Kentucky's Ewe-turn


What a marvelous meal. This dinner reflects what Kentucky is, naturally, and what we can be.

First, we can grow the finest foods in the world, and restore our soils and streams to health.

Second, we can pay enough to our farmers and cheesemakers, our shepherds and bakers, cooks and winemakers, our ham and bacon curers and ketchup makers, and restore our families and communities to health.

Third, all of us, all Kentuckians, all our neighbors, can fill our plates and glasses from Kentucky’s bounty, and restore ourselves to health.

Abundant health is our natural birthright. We have been given the great raw materials: soil, water, weather, climate, sun, pasture, and forest. We inherit a culture of generosity, good cheer, humor, smarts, hard work, and a fierce commitment to self-sufficiency.

We can center our lives on these blessings. We can work on the missing pieces: transportation, distribution, processing.

With special events like this, we begin to see our way. How did our meal come to be, and to be so superb? Who and what contributed?

We can start from what’s beneath us. Everything we ate came from soil. Given that each tablespoon of soil contains an estimated 50 billion microbes, we probably do not have a word for a number large enough to estimate how many organisms helped feed us tonight.

Since those mysteries, along with the ways of water, sun, weather and climate, are outside my understanding, let’s move closer to the familiar. Let’s take a closer look at three Fs: festival, framework, and food.

But first, it’s joke time. I wanted to start with jokes, but sheepishly decided I didn’t know any good ones for this occasion. So I went looking online, and I still didn’t find any good jokes, but I found three really baaaaaad ones.

Q: What do you get when you cross a sheep and a porcupine? A: An animal that can sew its own sweaters.

One of the conference organizers offered to help with my speech. She said, “Meet me at the farm. Alpaca lunch.”

One more:

Q: Why was the sheep arrested on the freeway? A: Because she did a ewe-turn!

That U-turn is going to come in handy now.

Unlike quite a few fancy meals I’ve eaten in Kentucky in the past, tonight’s dinner was not Nebraska-raised prime rib, trucked 1700 miles to our plates. It was not frozen lobster tails from 1200 miles north. It was not New Zealand lamb from another continent. It was not lettuce from California.

We made a U-turn tonight, back to our OWN excellence: Kentucky lamb, Kentucky cooks, Kentucky wine, Kentucky conviviality.

Thank you, Kentucky Sheep and Fiber Festival organizers. You have set a model we each can follow in meals we organize for events, festivals, workplaces, churches, synagogues and mosques, civic groups, and institutions all year long, and wherever we live.

Let’s learn a little more about this event, using those three F’s.

Our first F is for festival. Good festivals speed positive change. They showcase excellence. They inform, educate, and connect. They inspire. They invigorate (though probably not the organizers.)

A festival comes from human effort. In this case, we have a measure of just how much effort from just one key person. Kathy Meyer, who farms in Bourbon County, and chairs this year’s festival, has to track her hours so she can report to funders. Acknowledging that she comes from a long line of workaholic caregivers, Kathy said, “In the last 4 years I have averaged 350 hours per year working, traveling, applying for grants, recruiting volunteers and sponsors for the festival.” Multiply Kathy’s efforts times the countless volunteers who produce this marvelous event, and we begin to approach those soil microbe numbers.

Festivals educate: key festival organizer and Woodford County sheep farmer Dianne MacDonald sees the festival as a wonderful showcase and educational opportunity. She says, "Most people do not live on farms and in many ways have lost awareness of the original source of their food and clothing and household goods.  The festival educates not just children, but also many adults, about where fiber comes from and how it is produced and processed.”

Festivals connect present and future producers. I have a favorite festival story about Good Shepherd Cheese in Bath County. We enjoyed Good Shepherd’s splendid work tonight. Isn’t their French-style cheese extraordinary?

