What’s it worth to you?

The past year has offered many unexpected lessons. While work was something I gratefully threw myself in to, as pandemic weeks stretched into months other areas of my life took a serious hit. The dance aerobics class that I have faithfully attended for 8 or so years, and the folks I look forward to seeing every week, was put on hiatus. I could no longer re-locate to one of the many great coffee shops in town to get into the writing zone fueled by coffee and ambient noise. Most surprisingly to me, I stopped reading.

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Like many of you, I’m a life-long book worm. I was the kid parked at the side of the public pool with an increasingly waterlogged paperback shielding my face from the sun. Multiple moves across the country were complicated by boxes of books that weighed approximately one million pounds. To this day my favorite vacation activity (after eating new foods) is… sitting by the side of a pool and reading. As the unspecific but ever present dread of the pandemic set in, my ability to immerse myself in narrative ebbed, which lead to more existential anxiety. Who was I if I wasn’t a reader?

I recognized that I had attached a moral value to the act of reading, and the identity of being someone who reads. But why? It is, for all intents and purposes, a hobby. It is an activity I do because I enjoy it. While book worms like me may argue for the value of reading (reading provides information, expands imagination, develops empathy, yadda yadda), what is the objective difference between reading and say… coin collecting? They are both seen to have value outside of the act itself, impart knowledge of the world, and are presumably enjoyable to those that engage in them. I’m not the first person to make this argument, but this diversion into my personal reckoning over the moral worth of reading is a roundabout way of getting to a harder question about unpacking our unspoken assumptions about moral worth.

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Digging Deeper

Much of my work is associated with exploring, identifying, and codifying the relative value of ‘local’ food. I spend arguably too much time navel gazing about what ‘local’ can and should mean in theory and practice. Thanks to the harmonized metrics from the national farm to institution metrics collaborative I have a consistent way of working through questions of what does or does not constitute a local food product for any given community, so I’ve moved on to harder nuts to crack.

Let’s start here: Is gardening a moral good? Is the act of gardening a virtuous act, or is it in the same hobby bucket as reading and coin collecting? It can be both pragmatic and enjoyable. It requires time, knowledge, and resources. It makes no promises and asks no favors from the outside world.

Now let’s level up to a harder question: Is farming in and of itself virtuous? Is the historic notion of the ‘family farm’ (one family unit, a single farmer who is responsible for all production and marketing decisions and who employs farm laborers who are not the same as farmers) a simple social and moral good that we should promote uncritically? This question may seem like indulgent intellectualizing, but it’s one that I have to contend with in various iterations on a regular basis. What constitutes a farm

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Farm vs Agricultural Production Unit

I received an email the other day requesting a recommendation for a CSA. The person was new to the community and expressed the opinion that the options they had found in the area were mostly ‘big’ farms supervising a lot of hired labor rather than a ‘real’ CSA where the farmer is involved in all the activities. While I’m hard pressed to think of many farm operations that don’t have some kind of hired labor during the peak season, the experience spoke to my personal and professional challenges articulating what constitutes a farm and why it should matter.

Brace yourself, we’re about to jump into the rabbit hole.

Does your idea of a farm require some direct relationship with a piece of land and soil-based production systems, or is it any enterprise that produces raw agricultural products? Where do you place hydroponic or other non-soil based production? How about a lab that produces cell-cultured meat? Is that a farm? How much controlled environment are you(we) willing to entertain? Is a hydroponic tomato quantitatively different than a tomato grown in the soil? How about a tomato grown in the soil in a high tunnel? What kinds of ownership or control over production decisions are acceptable or even desirable? Speaking of controlled environment, how do you classify agricultural production ventures that are not locally owned, but whose facilities are located within the local region?

There’s no single or simple answer to these questions, which is why the community we create through our work at The Food Connection feels vital. We need the time and space to sit with these questions, to have the conversations, and build a shared vision.

The vulnerabilities in our food system and our nation that the last year forced into the spotlight require a reckoning. The way we frame and define farming, food, and community is part and parcel of how we value their relative worth.  Those of us working in local food systems need to reconcile the contradictions between our varied notions of what makes ‘good food’ and the realities of how our food system structures the production, distribution, and patterns of consumption of food across our community and our country. I haven’t offered any answers, but I welcome the conversation.

thank you bellaire blooms

“Unprecedented Year”, “You’re on mute” and other phrases I hope will soon disappear from regular parlance

In early March of last year I was in New Orleans to host a day-long workshop as part of the National Good Food Network Conference. The workshop was the culmination of many months of hard work to develop a set of nationally harmonized metrics for local food. I started the week hashing out facilitation strategy with my colleagues while we cracked open a pile of crawfish. Mid-week, I sat with other folks from Kentucky strategizing how we might organize to distribute food from kitchens and cafeterias that were closing to those who would be hungry. On that Friday, the conference canceled sessions and I holed up in my hotel room watching case numbers rise on television and counting the hours until my flight home.

Those were the last meals I would share with friends for more than a year. In a life organized by gathering – in the classroom, at the table, in the field – we were all suddenly fixed in position, tethered and apart. The contraction of our worlds brought home the sweetness of being together.

