost it customers, but is simply common sense in light of scientific evidence of the problems caused by antibiotic abuse. “My mum used to say common sense is the rarest sense out there,” he said.

Lyons is equally forthright about the scientific evidence of man’s role in climate change. “The carbon footprint issue is with us to stay,” he said. “Those of us who embrace it will be successful.”

Because he spends so much time traveling around the world, Lyons brings valuable international perspectives to an often insular state. That has made him more open to new ideas, and, he thinks, more cognizant than most Kentuckians of the state’s unrealized economic potential.

Kentucky is already a globally recognized brand, thanks to Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Kentucky Derby and bourbon whiskey. Lyons thinks it is the best state brand in the nation. “The name that resonates, the name that people like, is Kentucky,” he said. “It’s open. It’s warm.”

That has certainly been true for Kentucky Ale, which Alltech began producing in Lexington in 2006 and is now sold in 20 states and four other countries.

Alltech this week unveiled big plans for Eastern Kentucky: a brewery and distillery in Pikeville, whose waste heat and grain byproducts will then be used for raising fish in tanks. Alltech has been studying this at its Nicholasville headquarters.

“The question is this: What are we going to do when we can’t get all those fish from the oceans?” he said. “Where poultry is today, many predict the aquaculture industry will be in five, 10, 15 years, and we propose to be right out there.”

Alltech plans to produce trout, chickens and eggs in Eastern Kentucky and brand them to the region. “We don’t need to be in Kentucky,” Lyons said, noting that 98 percent of Alltech’s revenues come from outside the state. “But Kentucky’s still a great place to do business.”

Alltech embraces big problems, Lyons said, because the flip side of every problem is a business opportunity for solving it.

“I’m a scientist at the end of the day, and scientists look for solutions,” he said. “If we put our heads in the sand, we’re never going to achieve anything.”


Once Kentucky’s biggest cash crop, it’s high time hemp returned

May 19, 2014

hempknightPhotographer Thomas A. Knight took this photo of hemp stacks in the early 1900s. 

 

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer last week sued the Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and Border Protection and the Justice Department, seeking the release of 250 pounds of Italian hemp seeds for planting in Kentucky test plots this spring.

Kentucky is one of 10 states seeking to once again legalize the production of industrial hemp, which has been banned since World War II because of resemblance to its botanical cousin, marijuana.

Hemp has only a fraction of the chemical THC that makes marijuana narcotic, so it has virtually no drug value. But states seeking to re-establish America’s industrial hemp industry have met stiff resistance from the DEA.

Hemp was Central Kentucky’s biggest cash crop during most of the 19th century, because the plant’s oil, seeds and fibers were very useful for such things as rope, fabric and even paper. But after prohibitionists began outlawing marijuana in the 1930s, hemp fell victim to guilt by association.

Could hemp become a big Kentucky industry again? Probably not. Should it be allowed to make a comeback as part of agriculture diversification? Absolutely. Banning hemp has never made much sense. And since nearly half the states have acted to decriminalize or allow limited marijuana use, it makes even less sense.

 


Broader discussion could find right balance in rural land use; compromise needed in bitter dispute over Boone Creek project

June 9, 2013

A city task force created 15 months ago to consider zoning-law changes to allow more recreation and tourism opportunities in rural Fayette County recently made its report to the Urban County Council.

The Zoning Ordinance Text Amendment Work Group did some good work, but a broader public discussion is needed before council takes action. Plus, there is an elephant in the room that must be dealt with.

Here is the central question: what are the best ways to protect, preserve and enhance Lexington’s unique rural landscape and the economic models needed to sustain it in the future?

Lexington adopted a rural land management plan in 1999 to keep suburban sprawl from pushing out agriculture and damaging sensitive natural areas along the Kentucky River and its tributaries.

The work group thought more specificity was needed, and it has proposed a detailed list of dos, don’ts and maybes regarding rural land use. But some of its recommendations would further re- strict recreation and tourism rather than expand them.

In deciding what should and should not be allowed, the work group made subjective judgments that went beyond whether a use or activity would harm the land or neighbors. If state law allowed the city to regulate agriculture as closely as this plan regulates everything else, farmers would howl.

Agriculture is a big, important business in Lexington, and farmers are justifiably concerned about anything that might encroach on them. But agriculture has always been evolving. Farmers should be wary of banning or restricting low-impact activities they may need someday to make a living on their land.

Like it or not, the work group has been tainted by a nasty dispute between Burgess Carey, who wants to create an outdoor recreation center at his Boone Creek Anglers Club, and his neighbor, former Council member Gloria Martin. Each has many fired-up supporters, and the rhetoric and behavior on both sides have been over-the-top.