Good Shepherd founders Sanford and Colleen Dotson went to the first Incredible Food Show five years ago, a Kentucky food festival that happens at Rupp Arena each fall. They took a workshop that Susan Miller taught about making goat cheese. Susan Miller of Bleugrass Chevre in (just barely) Fayette County pioneered in introducing all of us to local, luscious, creamy, mild goat cheese. And, early on, there she was in a conference room at Rupp Arena acting like Kentuckian, sharing generously what she had learned, trying to generate some more cheese-makers. And she succeeded. That workshop gave Sanford and Colleen the confidence to step on out into the unknown. Sanford says, “our goal has been to educate and introduce the public to the wonderful flavors and health benefits of sheep milk and sheep cheese.”

And there’s more to that story. Sanford told me, “Our daughter, Jenny, has grown by leaps and bounds in developing her sheep milk soaps.” That’s two small agriculture-based businesses that grew out of that one workshop in that one festival.

So, good festivals help in the work of re-knitting a food system of our own, built on our natural strengths. Relying on ourselves and our neighbors is part of our Kentucky cultural heritage, one we can rely on no matter what happens in Florida, California, Mexico and Peru. We are making a U-turn back to building up that instinct for self-sufficiency. We will never regret it.

Our second F is framework. Tonight we are benefitting from a strong framework of support and sponsorship for this event. Many of the Kentucky Sheep and Fiber Festival’s sponsors and contributors told me how (Kentucky) Proud they are to be part of this. They kindly helped me understand the reasons they provide essentials like facilities, money, dinnerware, and pitch-in labor for this event.

Carrie Davis, Agriculture Teacher at Locust Trace Agri-Science Farm in Fayette County, said involving high school students in producing the festival makes sense, for these reasons: "The KY Sheep and Fiber Festival sits at the crossroads of producer and consumer.  Locust Trace tries to teach our students to be responsible in regards to both roles.  In working with the Festival, we have also accomplished one other area of great importance—having our students work collaboratively with our agricultural community and build those ties that bind.”

For Mike Tobin of Kentucky Farm Bureau, support for this event boosts the agricultural economy. This event fits with Farm Bureau’s  nearly 100 years as “The voice of Kentucky agriculture,” working to solve problems and improve net farm income.

Sheep and fiber products are a rapidly growing and needed segment of agriculture.

For Carrie Johnson of the Fayette County Farm Bureau, where we stand tonight, promoting and showcasing agricultural diversity in a post tobacco economy warrants Farm Bureau’s piece of the framework. Carrie said,

“...with sheep and small ruminants there is the fiber portion of the business for people who would like to develop their crafty side and market products made from the fiber.  Sheep and goats not only can be used for meat, but there is also the dairy side and cheese making with huge potential.”

Lexington Fayette Urban County Government Parks and Recreation helped out in all manner of ways, first by keeping this grand park for us every day, having it ready for use. They also helped with dinnerware, promotion, and many other tasks. I want to be sure you know something else about Parks and Rec. They have expanded their commitment to making sure kids at their pools find it easy AND cool to make healthy food choices at the concession stands. From a starting point of three percent healthy foods when Parks and Rec embraced the Better Bites program three years ago, this summer 61 percent of food at participating pools will be wholesome and good for our kids. This is downright smart and forward thinking. It’s such a big U-turn, they deserve a medal. Woven of some fine Kentucky fiber of course.

I missed talking with people from the Kentucky Sheep and Wool Producers Association or the Kentucky Sheep and Goat Development Office. I know they are playing a big role here, and are part of the ongoing framework of support for sheep and fiber production in the Commonwealth. I realized I had omitted these important people when I went to print my emailed tickets for tonight’s event. it was from Kelly Yates of the Sheep and Goat Development Office. Kelly had me at this sentence:  “You are in for a special experience that will open your eyes to the most versatile and special animals in the Bluegrass—sheep.” Thank you, Kelly, for all you and these associations do.

Anne Hopkins is general manager at Good Foods Market & Café in Lexington. Good Foods—better known as The Coop—provided ingredients and side dishes for the dinner: and weren’t they delicious?