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Catching up on our COVID-19 year

In the early days of the pandemic our Food Connection team was in in rapid response mode: creating practical social distancing guides for farmers markets and launching our first virtual cooking classes. As the realities of our pandemic year came into focus, we expanded our work. Chef Tanya completley re-designed our culinary curriculum and developed a seasonal eating hub so CSA farmers and their new-to-local-food eaters would have an readymade repository of recipes, quick tips, and inspiration. Bryan figured out how to do on farm food-safety tours via video chat, all while welcoming their second child into the world and keeping up with his regular schedule of GAP audit support. Dr. Jacobsen’s new graduate student Chelsea arrived to a locked-down Lexington, and while we haven’t met in person, I’m already excited to see where her cold-season produce research is headed.

I’ve done my best to find ways to be useful, at least I think; Usefulness and Helpfulness being the highest virtues of my Midwestern upbringing. A major portion of my time is devoted to serving as a lead investigator with a USDA cooperative study to support the adaptation and resilience of regional food systems. Along with colleagues from Colorado State University, Penn State, and a whole host of USDA AMS staffers, we’re working directly with leaders from 17 different communities of practice from across the local food spectrum to identify, share, and strategize effective ways our farmers, entrepreneurs, school systems, restaurants, fisheries, and grain mills (to name just a few) have adapted during the pandemic. We’re now turning our attention to how we might continue to leverage those innovations to foster a more resilient food system moving into the future.

Sit and think a while

Staying in place offered the opportunity to sit with many of the uncomfortable truths about our food system, and their consequences for our community. After recognizing that older individuals are at a higher risk of COVID-19 complications, we were also reminded that Kentucky has more than twice the national rate of children raised by grandparents[1].  When public schools closed, we were met with the staggering statistic that 29.6 million U.S. children rely on their school cafeterias to feed them at least one meal a day, with 21.8 million of those receiving free or reduced cost meals ($0.40). In April, while panic-buying surged and offerings at meat counters became thin, 44% of all the COVID-19 cases in South Dakota were traced to a single meat packing plant[2] [3]. Black Americans comprise 12% of the U.S. population, while nearly 20% of all food service workers are Black. According to a report last summer, the death rate of Black Americans from COVID-19 stood at 3.8 times the rate as that for white Americans, higher than all other minority groups[4] [5] .

Don’t call it a comeback

It has been a year to rethink, reframe, and reposition. On a panel conversation the USDA project hosted in January, we were joined by a commissioner and a deputy commissioner of Agriculture, a law and policy specialist, and Liz Wills-O’Gilvie, a local food policy leader form Massachusetts who does tremendous work addressing racial and economic inequity in her local food system. In her closing reflection, she told those of us listening to stop saying she was ‘inspiring.’  She went on to say that the hard truths we have confronted during the pandemic have provided the opportunity to consider the conversation around equity differently. “Not from an “Oh, we need to go help those poor people,” she said “but from the recognition that “Oh, those poor people have some good ideas we could build on…we are not just waiting for things to get done. We’re all ready to show up with you. And I want you to be ready to show up with us.” This is a call to move past inspiration to action.

It has been a year of hard reckonings long overdue. Vulnerabilities we diligently ignored were laid open, and the value of that which was taken for granted felt in its absence. Not always. Not everywhere. Yet enough to shake open the shutters, shine a light, invite a conversation that could carry us towards a different horizon. To paraphrase Ms. Willis-O’Gilvie, while I’m not always optimistic about the particulars, I am always hopeful for our community.

[1] https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/2018/11/23/kentucky-grandparents-little-support-foster-care-relatives/1929014002/

[2] https://www.ers.usda.gov/covid-19/rural-america/meatpacking-industry/

[3] https://thecounter.org/covid-19-outbreak-meatpacking-safety-osha-california/

[4] https://www.umass.edu/employmentequity/how-covid-exposes-healthcare-deficits-black-workers

[5] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/racial-ethnic-disparities/increased-risk-illness.html

Cover photo credit: Getty Images via https://www.delish.com/food/a32907227/how-to-shop-safely-at-the-farmers-market-coronavirus-food-safety/

Odd Food-System Fellows

Last week we bid a fond farewell to Dr. Leigh Maynard, who is retiring from his work at UK and The Food Connection. We’re all still in a bit of denial, and I have to stop cc’ing him on emails. I’ve had a wonderful time professionally palling-around with Leigh.  I’ll miss his enthusiasm and encouragement, which were winds in my sail the past two years.

At the goodbye happy-hour, I ran into an economist colleague whom I only see maybe twice a year. While introducing him to the others in my group, I heard myself describe the two of us as “Unexpectedly Like-Minded.” He chuckled and nodded in agreement.


We first met on a panel presentation about the future of farming.  Despite coming from very different personal and academic backgrounds, we essentially gave two versions of the same talk. I covered the history of the 1980s farm crisis, the long emotional and economic shadow of that crisis for farming communities, and some troubling parallels with our current moment. My colleague spoke from the perspective of both a business analyst and a farmer about the uphill battle facing family farmers working to make ends meet in contemporary commodity markets. He shared his frank concerns about the future viability of farming as a whole, and for his own family’s enterprise in particular. Needless to say, it wasn’t a particularly uplifting panel, and I joked that we were both guilty of ‘saying the quiet part loud.

