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Strengthening the chain: Local farmers markets hope to help supply chains in Kentucky

Farmers Market in Slade, Kentucky
Crystal Jones
Farmers Market in Slade, Kentucky

“You know, Eastern Kentucky has so much opportunity in the whole garden industry, in the farmers selling to local restaurants.” Dario Ventura, is the owner and head chef at Red Point BBQ. We spoke at his home in Red River Gorge, where he’s putting his newborn son down for a nap.

“And it would just be kind of cool to rewrite the whole narrative that Eastern Kentucky, maybe, should be known for cool restaurants and gardens.”

Dario is also the son of Susan and Miguel Ventura, of the well-known Miguel’s Pizza where he spent his childhood. I asked him where the Venuras had been getting their ingredients for both restaurants, starting with Miguel’s, nearly three decades ago.

“Miguel’s started so small, that to be one hundred percent honest there was no food delivery out here,” said Dario, “back then it was you drove to Lexington you shopped at a grocery store you picked up what you needed. And then my parents at the time were hippies from new England who were big into the mail ordering world.”

Out of a necessity to feed fellow rock climbers visiting the area, their business grew, so did their familiarity with the surrounding local farmers. What would be the start of multi-generational practice of sourcing local.

Dario tells me, that’s when the relationships between farmers and restaurants began to take hold. “Started going ok, well, how are we going to get these good ingredients?”

Our conversation was inspirited by a recent report by the James Beard Foundation that takes a close look at our global food supply chain and all the things that seem to be wrong with it. This topic is broad and merits further reporting, but this story focused one element of the supply chain that encompassed so many others. Distance.

The distance our food had to travel brings a lot of issues such as disease, shelf life and availability of fresh foods. In areas like Slade Kentucky, small farmers are eager to grow their business and their crops for a more local clientele. Significantly reducing the distance that the food had to travel.

Which brings us to the farmer market in Red River Gorge. A circle of colorful canopies is tucked beneath the trees at the base of the Sky Lift here in Slade. It’s early, but some farmers are already sold out when I arrive an hour after opening. There’s soft mandolin music emanating from the tree line along with the smell of fresh kettle corn, sourdough, and the earthy aroma of vegetables and mushroom.

I here to meet the farmers and coordinators who are part of a local supply chain that is demonstrating how farm to table relationships like the one in Red River Gorge could be the model of success for the future of food supply.

“Now let’s say you fast forward to just five years ago and where our demand is huge, somebody like the guy that grows for us in Menifee co almost 80% of his garden is being bought by Miguel’s and Red Point,” said Ventura. Dario and Miguel do much of their shopping here at the market during peak season as well.

Emily Foster is the Markets Assistant Manager and greets me at the information table where volunteers hand out recipe cards and assist vendors and visitors.

She tells me that the market is “a great community builder, you get to know so many people.” As we chat, a market regular and local finds us, and asks Emily about her Swiss chard. It’s evident that the relationships here have more to do with the food.

Emily elaborates on my observation, “We have an interesting mix here at this market of local people who are from here, people who move here for outdoor recreation, and tourist.”

The James Beard Foundation recently has released their findings in an inquiry into the state of our global food supply chains and found that in the US, Local food producers now sell 76% of their products directly to consumers, markets, and institutions. Markets like this one are where those relationships begin for many small farmers.

Emily said the majority of those selling here today have come here hoping to make that connection for themselves.

“In terms of the market,” she said, “I think it’s definitely something that all of our vendors are trying to grow. I think it is growing; a lot of these farms are small family farms, and it can be hard to support some of those bigger restaurant demands but I think all the restaurants around here have been really supportive and willing to do what they can to support small farms.”

Jann Knappage and Kevin Gurtowski, met at a farmers’ market, and after getting married and starting a small farm, they realized the need for a place where they could network with others in the farming community and sell their goods. That’s when two small farmers came up with a big idea.

“My partner Kevin and I are the founders of the market, and this is our fourth season.” Says Jann, who also said the market has helped build the relationships between farmers and those seeking their produce. “Working with our tourism commission that has been huge for us, and once you find a partner, ask them to connect you to someone else. We’ve just seen those partnerships grow each year.”

Making close connections is helping close the distance in the supply chain here in The Gorge. That same study from the James Beard Foundation says the average delivery on the global food chain is around four thousand miles in a item’s life cycle from garden to plate.

Heather Graham is a farmer vending at the market, she also happens to be the Eastern Kentucky Value Chain Coordinator for the University of Kentucky. She said this market, boasts very local produce.

“On average, looking around at the people here I would say have a 30 to 40 minutes’ drive to get to the market,” And she said there are benefits of getting food from such a close supplier, “So when you’re purchasing directly from a farmer, especially with produce, it is going to have a longer shelf life because it’s not spent the four or five days in transit. You're getting more bang for your buck.”

A local supply chain offers mass quality, but there’s the reality of quantity. How can a handful of small farmers produce enough vegetables and beef to supply a growing restaurant industry? In Kentucky, the state has recognized the opportunity and is creating programs to assist farmers in continuing to connect with the community

” Positions like I work off the farm, there are value chain coordinators, three of us across the state, east central and west Kentucky. We can help farmers get into distributors, or school systems or the hospitals,” said Graham.

These programs could help more farmers like Jann and Kevin, open more markets like this one, and connect with the restaurants in their areas. Growing the community one relationship at a time has allowed these people to repave the road to success for areas like East Kentucky who are trying new things to secure our future. Building on the ingredients of a successful supply chain; locality, logistics and loyalty.

Tourism is one of Kentucky’s fastest growing industries, increasing the likelihood that Dario Ventura’s outlook for the region may become a reality, but he said, the sustenance provided by markets like this one, isn’t just provided by the produce.

“So now that everything’s just blown up and it’s this big touristy zone, there’s still all these interconnecting webs of memories and friends and experiences that we kind of all just share being in the Gorge over the years,” said Dario, as he glances over at his sleeping son with a grin.

Which recalls word of the late Anthony Bourdain, “The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself."

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