Vice Mayor Linda Gorton formed and chaired helped lead the work group in response to the Boone Creek dispute. But the group often seemed hostile to Carey and tried to exclude him from the dialogue. Only one of the group’s 15 members ever accepted Carey’s invitations to visit Boone Creek to see what he wants to do.

Carey wants to turn his property, which is unsuitable for agriculture, into a low-impact outdoor recreation area featuring guided “canopy tours” on platforms and zip lines built in the trees.

If well-designed and regulated, Carey’s facility could be a terrific asset for Lexington. Located on Old Richmond Road just off Interstate 75, the traffic impact would be far less than, say, the city’s Raven Run nature park on Jacks Creek Pike.

Most objections to the project by Carey’s opponents have been over-wrought. To hear some of them talk, allowing zip-lines in tree tops is tantamount to building a Six Flags amusement park.

During her dozen years on the Council, Martin was an outstanding advocate for rural land preservation at a time when suburban development was running amok. But her battle against Carey has looked more like an elitist “not in my back yard” campaign.

Carey made it easy for people to attack him, though, by flouting zoning processes that have served Lexington well for decades. After the Board of Adjustment turned down his request for a zoning variance, he ignored the city planning staff’s advice and proceeded with building a smaller canopy-tour course.

Carey and his lawyer, John Park, have argued that his fishing club has as much right under current zoning law to offer canopy tours as horse farms have to offer farm tours without a permit. But the Board of Adjustment rejected Carey’s appeal and is considering sanctions against him.

The battle over Boone Creek has gotten so nasty that it may well end up in court. But what is needed is a compromise that puts common sense ahead of politics and personalities. That is because Carey’s project is the right idea in the right place at the right time.

Boone Creek Outdoors and projects like it could show people the enormous potential of developing the Kentucky River Palisades corridor as an environmental education and outdoor recreation area. Under the work group’s recommendations, it could be allowed.

Low-impact outdoor recreation opportunities along the Kentucky River could become a big economic engine for Lexington. They also could generate the kind of money needed to protect the Palisades from harmful development and the invasive plant species that are rapidly destroying its fragile ecology.

Besides, unless the Boone Creek fiasco is resolved in a way that removes the perception of politics, it will be hard to make progress on these broader issues of rural land management that are essential for Lexington’s future.

 


Alltech Symposium offers glimpse of the future of food production

May 27, 2013

jamon

José Ignacio Martínez-Valero, left, shaved ham as Lucas Montero served cheese to attendees at Alltech’s annual international symposium in Lexington on Tuesday. They represent Ibericos COVAP, a line of traditional Spanish gourmet products produced by a farmers’ co-op near Córdoba, Spain. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

I spent some time last week at the Alltech Symposium, Lexington’s biggest annual international event that many people have never heard of.

Alltech, the Nicholasville-based animal health and nutrition company, has put on this flashy educational conference for 29 years as a way to strengthen relationships with its customers in 128 countries.

This year’s symposium attracted about 2,000 people from 72 nations, plus about 400 Alltech employees from around the world.

Honestly, animal nutrition is not something I would normally find very interesting. But I leave this event every year fascinated by innovative ideas.

The symposium looks at the future of food and agribusiness from the perspective of natural systems and processes, which has always been Alltech’s approach. That approach has become fashionable in recent years as consumers worry more and more about chemicals and genetically-modified organisms.

This year’s symposium featured several technologies Alltech is working on, such as producing algae for nutritional supplements.

Two years ago, Alltech bought one of the world’s largest algae-making plants, just off Interstate 64 near Winchester. Pearse Lyons, Alltech’s founder and president, said the plant is now producing 10,000 tons of algae a year and is already too small to meet the company’s needs.

Lyons thinks algae could become more popular than fish oil as a major source of docohexaenoic acid, or DHA, a popular nutritional supplement thought to slow the decline of brain function as people age. With the fish oil market now at about $1 billion, Lyons sees opportunity.

The symposium’s theme this year was “Glimpse the future in 2020.” In addition to algae, presentations and panel discussions focused on such topics as growing antibiotic-free poultry, farming at sea, finding financial rewards in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint and learning to embrace regulation.

“Enough is enough,” the regulatory session’s thesis statement said. “If we do not regulate ourselves, the FDA or the European Union will regulate us. Learn how to embrace regulation.”

Alltech thinks successful businesses won’t just come from new ideas and technology. There are big opportunities in better marketing and distribution of high-quality traditional foods that offer nutrition and unique tastes.