I remember being nervous about giving that talk. To be honest, I’m still nervous writing about it here. It feels vulnerable and even risky to say “everything might not be OK” when we’re all working so hard to put on a hopeful face. Despite, or perhaps because we both took that risk I connected with someone that I assumed was from a different ‘camp,’ and who I didn’t expect to share my thoughts and concerns. Somber subject matter aside, I left that day feeling less isolated and with a new sense of possibility.

Orthodoxy and Uncertainty

The two traits that my favorite friends and colleagues have in common are 1) they’re nothing at all like me and 2) they ask good questions. Possessed by a compassionate curiosity, they are grounded in care for the world outside of their immediate material interests. They are troublemakers of the best kind, or perhaps caretakers.

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Just some pigs I met this fall. Not a commentary on my friends or colleagues in any way. Except that pigs are also exceptionally smart.


The best people in my life connect with me across and beyond difference and give me ideas and insights I’d never find alone. They are driven to ask hard questions about themselves and our community, and thereby challenge our habituated ways of thinking about the world. They also help me see my own life and experiences in a new way. Leigh is just such a person which is why it’s why we’ll miss him terribly.


In a winter that has felt like one long grey damp slog, it’s easy to fall into an existential slump about the state of the world. As a commiserating friend put it, “the wins seem few and far between.” Taking a dose of my own reflexive medicine, I wonder if it’s the very act of framing the world in terms of ‘wins’ that causes a sense of defeat.

There’s a lot of hand waving in popular discourse focused on a supposed animosity between farmers and eaters. Bogus labels are tossed around and fingers are pointed every which way. All our troubles are the fault of those fake-milk drinkers. All our troubles are the fault of those mega-farms. All our troubles are the fault of ignorant eaters. No wonder we fall into isolation and frustration. There’s no unexpected connection or compassionate curiosity to be found in an environment like that.


To paraphrase Donna Haraway, it matters what thoughts we use to think-with. What if instead of trying to be on the winning team, I focused on challenging my assumptions about the issues at play. What if we worked to both broaden and deepen our understanding of the people and places involved? What questions would I ask if I wasn’t worried about getting to a “right” answer, or at least the most popular one? Whose perspective can I learn if I focus on really hearing and understanding someone’s experience rather than finding a way to win an argument?

We need to break out of our habit of solving for a predetermined answer. If we come to our work with the assumption that we already have the solution in hand we’ve squandered an opportunity to discover and build something new (it’s hammers and nails all the way down from there). I’m so grateful for the friends and colleagues who teach the value of sticking your neck out, or even better a friendly hand.

Dr. [Don’t] Know It All

If you want to re-discover your hope for the future, I highly recommend teaching an introductory course for college Freshmen. No, really – hear me out.

Field trip to Elmwood Stock Farm

Last semester was my first experience teaching a GEN100 class for our College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, and I was gifted as diverse a group of students as you could hope for. They also insisted on calling me Dr. B which I was charmed by. Who knew Irish surnames were so challenging to remember?

My students came from all corners of Kentucky, all coasts of the U.S. (yes, even the Gulf Coast,), and all walks of American life. Some came from multi-generational farm families; some had never set foot on a farm before. As we explored different dimensions of our food system, they shared their personal experiences ranging from showing sheep at the state fair to waiting in line at the food bank. I was humbled and inspired by their vulnerability and sincerity, and their genuine desire to care for each other and the world around them.

Randal Rock has forgotten more about Sorghum than I’ll ever learn.

Over the course of the semester, we explored the wide world of ‘Agriculture, Food and Environment.’ Through their eyes, I was reminded of how vast and fascinating, and sometimes overwhelming, the study of agriculture and food systems can be. Thanks to their questions, confusions, excitements, and concerns, I was pushed to challenge and revise my own habituated frameworks and discover new realms of learning. Heading into the spring semester, I find I have a renewed sense of excitement for the learning that lies ahead of me during “conference season.”

We graduated our beloved Cindy Garcia in December. We learned as much from her as she did from us.

Catch me at the Networking Session

We’re lucky to have a suite of great farm and food conferences and meetings right here in Kentucky. I love kicking off the year with the Kentucky Fruit and Vegetable Grower’s Conference. If you’ve never attended, it’s a great chance to learn about new techniques and opportunities for specialty crop production in our state, and a great chance to catch up with all your farm-oriented colleagues that you lose track of during the growing season.

There’s always more to learn about our Kentucky Food Systems

Later this spring you can check out Community Farm Alliance’s Eastern Kentucky Farmer Conference to learn more about working in Appalachian Kentucky. The Organic Association of Kentucky’s annual meeting always impresses me with the depth and breadth of learning they provide. I’m also looking forward to the Just Food Symposium this February that focuses on racial equity in our Kentucky food systems. As an added bonus, if not a sole motivation, the meals at local food conferences tend to be pretty great. I’ll never forget eating country ham and drinking bourbon next while sitting next to Wendell Berry at my very first CFA annual meeting back in 2010.