For Good Foods, being part of the framework for this event makes sense because it brings attention to the importance of growing our own food system. Supporting this Festival, Anne says, yields more awareness of the growing importance of local food and fiber production. Good Foods, with 41 years experience is in the front of the U-turn, already sells products grown by more than 200 local growers, and reaches for more. Anne says, "As a consumer whose favorite meat is lamb, I can’t grow that in my back yard in Lexington. But I can support our local farmers by growing our local food system and putting dollars in our farmers’ pockets so they can stay on their land."

Executive Chef John Foster, head of the Sullivan Culinary Arts Program here in Lexington, explains Sullivan’s piece of the framework, which, like Locust Trace, involves building young people’s capacity to carry excellence forward.

Chef John said, “To me, the involvement of Sullivan University's culinary department is just the natural progression of teaching and learning about the world that these students will soon be involved in. Working with the Festival has provided a base from which the students can appreciate the hard work that goes on before the food hits their kitchens, and the many people it takes to make that seem effortless.”

Tonight it did seem effortless to those of us at this dinner, and we thank the Sullivan chefs again for this fine meal.

And so we come to our third F, the food itself. We’ll add a D, for Food and Drink. Let’s learn a bit about the origins of the food and wine we have shared, from those who produced some of what we just enjoyed.

Jim Mansfield of Four Hills Farm in Mercer County grows lamb for Marksbury Farm Market, which provided tonight’s spectacular main course.

I asked Jim the impossible question, “Why do you farm?” He said,  “I grew up in Vermont, in farm country. I was always interested in agriculture. I’ve tried several different farm ventures. My mother was a gourmet cook. I wanted to raise good quality food. When I moved to central Kentucky it became clear to me it’s a fantastic area for forages—alfalfa, clover, grasses.”

Jim went with what is natural on the land he farms—forages, and the animals that transform forage into food and useful products for humans. On the Four Hills Farm website, I learned that raising these now popular sheep on pasture yields “high levels of beneficial CLA [that’s Conjugated Linoleic Acid, and it’s good for us] and favorable Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acid ratios.”

Turning Kentucky grass into food that boosts Kentuckians’ health is a core commitment at Marksbury Farm Market in Garrard County. When I asked Marksbury co-founder Preston Correll about Marksbury’s support for this dinner, he said that although horses and cattle get most of the attention, “At Marksbury we are all about pasture and I feel strongly that our pasture in Kentucky is perhaps our most valuable naturally occurring asset.  To fully utilize this resource a multi-faceted production system including many ruminants and grazing animals is required.  As an efficient species of livestock having unique foraging preferences and able to produce multiple products, sheep are a critical tool in the development of our pasture." 

Harkey Edwards of Harkness Edwards Vineyards in Clark County says “The thrust of Harkness Edwards Vineyards is Kentucky agriculture” naming agriculture and its potential itself as a reason Harkness Edwards supports the Sheep and Fiber Festival.

When I visited the Cathy and Harkey Edwards at Harkness Edwards vineyards a couple of months ago, the grape vines were just beginning to wake up, Harkey said. We could see clear sap drops forming at pruned tips.  Harkey told me about years of planting vines and ripping them out, and a bit about making wines and then pouring them out, working to get it all right. [And he and Cathy did get it supremely right, didn't they?]

Harkey said, "I keep at this because I want to show our neighbors that it's possible to make a living on this land out here." A healthy agriculture and a healthy community of neighbors involved in agriculture are, for Harkey and Cathy Edwards, sufficient cause to persist. And persistence is demanded in the face of vine deaths and wine failures. Patience transcends virtue to become a necessity when learning, from scratch, how to coax healthy plants to produce good grapes in the specific Harkness Edwards Clark County soil. I have a hard time reckoning up the perseverance required to go through the trial and error process of learning to transform those grapes into delicious wines.

I resonated to Harkey’s statement about showing the neighbors that it’s possible to make a living on their land. I bet you did, too.  It's a spirit and an ethic that's natural to Kentucky and that we need to cultivate abundantly if we are to complete our U-turn and develop a sound agricultural economy in our splendid agricultural place.

That U-Turn is underway. Here is one piece of evidence.

Let’s look back behind us a short 23 years, to Saturday, May 19, 1990. Pat Day won the Preakness aboard Summer Squall. The Dow Jones had a good week, reaching three new highs, but closed down 11 points on Friday at 2819.

