The American farm family is quickly becoming a rare breed.
In fact, farm families make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, and most research suggests the average American is at least three generations removed from the farm.
With that separation, comes common misconceptions about farming practices and the agriculture community.
Two local farm families have collaborated to start reconnecting Clark County’s youth with the world of agriculture.
Through an annual farm to table-style dinner, the Gilkisons and Reeces are raising funds to support their mission.
Reece Farm: An unexpected success
Raising a farm family wasn’t exactly where Brandon and Amy Reece saw themselves when they were married 13 years ago.
Although Brandon’s parents always raised a garden, he wasn’t eager to be involved as a child.
“We always had a garden growing up,” he said. “And I hated it. I wanted nothing to do with it.”
The couple had a “similar friend group,” but didn’t start dating until after they graduated from George Rogers Clark High School in 1999.
There were married in 2004, and Amy landed a job with Clark County schools, while Brandon went to work as a firefighter in Lexington and worked construction on his “days off.”
When the couple began looking for a home, they landed near where Brandon was raised in rural Clark County.
And, despite Brandon’s early aversion to gardening, the couple decided to raise a small plot at their new home on Judy Pike.
“The first summer we lived here, we just had a small garden,” Brandon said. “It wasn’t until 2012, when my dad retired from his job, that he wanted to raise a big garden. I told him we had plenty of room at our place, so we raised about a tenth of an acre that first year.”
The small garden yielded more than the families could eat, freeze, can or even give away, so they joined the Winchester-Clark County Farmers’ Market to sell some of their produce.
“We had some success selling what we considered the leftovers that year at the market,” Brandon said. “We had some cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, bell peppers, your typical stuff. That was when the market was in the museum parking lot and there were only about five regular vendors at the time.”
After seeing some success at the market, the Reeces decided to expand, and from then on, the expanding hasn’t stopped.
“The county was in a bit of a transition at the time,” Brandon recalled. “The agriculture extension agent was retiring and they were in the process of hiring a new one. Along came David Davis and he had a horticulture background from North Carolina. With his background and our interest in expanding, we grew.”
Through the connection, the Reeces were partnered with the University of Kentucky for a black plasticulture program.
“Pretty much everything we do is with that plastic,” Brandon said. “It helps with weed competition. We can fertilize exactly what the plant needs at the root base and we can control the amount of water the plants get.
“That year, we had an acre of vegetables. The university came out and showed us how to lay the plastic, they provided some of the materials, and we supplied the rest along with the labor and plants.”
The Reeces continued raising “your normal produce” — tomatoes, beans, corn, bell peppers, banana peppers, squash and zuchinni — until David introduced them to what has perhaps become their signature crop.
“It was in our second year David started talking to me about strawberries,” Brandon said. “His dad had always raised strawberries and I like to eat strawberries, so we thought it might be something good to raise.”
The following year, the Reeces raised about 2,000 strawberries, while also adding more than a dozen hens for eggs.
“To be quite honest, that first year of strawberries was a complete failure,” Brandon said. “We didn’t really know what we were doing. We were very inexperienced and they just didn’t yield what they should.
“So, like normal people, we doubled the crop the next year. With about 4,000 plants that year, we figured some things out and we had a pretty good year.”
The strawberry plot has since grown to about 6,000 plants — about half an acre.
Along with the expansion of their farm operation, the Reeces were also around to see the local farmers’ market’s rebirth.
“The farmers’ market has been huge for us,” Brandon said. “Direct marketing is everything. We’re not on the scale for commercial production. We’re limited with our size and our time — with two full-time jobs and three small children. Everything we do is with direct marketing in mind. If the farmers’ market hadn’t grown to what it is now, we wouldn’t be able to be successful like we have been.”
Aside from the Reeces’ personal success, Amy said the market has been vital for the community.
“It has become a social event every weekend,” she said. “People used to come out and just get their produce, but now, they can come get local coffee, local crafts, eat local foods prepared by local farmers for breakfast and lunch. There are different meat vendors and baked goods.”
From the start, the Reeces’ success story has been laced with a helping hand or an eager collaboration with other people in the agriculture community.
“I think the agriculture community, in general, are very helpful and networking-type people,” Amy said. “Without some of the connections we’ve made, we wouldn’t be where we are now.”