Shameless plug: Come to our Local Food Systems Summit

Of course, this whole post was a lead up to my shameless plug for our 2020 Kentucky Local Food Systems summit. Last year was our inaugural summit, and due to an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response, you all have collectively strong-armed us into making the conference an annual affair. Thank you, I think.

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With our partners at Bluegrass Farm to Table and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, along with the support of our generous sponsors, we’re excited for this year’s bigger and even better event. We’ve got a fantastic line up of speakers ranging from school nutrition directors to community garden enthusiasts and pet food manufacturers. Yep, you heard that right.

Even more importantly, I’m eager to see what we learn from our fellow attendees. A common sentiment we heard from last year’s attendees was how much they enjoyed meeting fellow food system professionals and enthusiasts. I loved seeing colleagues who I’ve known for years from different dimensions of the food system meet each other for the first time. It was a great reminder of how lucky I am to professionally sit like a big ol’ spider in the middle of our food web.

To bring it full circle, I am thankful to my students for lifting a jaded veil that I didn’t realize had settled over my world view. They reminded me that this work of local and sustainable food systems is vast and ever-changing, which means a lifetime of learning and discovery for a curious mind. There are always new allies to meet, new foods to try, new landscapes and histories to explore. I hope you also connect to your inner thirst for understanding, and I look forward to what you’ll teach me this spring.

Against Going it Alone for the Holidays

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To the holiday victor goes the turkey leg

Why, despite the advances of modern civilization, does junk mail persist? Shuffling through a random stack of flyers this weekend I was surprised to find a magazine-style mailer from [a mega grocer once known for ‘natural’ foods and now owned by the world’s largest online retailer]. The glossy pages offered a remarkable array of solutions for holiday culinary woes: readymade tofu-vegetable loaf for your vegetarian nephew and mandarin-glazed carrots to impress your snobby in-laws. The advertisement was clearly aimed at the overwhelmed host who felt terrified at the prospect of having to do-it-all and perform a perfect holiday feast. Well, nuts to that. Here’s my solution that will cost you much less than a pre-packaged holiday: make your friends help.

The Hubris of Holiday Meals

My partner Greg and I will host our 12th ‘Friendsgiving’ this year. We started the tradition in Oregon when everyone we knew was living far from their family, and we were coming into our own identity as adults. Making a holiday meal for the first time was both exhilarating and terrifying. My mother trained as a chef and always prepared stunning meals while I gladly reserved my energy for overly elaborate table settings. Even though I knew I should pace myself, I still committed to making the stuffing, a main dish, a side and dessert. Culinary hubris has been the demise of many a good intention.

Sure, we didn’t eat until about 8 p.m., but we gathered around the overloaded table and dug in eagerly. The stuffing was full of hazelnuts and wild mushrooms from the Oregon forest that surrounded us. Our friend Justin grilled a whole Coho Salmon he picked up from a Umatilla tribal member selling from the back of his truck. We listened to records and filled each other’s glasses. There was as much laughing as eating, and the tiny dance party at the end of the night culminated with us giving each other ‘airplane rides’ like we were little kids. It is a perfect, glowing memory that I cherish.

New home, new traditions

Since moving to Kentucky, our tradition has continued to grow, and we regularly host between 30 and 40 people for our epic mishmash potluck feast. Everyone is invited to bring their favorite dish and any spare friends in need of a home for the day. We’ve traded sourdough stuffing for cornbread, and there’s a little bit of sorghum in a lot of things. I make exactly as many dishes as I care to and not a thing more because I know I can count on our friends to do the rest.

While I mix in some new inspirations and cravings every year, since moving to Kentucky I always make a giant pan of decadent macaroni and cheese that is now our holiday staple. We’re fortunate that we can rely on our friend Matty to bring the turkey because I’m hopeless at cooking meat. Rian is good for at least one pie complete with a flaky buttery crust, and John insists on bringing his “Kris Kardashian Sweet Potato Soufflé” which, despite all appearances, is delightful. We light candles, give toasts, and sit around telling jokes, playing cards, and rubbing our full bellies into the wee hours.

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If you fits, you sits

Joyful Abundance

As I tell people, we may not be from Kentucky, but we got here as quick as we could. Traditions like Friendsgiving are a big part of what makes this place home: the familiar faces arriving at our door year after year, new friends we’re introduced to who may come for one meal or several before moving on, and the fact that people can count on us to always make a place at the table for them.

The joyful abundance of our Friendsgiving buffet is a testament to how much better our efforts are when we share in the work and the rewards. To take it a big step further, I offer my experience as an argument against rugged individualism. How tiring, and even tiresome the do-everything-oneself model of life. Just one person, one vision, one monologue of going it alone. A friend and chef one made a compelling case against restaurants that do everything in-house. Having spent the past few years getting to know bakers and butchers, I am very much in agreement. These artisans are very good at what they do and find great joy and satisfaction in honing their craft. Why is it better if some uber-chef takes that all on themselves?