Here’s what did not happen that day. No group of Kentucky sheep farmers, fiber producers, artisans, chefs, and cheese-makers produced a Kentucky Sheep and Fiber Festival in Lexington. No gardeners, cooks, and artisans offered a Mays Lick Asparagus Festival in Mason County. No collection of herb growers hosted a Kentucky Herb Festival in Frankfort. No state agency presented a Kentucky Wine and Vine Fest in Nicholasville. No collaboration among craft breweries yielded a Craft Beer Week in Lexington. All these events have been invented since 1990, and all of them are taking place on May 19, 2013.

Although trusted, venerable organizations like Farm Bureau, Parks and Rec, Good Foods Coop and the Bluegrass Classic Stockdog Trial were in place in 1990, many of the producers of this dinner were not, including Jim Mansfield’s Four Hills Farm, Marksbury Farm Market, Harkness Edwards Vineyards, and Locust Trace Agri-Science Farm.

We are making a U-turn toward our source of greatness, which is our place, the Commonwealth of Kentucky. It’s a U-turn from family policies that say “We’ll buy it at the grocery store,” and from hospital and jail policies that say “We’ll buy it from the cheapest supplier, we won’t grow any of it ourselves, and we won’t require any of it to be local.” It’s a U-turn from civic group policies that say “We’ll just get our refreshments at the discount store.”

In fact, we in Kentucky are in a U-turn that amounts to resettling America, to use a Wendell Berry term. If young people are not coming home to your town and county yet, get the broadband and wifi ready. They will be there soon.

Our soil, water, weather, climate, knowledge, culture, and longings all point toward our natural heritage as self-sufficient people. We can feed ourselves, even clothe ourselves, and shelter ourselves and our neighbors from the abundance that is Kentucky. We are turning toward placing high value on that again. We are making this U-turn toward what is naturally right for our health and our future.

Each of us can put a hand on the wheel and help make this U-turn. Press for local products in your grocery store. Patronize your farmers’ market or start one if you don’t have one. Pay what the farmer asks. Lobby your hospital to serve patients wholesome, locally grown food. Make a small personal loan to a farmer who needs to build a new shed, or a baker who plans to feature local fruit in homemade pies. Work on your state park’s local food offerings. Plant your own fruit trees and vegetables. Raise a few hens. Compost your food scraps.

We know how to to do this. We almost forgot, but, by the grace of heaven, working through the kind of people who produced this event and the food and drink tonight, we can turn. We are turning.

I will close with two short sections from “The Bringer of Water,” a play in verse form that Wendell Berry wrote, first published in 1967 in Farming: A Handbook. In these passages I hear the hope for what we have not yet lost, a trust in our natural turning to the stream of blessed life that  we can trust to sustain us.

 It is the middle of a breathtakingly hot Kentucky summer day. You know that kind of day.

Hannah Feltner, young widow of Virgil Feltner, who was killed late in World War II, is going to a spring to fill buckets with fresh spring water to take to men working in her father-in-law’s fields. Hannah's young nephew, Henry Catlett, and Old Jack Beechum go along for the walk.  (This work precedes Mr. Berry's indelible novel, The Memory of Old Jack.) Old Jack is 84 in these passages. Hannah offers Old Jack a cool dipper of spring water. He says:

That’s good. That spring never
has gone dry in my time,
though I’ve seen it dwindle
mighty small once or twice.
I stopped and drank here
when I was a boy, younger
than this boy, and my daddy
before me stopped and drank
here, and his daddy before him.

Moved by his thoughts, he turns away from them and goes on ahead by himself.

A long time back that spring
was flowing, cool in the summer,
in winter too warm to freeze,
pooled still and clear
where the water catches and brims
on the rock. While we’ve worked
and taken pleasure and suffered
and died here, it has flowed
like the sound and the feel
and the taste of what this ground
has been to us—kinder to us
mostly, than we’ve been to it.
It has been the turning toward us
of the womankindness of the earth.