My favorite booth at the symposium’s World Market trade show this year was Ibéricos COVAP, a farmers’ cooperative near Córdoba, Spain. Farmers there have for centuries been producing gourmet cured ham from free-range Ibérico pigs that grow fat on acorns from the forests of the Sierra Morena mountains.

The co-op already distributes its products in New York and Los Angeles. Now, it sees opportunity in middle America, beginning with Kentucky, where cured country ham has been a delicacy for generations.

“We are looking for big opportunities we think we have in this area,” said the co-op’s director, Emilio de León y Ponce de León.

Based on how symposium attendees were devouring delicious samples of thin-shaved ham and Spanish cheeses, Ibéricos COVAP may have some opportunities.

Alltech used to offer the symposium as a free or low-cost event for customers. In the past, Lyons said, Alltech absorbed the costs. Now, each person pays hundreds of dollars to attend.

This year’s symposium, which cost more than $1 million to produce, may come close to breaking even, Lyons said. In the future, he added, it could become a profit center. That is because Alltech’s customers find value in the symposium’s educational sessions and networking opportunities.

“What we’re striving to have is a real joint venture with customers — a real meeting of the minds that creates a win-win situation,” said Lyons, an Irish-born entrepreneur who moved to Lexington in 1980 and started Alltech in his garage. “There are huge returns for international business people willing to work together.”

Those opportunities are a big reason Alltech has been expanding its business in recent years from animal nutrition supplements to human nutrition supplements and high-quality food and drink.

The privately held company doesn’t release financial figures, but Lyons said sales this year will approach $1 billion. About 30 percent of that revenue came from acquisitions.

Lyons, who turns 69 on Aug. 3, said he expects the company to make many more acquisitions in his quest to achieve annual revenues of $4 billion in his lifetime.


Land-use changes put Woodford County at risk

November 6, 2011

VERSAILLES — There is an old saying about military leaders who fail because they plan for the last war instead of the next one. The Woodford County Planning and Zoning Commission may be about to make a similar mistake.

Commissioners want to remove a decade-old ban on development in the county’s Agriculture/Equine Preserve District, which has some of the world’s best horse farms and richest soil. They also want to consider costly extensions to the Blue Grass Parkway and Falling Springs Boulevard through prime farmland.

These short-sighted moves would encourage the kind of unsustainable development we saw in the last century, rather than the economic strategies that are likely to be successful in the next one.

The proposed changes to Woodford County’s five-year comprehensive plan would chip away at wise land-use policies that have fueled growing agriculture and tourism industries. The changes seem unjustified, contrary to the plan’s goals and objectives and were proposed without public input.

More than 100 citizens filled a courtroom last Thursday for their first — and perhaps only — opportunity to comment on the plan, which was drafted by a four-member commission committee headed by Brian Traugott.

A few people spoke in favor of the changes, including Versailles Mayor Fred Siegelman, Woodford Judge-Executive John Coyle and Brad McLean, chairman of the county’s Economic Development Authority.

Many more people spoke against the changes: average citizens, a prominent businessman, a former governor and a variety of farmers from all over Woodford County.

“What’s being proposed in this plan will hurt our business and economic development, because it is going in the wrong direction,” said Joe Graviss, who owns McDonald’s restaurants and employs about 60 people.

“Why would the county allow the destruction of its most valuable asset?” asked horse farmer Richard Masson.

The World Monuments Fund in 2007 declared Kentucky’s Inner Bluegrass region one of the planet’s most endangered landscapes. Woodford County has some of the best examples of it.

Good land stewardship has helped give Woodford County an enviable quality of life and some of Kentucky’s highest employment and per-capita income rates. There is plenty of residential, commercial and industrial land already set aside to handle anticipated growth for many years.

Rather than open the agriculture preserve to possible development, future rural subdivisions should be banned countywide, several citizens said. Existing rural subdivisions have hurt surrounding farms, marred the landscape and burdened taxpayers with costly infrastructure and support services.

Economic development trends show that the successful communities of the future will be those that guard their beauty and quality of life, not those that encourage sprawl and generic development. Farmland values are skyrocketing nationwide because investors realize that rising transportation costs will make locally grown food more important in the future.

In an interview earlier last week, Traugott insisted that the proposed changes would result in little additional development. But Lexington attorney Bruce Simpson, speaking at the hearing on Masson’s behalf, told commissioners that if they crack the door, developers will hire good lawyers like him to blow it wide open.

As bad as the proposed changes are, the heavy-handed political process seems even worse. Unlike previous plan updates, the public was not allowed input on the draft. The commission’s Web site posted copies of the current plan and new draft, but nothing more to identify or explain the differences.