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Turkey, pumpkin, and potstickers. A traditional Friendsgiving

We can have it all if we have it together

Why do we expect one person – one chef, one farmer – to do and be it all? Instead we can value the act relying on each other, and the freedom that interdependence allows us. While that may sound counterintuitive, when we know we can rely on others to bolster our weak spots, we are free to devote ourselves to that which we excel at: I don’t have to stress over roasting a dang turkey when I can count on Matty, which means I can put my everything into making a gut-busting over the top mac and cheese. Maybe we can have it all, as long as we have it all together.


Practical Magic at the Southeast Grain Gathering

The magic of the first Southeast Grain Gathering was practical in nature. For a day and a half UK’s South Farm was over run with grain enthusiasts huddling under tents and in farm sheds to watch, taste, and learn about a modest revolution happening for small grains in the Southeastern US. Small (grain) miracles abounded: 100% whole wheat croissants at breakfast, bags of freshly milled Kentucky-grown rye flour, flat beer transformed into delicious vinegar, and – most amazing- the fact that we kept Ouita Michael out of the lunch kitchen for almost ten whole minutes before she found and apron and dove in.

Big picture, small grains

The opportunity to convene all the best minds, hearts and hands on an issue to talk about the big-picture is all too rare. Those who excel at their vocation are prone to dive head long into perfecting their craft, and sometimes need the enticement of a good meal or a too-good-to-pass-up conversation in order to come up for air. This gathering was just such an opportunity, and boy did the grain magicians show up in force.

For the Biscuit Lab session, Mindy Merrell and R.B. Quinn prepared endless variations of buttermilk biscuits so we could observe for ourselves the impact of different variables of flour, leavening, and method. Their delight in experimenting with the flavor and texture of a wholewheat biscuit made from an heirloom, Kentucky grown wheat was matched only by the glee of the workshop participants. These were all people who delighted in their craft, and in the opportunity to learn more about their most essential ingredients: grain.

The radical notion of flavor

While watching and expert baker like Ryan Morgan create gorgeous bread out of freshly milled grain (and then eating the results) is a beautiful experience, for me the best part of the Grain Gathering was the least glamorous from a culinary perspective: the barley value chain panel. Farmers, maltsters, distillers and grain scientists sat elbow to elbow and shared their thoughts on how to connect the dots to bring Kentucky grown barley into our food system. We got well into the weeds in the best of ways.

At the heart of our Kentucky small grain research project is our quest to discover what dimensions of quality and flavor can be elicited from the land, from the hand of the farmer, from the know-how of the maltster, and the craft of the distiller, brewer, or baker. These shouldn’t be radical considerations, but in this moment in history and in our industrially oriented agro-food system… they are.

Full bellies, misty eyes, bright futures

During dinner I sat in between Hoppy Henton, a seasoned grain farmer from Woodford County, and RT Case, a farmer’s son whose just opened the doors on his own malt house in Cynthiana . We were only moderately misbehaved during the bourbon tasting, that is until Ben Abel, a Certified Organic farmer and former UK CSA manager, joined us and then all bets were off. Each of us collected an impressive array of small plates from multiple trips to the chef stations. The tender barley-filled cabbage rolls (aka Golumpki in my house) were my favorite. We were sated on every level.The the heat of the day broke as the sun set, and the warmth of the bourbon tasting settled into our bones. Looking across the tables filled with animated conversations, I recognized that the grain gathering embodied ‘local food’ in the way I’ve always cared most about: a community joining together to co-create a food system that places care for farmer livelihoods, vibrant food culture, and the health of the land at its center. By re-centering farmers and place (e.g. Kentucky) in the equation, regionally embedded grain systems carve out a unique, and potentially transformative space outside of the global commodity system.At the tail end of the evening I was introduced to a Certified Organic grain farmer from Illinois. He spoke of how he and his son are slowly gathering a network of like-minded farmers in his area, and how they recently built their own on-farm flour mill to supply local school districts. There is far more to his story than I can share here, but trust me that it is profound. Our conversation ended with misty eyes on both sides and a promise to make a trip north soon. He walked into the dusk dark to find his truck and I turned back to the tent to help clean up. It was a fitting end to a wonderful conference which itself felt like the start of something vital and important. A new chance to get to work.

Meet me at the fair

An unexpected treasure showed up in my mail this past month: the “Premium List & General Rules” for submission to the Kentucky State Fair. I had forgotten that last year after a heart-filling day of browsing everything from green beans to hay bales I signed my name on the list for possible future participants. Flipping through the 355 pages of rules governing entries like “New Quilt from Old,” I dreamed of someday having a ribbon winning entry of my own.

I imagine I’m preaching to the Food Connection choir when I confess a long-standing love of county and state fairs. I grew up in a community where at least a third of my classmates were absent from class the week of our county fair because they were showing animals. I’d go for the rides (how on earth did I ever think the ‘zipper’ was a good time?) but find myself lingering in the barns.

