Kentucky is home to so many interesting people. Often, these people have transplanted themselves from far-off exotic places (like New Hampshire). One such transplant I love is my friend Catherine Seiberling Pond. Catherine started an amazing blog called Grow Casey County, where she has written about the unique culture of one of Kentucky’s great counties. (There is a strong self-reliant spirit in Casey County, with many folks growing their own everything. Combine that with the large Mennonite population and Casey County becomes a very desirable place to live or at least visit for anyone interested in self-reliance and sustainability.) Her devotion to promoting the area, without financial compensation, should be a great example to all of us who want to encourage economic activity where we live.
Catherine is an architectural historian, author, local foods advocate, and just a generally wonderful human being. She and her husband are raising beef cattle for market at their farm, Valley View Farm in Nancy. The beef is pasture raised, without growth hormones and completely free of chemicals. Right now, they are selling their cattle at general auction but are looking for ways to sell directly to buyers or the consumer. Catherine has agreed (after much coercion) to answer a few questions for Sustainable Kentucky.
SK: You and your family moved to Kentucky and bought a sizable farm that you and your husband now run. Why the transition and how has that gone?
We were in New England, where we were both raised, and about eight years ago bought the farm I had grown up on. That didn’t go so well, for many reasons, and we realized that we both needed to leave our familiar and start again. At the time my husband was about 50 and I was in my mid-40s. We started thinking about other parts of the world and had heard great things about Kentucky: its fine and affordable farmland, a transitional state between the South and the North, a diverse geography and demographic, a longer growing season, and the reality that winters were not as harsh as in New England. We came on a visit and stopped at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill: the farmer there said we should look at Casey County for its rolling hills and open farmland. Thanks to the Internet, we immediately got in touch with a great real estate agent and bought our first piece of land (ironically in nearby Pulaski County, but just over the line). We were attracted by the Old Order Mennonite community, the rolling farmland, and open fields with woods and valleys (“hollers”), and just said to each other, in classic David Byrne fashion, “this must be the place.”
We’ve been here four years full-time as of late July and we’ve put together our own family farm from several adjacent parcels. Everything has happened at the right moment, unlike when we seemed to be swimming in molasses with the purchase of our farm in New England.
It’s been a great transition but not without a few natural pitfalls and general cultural misunderstandings. There are times that I get “house sick” for the places we left behind, and for the friends, certainly, but nothing an occasional trip north won’t remedy. I realize, a few months shy of 50, that this is just what I needed, as well as what our family needed. Our two boys love growing up on the farm and helping with the cattle and the haying and our daughter is even visiting for a long stretch. It is now “home” and that is a powerful word that means a lot to each of us. People probably think we’re crazy (our most common question is “Why Kentucky?” or “What brought you here?”) but we’ll take it.
SK: What are some things that you have found enjoyable about living in Kentucky versus other places you have lived?
I have to say that I really appreciate not being from here: it keeps things lively, fresh, and on our toes. We have no history here, which can be difficult, but also refreshing. The other two places I’ve lived, we were just a part of things: people knew us, or our families, and there were certain expectancies, comfort zones, or familiarities. There’s something quite liberating about being pioneers and getting out of your comfort zone, but it can be scary, too. The drawback is that you can’t necessarily fall back on family or old friends, but you learn to be self-reliant and to muster up new and unexpected friendships with neighbors and other people you meet along the way.
Other favorite things about living Kentucky are the friendly nature of the people we’ve met; the attention to value, faith, country (even if we might have somewhat more liberal approaches to things); and enjoying and exploring the very diverse parts of the state. We can drive to Lexington and back in one day, and then return home to our own quiet farm.
I also love the amazing wildflowers in our prolonged Appalachian springs, the beautiful seasons, and the renewed attention to farming. There’s something for everyone. The stereotypes are there if you want to look for them, as in any part of the world, but what I say consistently to friends around the country is that Kentucky is a surprising place to be, to not be put off by what you read and hear. It’s the last place I thought I would ever call home and yet it’s the right place.
SK: Can you give those of us who have never visited Casey County a quick rundown of what we wouldn’t want to miss if we made a day trip there?
If I only had a day, I would visit the Old Order Mennonite community on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday (in season) and attend the Casey County Produce Auction (Monday and Wednesday at 2pm, and Fridays at 5pm) where you can get great deals on seasonal produce and flowers. I would probably have lunch at The Wagon Trail, just up from the auction (and open Monday-Saturday, 11am-7pm), where you can get a fine sandwich or salad (and great milkshakes!). I would also hop along South Fork Creek and visit Misty Mountain Sales for kitchen items, Sunny Valley Country Store for bulk foods, and Hillside Greenhouse and Lavern’s for produce. There are many other farms in the region but they aren’t necessarily open to the public. Mervin and Paul Hoover and their families run the latter four businesses that I just mentioned and do a fine job. There are several other greenhouses in the area and you can make a day of it just going from greenhouse to greenhouse in the spring.
