BY: Erin Hester
In August, I had the privilege of spending time in Allen County with the good people of Need More Acres Farm. I had been in touch with Michelle Howell about visiting the wildly successful Community Farmers Market in Bowling Green so that we could share their secret to success with other communities across Kentucky (Spoiler alert: There is no silver bullet). Michelle suggested I visit her farm so we could spend time talking about their projects and she could show me around.
Now, I’ve lived in Kentucky my whole life – home to over 14 million acres of farmland and 85,500 farms. The closest I’ve been to a “farm girl” is watching my mom grow basil in clay pots on the back porch. That being said, when I am around a farmer, there’s this powerful force drawing me in and the next thing I know, I’m trying to convince my husband why we should quit our jobs, buy a farm, and live off the land.
So obviously I leaped at the opportunity to visit the farm.
When I arrived, Michelle’s husband Nathan was out harvesting squash while their son Carter was packaging up the sweet corn for the farmers’ market that afternoon. Michelle gave me a tour of their home and shared important details about their labor of love and the day-to-day operations of the farm. We were joined by their three daughters Elizabeth, Lilah, and Adaline who swapped stories about harvesting brussel sprouts in the winter, finding treasures in the freshly tilled land, explaining plans for next year’s crops, and showing me how they process fruits and vegetables for the community in their certified farm kitchen (the first of its kind in Kentucky).
The Howells have an incredible story about the personal journey their family took to discovering the power of fresh, local food, the winding path that led them back to full-time farming, and their passion for sharing this way of life with others in the community. Michelle grew up with a deep understanding that accessing healthy food is simply not affordable. This experience is largely the driving force behind their dedication to bringing healthy produce into underserved parts of the community.
Need More Acres Farm is unique in that they depend on homestead farm members (all you can eat) for almost 70% of their yearly income. These twelve households estimate that 80% of their daily food intake comes directly from the farm. This model allows Need More Acres to keep a strong connection with their customers every week while committing the remaining 30% of their produce to creating better food access. These heart-warming opportunities include delivering watermelons to Allen County schools for student lunches, processing mini veggie snack cups for HOTEL INC clients, and supplying a taste-testing, mini-farmers’ market activity in conjunction with the Core’s kids summer meal service program site.
“You hear all the time, ‘A farmer doesn’t really want to get to know their customer. They want to pull in the front door with cabbage and have coleslaw coming out the back,’” said Michelle. “I think that may be true for commodity crop farmers but that mentality just doesn’t work for small scale farming. You can’t change the mindset of the consumer and get them to buy your fruits and vegetables if you don’t connect with them and build a relationship together.”
And I think she’s right: Farmers are providing more than just food to people. They are helping co-create our food stories. They encourage us to try new foods and share how we can serve them to our families. Farmers guide us to discover local foods in new ways so that one day, our families will look back and describe the dish as “cooking that brings me back home.” And we are willing to expand our personal food traditions because of the trusting relationship we’ve built with the farmer.
“When you meet a farmer, it helps people rediscover real food,” said Michelle. “We’ve found on our farm tours that there are so many parents who remember going to their grandparents’ farm and are desperate to share that experience with their children.”
At some point, it seems we’ve lost touch with what real food is. I spent the majority of my life thinking carrots, soup, sandwiches, and ice cream alike all came from Kroger. Period. When we put a face to a person who grows food, it forces you to reconnect with what whole foods are and discover ways to build them back into your diet.
As my day drew to a close with the Howell family, I headed into town so I could get a taste of their famed heirloom tomatoes at the farmers’ market. I ran into Nathan and he humbly pointed out, “I was picking these zucchini this morning when you drove up!” With that, I bought a carload of produce and headed home.
For me, I found that getting to know your farmer is about more than just understanding where your food comes. There is something powerful about meeting the families behind the food. They are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, friends and neighbors—just like you and me. They go to school (or home school), play with their friends, post to Facebook, worry about how to “get it all done”—just like you and me.
Except they have dedicated their lives to feeding other families – they have this amazing responsibility to grow the food that satisfies and nurtures our most basic human needs. This farm family taught me that each time I reach for a piece of local food, that experience connects me directly with another family in the community. And that relationship is something I’ll never find at any chain store.
For more information about Need More Acres Farm, visit their website or follow their family farming adventures on Facebook and Instagram. All photos are courtesy of Michelle Howell.