I envied the clear purpose and pride of the 4-H kids standing in their stalls. Everyone cleaned up and dressed in their country best, even (and especially) the livestock. Vegetables and home-baked pies lovingly displayed on judging tables, and that unique sense of pride you feel for a stranger when you see a blue ribbon awarded to their efforts.

Hay for the hay burners

A Taste of Place

As an adult, my favorite fairs are still in small counties, mostly because they offer a glimpse into the life of that place and it’s farming community. I’ve watched a family friend compete in a lawn-tractor pull (don’t laugh, it was serious), learned about the ties between pigeon breeding and immigrant communities, and even participated in a cross-cut saw competition (a story for another day).

My favorite entry. Definitely deserved a blue ribbon.

Forget the ludicrous deep-fried butter school of fair food – that’s stuff for city slickers – there are real culinary gems to be found if you know where to look. The first time I ever tasted concord grape pie was from a Mennonite food vendor at a Southern Ohio county fair, and it fundamentally changed my pie world-view. If you’ve ever visited the Bluegrass fair here in Lexington, while the traditional fair trappings are somewhat slim, there is an entire section dedicated Hispanic food vendors and music acts that is an entire fair onto itself. I had a mushroom pupusa there that I still dream about, and for this granddaughter of Polish immigrants, I can never get enough Tuba music.

Showing-Off Together

What I appreciate most about fairs is the opportunity they provide to show-off together. I love that people all across a region put their time in energy into raising or building or crafting something and put it on display to say “I’m proud of this.” The time of the judges and the attention of the fairgoers serves to say “We’re proud of you.”

Next year I’ll make Chef Tanay enter her ketchup

Instead of looking outside of the state or community for excellence or inspiration, a fair reminds us that we can also look to the talent and passion that is everywhere around us. The people showing their goats aren’t out for corporate sponsorship. While it’s unlikely that person who takes home the blue-ribbon for their zucchini bread will end up with a TV network deal, I’d imagine you can find one of their recipes in a church cookbook. It’s enough to be here in this place and celebrate each other.

Year of Kentucky Foodways

Which brings me to our theme for this year at The Food Connection. While in year’s past we’ve partnered with the College of Arts & Sciences “Passport to the World” program, this year we’re going to focus our attention on the past, present and future of Kentucky foodways.

Exploring new local food territory, we’re helping organize the Southeastern Grain Gathering in September which bring together farmers, bakers, brewers, millers, maltsters, and distillers from across the region and the nation to ‘geek-out’ on locally grown grains and their incredible flavors.

If I told you this was whole wheat bread, would you believe me?

We kicked off our culinary programming with our first “Cook with a Farmer” class with the Waterstrat family of Sustainable Harvest Farm, and we look forward to offering more in this series. We’ve also got an exciting schedule of classes on quintessentially Kentucky foods and their local champions; if you’ve never cooked with Sorghum this will be the year you learn!

And as always, our First Friday Breakfasts will highlight inspiring and innovative leaders working in our state’s local food system. Keep your eyes peeled for our newsletters and Facebook announcements to make sure you don’t miss out. It’s an exciting year and a full one. I look forward to seeing old and new faces while celebrating and learning more about this place I’m proud to call him. I hope you’ll join us.

Bill Best Award 2019

The Bill Best Award was established as a way to lift up the stories of people and organizations that might otherwise be taken for granted, but whose efforts are essential to the health and vitality of our state’s farm and food systems. When Sarah Fritschner’s name was put forward as a nominee, a collective light bulb went off: Of course!

I don’t remember how I met Sarah Fritschner. By that I mean I can’t remember when she wasn’t part of my professional life in Kentucky. What I can tell you is I always knew she was a deceptively unassuming force to be reckoned with. For the last decade Sarah has served as a value chain coordinator or someone who works behind and in between the scenes to forge the relationships and connections that allow farmers to get their product all the way from their farm to your table.

Sarah in Field

Before venturing into the value chain weeds, she spent more than 30 years as a journalist and food writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal. She’s also an author, penning at least six cookbooks, co-authoring a nutrition guide, and continues to write about food and farming for regional publications. At every step of her career, she’s been someone who strives to help her community realize the best in itself. She is a woman who follows her passion and her convictions, and in this, she’s been a great mentor and kindred spirit for many of us passionate about local food systems.

From the Ground Up

In many ways, Sarah built the field of value chain coordination from scratch: there were no footsteps to follow. I imagine she approached that challenge like everything else: she picked up the phone, she visited the farms, she kept on the buyers and checked on the product. She celebrated small victories and didn’t sweat setbacks. Drawing on her roots in journalism, she asks questions that she feels need asking, circles back, follows up and keeps on looking for a path forward. She can be a thorn in your side, usually in the best of ways; urging us to aspire to our highest purpose. Her eye is on the long game, not the short return.

To put it simply, her work has been critical to laying the foundation for the future of local food systems for our Commonwealth. I would venture that in she’s directly or indirectly put hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hands of Kentucky farmers that wouldn’t otherwise be there were she not pushing the envelope. Her advocacy for farm-impact purchasing set the stage for our University’s local purchasing goals, and her tireless efforts to find products and producers that were a good fit for our dining needs helped us succeed.