On the fourth Saturday in March or October you can also catch a great Mennonite sale/auction at the corner of Hwy 127 and 501.
SK: Your most recent book was a history of the pantry (and a delightful read despite a subject matter that must have been tough to make entertaining). I know also that you are a big advocate, particularly since you live so far in the country, of keeping a well-stocked pantry and eating from that. Do you have tips for those of us who don’t eat or plan our meals that way?
The book grew from a lifetime love of pantries: their history, nostalgia, spatial cuteness (Laura Ingalls Wilder waxed rhapsodic for pages about the pantry that Almanzo built for her in These Happy Golden Years.) You can “can” just about everything: trust me, I’ve canned most everything but the utility drawer (and those items would look nice in a Mason jar now that I think about it). It’s easy to learn and as long as you have a local farmer or farmer’s market, or your own garden, it’s a fairly affordable thing to do. So we can (or freeze) local produce in season and I also buy things on sale. I’m not a coupon clipper, but when Kroger has a 10 for $10 sale, I’m there. I also buy a lot in bulk at Sunny Valley Country Store in Casey County or at the larger box stores in Lexington several times a year. We have several freezers and several pantries. I don’t have to rely on the grocery store so much. I also like to cook and bake and sometimes just do without, if it’s not in the pantry. We also keep chickens for eggs and meat and raise our own beef and pork. Eventually we’d like to have a milk cow for our own milk.
Anyone, even people in suburban homes, can be more frugal about food purchasing. Get a chest freezer for your garage or mud room. Buy on sale, buy some/freeze some (or can or store it by devoting part of a cellar or a full closet to a food pantry), and make meals for the week ahead if you are busy. Buy ingredients for a few meals and make them stretch: cook them up on a Sunday afternoon. It’s a proven fact that feeding a family at a fast-food restaurant is actually more expensive than buying decent vegetables and whole foods. Sadly, we are taught to think that isn’t so.
SK: Give us a quick rundown of what home-made items we might find in your pantry at any given time.
Let’s see: ketchup (homemade ketchup is so much better than store-bought), several kinds of pickles, all kinds of jams and jellies, apple butter, canned fruits, tomatoes in all forms, breads, even vanilla. This year I want to make and can sauerkraut. It’s a natural antibiotic and we all love a good Reuben sandwich!
SK: Favorite reads related to the topic of sustainability:
Right now I’m reading everything written by Joel Salatin. He is an inspiration and my husband and I can learn a lot from his farming practices. His recent Folks, This Ain’t Normal is kind of a primer on how to live life and raise a family as much as how it is to live on a sustainable farm. Wendell Berry in any form (nonfiction, fiction, poetry, essays) can’t be beat for inspiring life on a farm or on the planet. I also like to revisit the writings of Louis Bromfield from the 1940s-50s. His Malabar Farm in Ohio is now preserved as a state park and his agrarian writings are what inspired my grandparents to flee urban New Jersey for their own farm in New Hampshire. I also enjoy the pastoral writing of Verlyn Klinkenborg and you can’t beat Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver for really inspiring one to try to eat locally.
SK: What’s your favorite fresh-from-the-garden recipe or meal?
Hands down, zucchini casserole. Take medium-to-large zukes and summer squash and slice thin. Slice up a big sweet onion. Slice up some fresh heirloom tomatoes (Brandywines are great, but any large ones will do). Grease a large 13×9 dish and layer the squash with the onions and shredded cheese of your choice. Sprinkle a bit of kosher sea salt or fresh ground pepper in between layers. Top with a full layer of large, thinly sliced, tomato planks and top that with a layer of sliced mozzarella cheese. Bake at 350 for about 40-45 minutes until nice and bubbly. It’s like veggie lasagna and my entire family loves it at this time of year. If you want some meat in there, add a layer of browned up ground beef or turkey. (And it’s gluten-free!)
SK: Favorite Kentucky farm or farms?
I love the Hurst farm in Casey County–owned by Old Order Mennonite friends and distinguished by their red round barn. They grow amazing cantaloupes and watermelon each summer (their home is 500 Dry Fork Road off of Hwy 910 if you want to stop by for some). We like to visit the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, which has its own working farm. Another great one, and fairly new to Casey County, is MeadowBrook Orchards and Farm in the western part of the county, near Elk Horn. Diana Paluy and Bruce Gruber grow all kinds of heirloom tomatoes there, among other things, and have started an heirloom fruit orchard. They are eagerly looking for new markets for their seedlings and tomatoes.
Catherine has kindly agreed to give away a copy of her beautiful book, The Pantry: Its History and Modern Uses, to one lucky reader. Just leave a comment and let us know your favorite Kentucky-made pantry product for your chance to win! Winner will be notified via email on August 28th.
To keep up with Catherine, follow her beautiful blog, Farmwife at Midlife. (Even if you aren’t much of a reader, the pictures alone are worth stopping by!)
(All photos in this post courtesy Catherine Pond.)
Congratulations to Melissa Greenwood, winner of our giveaway! Comments are now closed.