“Who requested these changes, and why?” Graviss asked. Commissioners declined to answer any questions at the hearing. Citizens were allowed to submit written comments or speak for no more than three minutes. When former Gov. Brereton Jones, a Midway horse farmer who opposes the changes, exceeded his time limit, he became the first of several speakers to be silenced by a honking horn.

“There are some significant questions that need to be answered,” Jones told commissioners, adding that “180 seconds” of comment is a poor substitute for honest analysis, discussion and debate.

Commissioners could approve the changes as soon as Thursday. But if they are smart, they will take this draft back for a rewrite. They should remove the controversial changes, or offer evidence for why they are justified. And they should let the public participate in these important public decisions.

If commissioners and the elected officials who appointed them allow these changes to be rammed through, they risk both Woodford County’s future and their own political skins.


Family dairy finds big market for farm-fresh milk

August 29, 2010

RUSSELLVILLE — Non-homogenized milk in returnable glass bottles supposedly went out of fashion with the Ford Model T. But don’t tell Willis and Edna Schrock.

The Schrocks and their eight children are working overtime to keep up with increasing demand for the farm-fresh milk they produce with 38 cows and a barn full of modern equipment.

“The boys bottled milk all night,” Edna said when I arrived at their 130-acre farm in Logan County. “They were going to bed about 4 this morning as Willis left to make deliveries. He probably won’t be back until tonight.”

The Schrocks deliver their JD Country Milk, which is bottled in old-fashioned returnable glass, to groceries and farmers markets in Lexington, Louisville, Nashville and many places in between. (In Lexington, it is available at Good Foods and Whole Foods markets.)

Customers are willing to pay premium prices for the non-homogenized, low-temperature-pasteurized milk for two reasons: It tastes better than regular milk, and they think it is more healthful.

A sip will confirm the first reason. Pasteurization at 145 degrees, rather than the usual 185 degrees or more, kills harmful bacteria but preserves milk’s naturally sweet taste. Forgoing homogenization preserves the distinct cream in JD Country’s whole, 2 percent and skim milk, not to mention the buttermilk and chocolate milk, which is made with real cocoa and cane sugar.

Customers like that the Schrocks’ cows eat grass and are not given hormones or antibiotics. They also think that enzymes preserved in low-temperature pasteurization make milk more healthful. Some people think homogenization of milk contributes to cardiovascular disease, but scientists are split on the issue.

The Schrocks moved to Logan County in 1998 from central Illinois, where Willis drove dairy trucks. The Mennonite family began Kentucky farm life by making and selling baked goods.

“We started going to farmers markets and realized there were people out there who wanted real milk,” Edna said. “When you buy milk in the store, especially skim milk, it doesn’t taste like anything.”

Willis’ 15 years of work around dairy plants gave him the courage to get into the business, which can be complicated because of strict health regulations and procedures. The Schrocks began processing and selling milk under the Rebekah Grace label, but they went out on their own this year, and that allowed them to reduce prices.

Willis and Edna get a lot of help from their children. Justin, 26, is in charge of delivery. Joni, 25, and Janette, 19, run the bakery. Jared, 21, works in the processing plant. Joe, 16, is in charge of bottling. Jason, 14, helps milk the cows. Jennifer, 12, and Jeffrey, 10, do what they can after school.

With weekly sales now topping 500 cases — and a new drinkable low-fat yogurt being introduced in September — JD Country Milk is about ready to take the next step of hiring outside employees and taking in milk from other small farms that share the Shrocks’ natural methods.

“We’ve just about burned our kids out on this,” Edna acknowledged. “Working for mom and dad isn’t always the most fun thing.”

Edna said Kentucky agriculture officials have been very supportive, because they see this as an important niche in a strong local food economy. In 2007, the Schrocks received nearly $500,000 in state and county agriculture development money to buy modern processing and bottling equipment.

“Our goal was to be able to help small farmers who have only 30 or 40 cows to milk,” she said. “We can buy it and give them a fair price.”

That was state officials’ goal, too, when they awarded the Schrocks what amounts to a 10-year forgivable loan from tobacco settlement funds if certain goals are met. The Schrocks already buy some milk from Kenny Mattingly, who operates Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese in Barren County.

JD Country Milk is a rare bright spot in dairy farming these days. Many farmers are getting out of the business, complaining that the giant corporations now dominating the dairy industry pay farmers less for raw milk than it costs to produce it.

Consumers also are seeking alternatives to corporate agriculture, especially in the wake of contamination scares such as the recent egg recall. “We’re doing this at the right time,” Edna said.