Aramark Reception

The world of value chain coordination isn’t glamorous. It’s full of hard negotiations and product experimentation, purchase orders, countless miles up  and down the highways, and a lot of “no” in the five years or so it takes to get to “yes.” The gentle irony in this award is that there’s a good chance she’s better known in national circles than in our state. In 2016 she was one of ten national leaders designated by the USDA’s FOODLINC program. She’s been profiled by national publications, and a quote from Sarah in a Southern Foodways Alliance interview beautifully encapsulate her unique combination of tenacity and humility: “Reflecting your community is a way to make your job easier, because you don’t have to come up with that. [With your community] you’re always learning, so whatever you’re giving to the community, you’re getting back at least equally, I think.”

Sage Wisdom

For anyone who’s jumped in head first into a new field, having someone to show you the ropes is invaluable. Rather than feeling exasperated or resentful towards a bunch of up-shots galloping haphazardly into an effort she’s been at for years, Sarah has always been generous with her knowledge, encouraging with her praise, and quick to collaborate and support however she can.  She’s someone I call for both counsel and consolation. She tries to grow the field, not defend her turf.

From Sarah, I’ve learned to take things less personally, which has been an invaluable life lesson. Other wisdom from the Fritschner book of life includes: Show up and do good work. Be both courteous and courageous. Go out of your way, but don’t make yourself miserable in the process. Root for the underdog, and don’t be afraid to speak truth to power. Hustle. Know that moving on doesn’t mean giving up. Celebrate the small victories; they’re what sustains you.

Some of the most important figures in your life will be the ones who give you good advice you don’t want to hear. When we’re grappling a frustrating farm-to-campus challenge, my colleague Dr. Ashton Potter Wright who runs Bluegrass Farm to Table will remind me of Sarah’s admonishment that “Anything you try to do that’s worth doing will take at least five years.” We’ll look at each other, sigh in recognition of the wisdom, and get back at it. In fact, that may be Sarah’s most enduring legacy: inspiring us all to get back to the good work of community.

Eulogy for a Mad Farmer: In memory of Don Halcomb

What is happiness but preparing its place?

What is its monument but a rich field?

-Wendell Berry, from “Prayers and Sayings of The Mad Farmer”

The focus of much of academia is our outputs: how many journal articles, scores on student evaluations, attendance at workshops, grant dollars brought in. The production of knowledge is cast in either the romantic light of the mad professor scribbling away in their office, or the cold rationality of the data table or lab report. I don’t think we talk enough about the soft and deeply personal side of our work, and the innumerable relationships that it takes to keep the intellectual machine chugging along.

Which is my overly intellectual way of avoiding my emotions and getting around to saying that the Kentucky agricultural community is grieving the loss of a beloved farmer. This past month Mr. Don Halcomb was laid to rest on his family’s seventh generation farm in Schochoh, an unincorporated community over in Logan County. Seems like everybody involved in farming knew Don or knew of his reputation as an independent spirit and a thought leader. Scott Smith once told me that Don “may be the smartest farmer in Kentucky.” For those of you who don’t know Scott, that’s high praise indeed.

Part of the Halcomb farm, site of our field day

First and last encounters

I first encountered Mr. Halcomb in abstentia. On a field-day at his family’s farm last summer I walked the test plots of barley and rye that they were growing in collaboration with UK extension researchers and stakeholders from the distilling industry. It was an almost painfully perfect day complete with a locally-sourced meal prepared by kids at the high school, and the kind of sparkling conversation that comes from passionate people sharing their knowledge and curiosity.

His two sons and their wives impressed me both with the graciousness of their hospitality and with their innovative spirit. Turns out they came by those traits honestly, thanks to Don. On one of the tables that day was a copy of a home-printed spiral bound booklet with the title “A 30 year Wheat Safari in Kentucky.” Inside was a speech Don had delivered to the Practical Farmers of Iowa in the summer of 2017 where he openly shared the lessons he’d learned experimenting with no-till farming and wheat breeding. I saw just enough flipping through the pages to know that if I wanted to understand the heart of a progressive farmer, he was a man I needed to meet.

Later that summer I was able to spend a day with Don, his sons, and his long-time friend and co-conspirator Dr. Dave Van Sanford. They showed me around Schochoh and we talked about the history of their farm. Our conversation wandered through farming, plant breeding, community, and family. I had hopes of returning for another visit, but time and Don’s progressing illness kept that from happening. I received regular updates from Dave and the family, and I sent what little support I could offer. In the end what I have is the audio recording of that one precious day, and I have been struggling with how to honor that gift.

Test barley on the Halcomb farm


While Mr. Halcomb is the subject of this story, it turns out I’m not quite ready to tell it. I’m not even sure it’s mine to tell. Which brings me to the question of how we as researchers and fellow food-system collaborators understand our relationships with each other. I owe Dave Van Sanford a great debt of gratitude for introducing me to the Halcomb family. As I told him, the relationships that we as researchers cultivate with our community are priceless; they are made through years of trust building, knowledge sharing, and mutual risk-taking. To bring me in to the fold of a 30-plus year relationship was an immeasurable honor. It also reminds me to sit with deep appreciation of the partnerships we’ve been so fortunate to develop through our work. This blurring of the line between the personal and professional is so hard to navigate and sitting with grief helps illuminate just how much we cherish each other.

Being at a loss, I’ll close with an excerpt from a letter I sent to Don before he passed, and the extension of my profound gratitude to all of you who are our Food Connection family.

“In telling the story of your trip to England, you referred to [another farm family] as “innovators for generations,” and it made me chuckle because that’s precisely how I’ve come to see your family: early no-till adopters, traveling the world to learn new farming lessons, developing new seeds to support farmer’s independence, funding wheat research to benefit farmers and eaters rather than just input suppliers, developing knowledge and markets to support estate grown grain. Innovators all the way down…

You also spoke about an English farmer who told you the best fertilizer is the “footprints of the farmer.” This strikes a deep chord with me… It is such good and humble work to tend the land, feed the people, and care for the community. I am so thankful for the footprints you’ve left for us to follow.”


If you’d like to make a donation in Don’s memory, the family has invited contributions to The Boys and Girls Club of Franklin-Simpson, Kentucky. Don was a long time supporter of their community garden efforts, and proud of their service to the community. You can donate via the donate button on their Facebook page, and add a note to your donation that it is in his memory: https://www.facebook.com/bgcfs/

Smiling Don (002)
In Memory of Don Halcomb: Husband, Father, Farmer, Neighbor, and Friend

The Stillness of the Earth

“Nature does not achieve balance by keeping to one level. Rather, elements and seasons alternate with one another in succession. Balance… is not stasis but a dynamic process of many overlapping alternations.” – Deng Ming-Dao

Stepping into the brisk morning air this weekend, the fleeting touch of a snowflake drew my eyes from my beleaguered mud field of a back yard (thanks both to torrential rains and my over-enthusiastic dog) to the muted-bright of the winter sky. Watching the snow fall between the branches of our birch tree, my mind drew paths from cycles of seasons and soil nutrients, and to complexity’s need for stillness.

Photo credit: Kentucky Division of Forestry

Going to ground

There is a stark beauty to winter that’s easily subsumed in habitual griping about the weather and our flailing efforts at ‘productivity.’ Our tendency to rely on unnecessary binaries (viewing the world in black and white terms) is evident in the assumption that if summer is good then winter, as its antipode, must be bad. Alternately, those who practice Bio-Dynamic agricultural believe that winter is the time when the earth’s energies turn inward, repairing and preparing for the exuberant work of summer to come. To quote Rudolph Steiner: “I know about what I am as man only when I don’t live along stolidly, but when I allow myself to be lifted up to the heavens in summer, when I let myself sink down in winter into the Earth mysteries, into the secrets of the Earth.” Our challenge is to resist the push to irrational business and do the same: turn inward, and accept winter’s call to the slow work of cultivating complexity.

Many moons ago, Dr. Krista Jacobsen made a heroic effort to teach me about the soil carbon and nitrogen cycles. With saintly patience well suited for winter, she walked me through the processes by which essential elements are taken-up, taken-in, and re-integrated into ever more complex molecules that are the bedrock of our corporeal world. Grappling with diagrams and flowcharts, I was struck by the almost mystical quality of the biophysical transformations indicated by a simple arrow; intimate relationships between soil-microbes, decomposing beings, the air above, earth below, and the water between. All that life transmogrified in the stillness of the earth.

The fallow field behind my parent’s house, and my mud-making dog

Fallow, not idle

If we find the joy in eating with the seasons, might we also explore what happens when we think with them? Slowing down from the raucous exuberance of summer, we might find unexpected gratitude for moments of planning and contemplation as we bundle up with blankets and books (or seed catalogs). We need not rush to solutions or action in these months of winter, but rather embrace the chance to grapple.

Winter is my best season for reading and thinking. I’ve been alternating my attention between a wonderfully befuddling book of social theory by Donna Haraway (full of sea-monsters and butterflies) with a more practical effort to learn about small-grain production. Bryan, our extension associate, and I have been parsing the fall’s lessons to see what needs distilling in publications or worksheets. Dr. Maynard has been sequestered in his office with student advising and syllabus revising, and Chef Tanya is keeping the kitchen full of the warm smells of slowly developing Burgoo and the methodical work of deep cleaning and reorganizing. We’re all sharing countless pots of coffee, clasping hot mugs between chilled hands and gazing out the window while our thoughts and plans coalesce.

Just as a fallow field is a site not of idleness but of hidden transformations, we have these days of waxing daylight to assemble the experiences we’ve gathered into new understandings and approaches. Working with the clarity of winter air, we can think with this season, abandoning our need to divide our world into the good and bad. Fueled by the quiet intensity of winter’s chill, at this moment between earth’s inhale and exhale, let us sink deep into the rhizomous processes of exploration and transformation and see what spring awakens.


Post Script: The title of this post is an allusion to the brilliant Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin in which a physical world defined by its never-ending changes and upheavals is referred to as The Stillness. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/books/review/nk-jemisin-stone-sky-broken-earth-trilogy.html