The Shrocks have developed such a loyal following that many customers ask to visit their farm. They have scheduled an open house on Oct. 30, a Saturday. (For more information, go to JDCountryMilk.com.)

“We’re trying to keep it as all-natural and healthy as we can,” Edna said. “And the public really wants that, because people are paying more attention to their health.”

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State fair shows rural Kentucky at its best

August 22, 2009

Louisville may be the state’s largest city, but for 11 days each August it becomes the center of rural Kentucky at its best.

Sure, city people enjoy the Kentucky State Fair, too. Just ask Farm Bureau Freddie, the giant talking statue who has been welcoming visitors to the fair for 52 years.

The fair has midway rides, concerts, corn dogs, vendors and booths promoting just about every organization in the Commonwealth.

You can buy picture frames, porch swings and storm windows, get a mammogram or prostate screening and learn a tractor-trailer load about Abraham Lincoln at the Kentucky Historical Society’s history mobile.

Huge exhibit halls show average Kentuckians’ art and crafts, from quilts to paintings, baskets, Christmas trees, homemade beer and intentionally ugly lamps.

But to truly appreciate rural Kentucky and the people who live there, turn left after you say hello to Freddie, cut through Freedom Hall and wander through the vast livestock pavilions and into Broadbent Arena.

Here you will find farm families from across the state, showing off the bounty of their hard work, rich land and considerable ingenuity.

“There’s so much pride in Kentucky, and this is where it all comes together,” said Miss Kentucky Mallory Ervin, a Union County farm girl. “I’ve been coming here since I was little, but they treat you a little better when you have a crown on your head.”

Ervin was enjoying her celebrity role at this year’s fair, even if she was afraid to eat any funnel cakes. The Miss America pageant is only five months away.

Besides, the “Kentucky Proud” food she was promoting is more nutritious. The Great Kentucky Cookout Tent is the place to eat. I got a country ham sandwich, but the barbecue, pork chops, steak, catfish and trout looked tempting, too.

Inside the air-conditioned pavilions, one room held prize-winning hay and honey. Another was filled with caged rabbits, pigeons, chickens and dairy goats. They will move out Monday to make room for sheep and swine.

As I walked by, I watched big, strong men carefully cradling their fluffy bunnies on the way to the judges’ tables.

“It’s a fabulous hobby; they don’t bark, but they will bite,” said Michael Wiley of Stamping Ground, the secretary-treasurer of the American English Spot Rabbit Club. “I started out in 4H when I was 10 years old. Now I’m 62.”

This week’s schedule includes the World Championship Horse Show, plus shows for morgan, quarter and miniature horses.

Last week, dairy cows were the stars. Bathed and freshly clipped, they lounged in fresh hay as they awaited their turn in the show ring. Some stalls were quite fancy: framed photos of cattle, white picket fences and chairs embroidered with the farm’s name or logo.

“I’ve been coming up here for 37 years,” said The Rev. Sammy Adkins of Somerset, who was watching over his son’s prize cattle. “It’s a good family vacation. You know where your kids are and what they’re doing.”

In fact, the next generation of Kentucky farmers was everywhere. Many proudly wore their blue corduroy Future Farmers of America jackets, even when they went outside in the heat.

These kids know food doesn’t come from a grocery. They know state fair competitions lead to better-quality food, and that farming isn’t a way to make a living so much as a way of life.

Dan Shearer’s Jessamine County family has been showing prize-winning Ayrshire cattle at the Kentucky State Fair for three decades. This year, his four grandchildren, ages 12 to 21, were carrying on the tradition.

“There’s a whole lot of work involved, but it’s good for the kids,” said Shearer’s son, Danny. “When kids grow up on a farm, it teaches them about animals. It also teaches them responsibility. ”

I stood beside the ring in Broadbent Arena for more than an hour, watching and photographing impressive kids with fine-looking cattle.

My favorite may have been Taylor Graves, 10, of Perryville. Her father, dairy farmer Ray Graves, said she started showing goats almost as soon as she could walk. This was her second year in the ring with the family’s Brown Swiss cattle.

The cows were at least 10-times bigger than Taylor, but she was a young woman in control. She skillfully paraded them around the ring, petting and rubbing each one when they followed her lead and stood still at the appropriate times. When they tried to pull away, she just as confidently got their attention with a hard smack.

What does Taylor like best about being a farm girl?

“Getting to play with the animals,” she said with a shy voice — and a pocket full of blue ribbons.

  • If you go

    Kentucky State Fair

    Gates open daily at 7 a.m. through Aug. 30

    Exhibit Buildings open 9 a.m. – 10 p.m.

    Admission: $8, $4 for seniors and children 3-12

    More information: kystatefair.org

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