Many times that helping hand comes from their own family, whether that be their parents or their children. While the Reeces are raising strawberries, pigs and vegetables, they are also raising three boys — Brock, Cade and Tate.
“We think it’s really important for the boys to know where their food comes from,” Amy said. “We also think it’s important for them to grow up knowing what hard work is, and we want to start them out young.”
The older boys have been given the chance to pick something to raise on their own. Brock is growing cucumbers, which he has planted and plans to harvest himself and sell at his own farmers’ market stand. Cade recently got a shipment of turkey chicks he will raise, with hopes of having one on the family’s table for Thanksgiving.
“The boys are very involved,” Amy said. “We wanted to offer them something they could grow up learning how to do.”
With the many new ventures at Reece Farm, Brandon and Amy have learned to be more inventive in their marketing techniques, finding new ways to use their products.
“I’ve never been one to shy away from something new,” Brandon said. “It goes back to the small footprint we’re working with. We have to figure out how to make the most of what we have and also understanding what we can do better.
“How can we make a big impact while maintaining a small footprint?”
While they added pork and more hens, they also began making strawberry jam and candied jalapeños. Reece Farm’s newest product is a line of ice creams made with their locally-grown berries.
“We had a bunch of berries we picked that weren’t good enough to go into the containers,” Amy said. “So we began brainstorming ways that we could use those berries. I can only freeze so much and we had to figure out what to do with them.
“Brandon is part of the Kentucky Agriculture Leadership Program through UK. Through that, he made some connections and one of those was Chaney’s Dairy Farm, where we are now able to use our berries to make ice cream.”
Strawberry, strawberry with chocolate shavings and a mixed berry variety, which is made using black raspberries grown by Gilkison Farm, are sold by the scoop, quart or half pint at the farmers’ market every weekend.
They sold ice cream by the scoop for the first time at the 2016 Beer Cheese Festival.
“We scooped more than eight gallons at the festival,” Brandon said. “We had no idea it would go over so well.”
That unexpected success is a feeling the Reeces have experienced time and again since they started gardening.
“Farming was something that could keep me home on my days off instead of working construction,” Brandon said. “We wanted to be able to make a little extra money. But the success of it all has been a surprise for sure.”
And the couple intends to build on the momentum of that success.
“It definitely took off more than we expected,” Amy said. “Even with how it’s grown, we’re no where near where we hope to be. We’re always looking for ways we can improve or do things better.”
Gilkisons about cultivating interest
In the case of Clark County natives Brennan and Serena Gilkison, farming is in their blood.
The couple has been married almost 15 years, and both were born and raised in the world of agriculture. In fact, they met through their fathers’ farming work.
“Her dad had always done work for my dad combining,” Brennan said. “I think he was actually out here combining on the day she was born. I worked for her dad at Agro Fertilizer later on. He had a custom harvesting business, and I was helping him rebuild a combine at their house. The rest is history.”
Brennan grew up on the land where the couple now operates a commercial farm on Calloway White Road. Serena was raised on the “opposite side of town,” in the Judy Pike area. Both families made a living on the farm.
“My parents did tobacco, cattle and grain farming,” Brennan said. “Most of that was full-time, but part-time. Both of my parents always had a job, and so did I.
“Serena’s family raised cattle and tobacco, and her dad always did custom harvesting.”
Growing up on the farm, Brennan and Serena knew they wanted to raise a farm family as well, although with different levels of certainty.
“I think, for me, I always knew I wanted to go into farming. I don’t think for Serena that was the case,” Brennan jokes. “I think she was headed to Fort Lauderdale, I’m sure, and still wants to.”
The couple, however, have made a life for themselves in the agriculture industry. Brennan worked full-time with Pioneer Seed Company while Serena worked for Brennan’s dad selling crop insurance.
And they farmed.
“Then, when the kids were born (twin girls Leland and Rivers and a boy, Curry), she stopped selling insurance and I continued working for Pioneer until about two years ago,” Brennan said. “Now, we’re farming full time and I help dad sell the insurance.”
The couple are the sole owners of the Gilkison Farm operation, and all of the more than 4,000 acres of land is rented or crop shared for a variety of purposes.
“I still think that tobacco is our main enterprise,” Brennan said. “It doesn’t make up most of our acres, we only have about 75 acres of tobacco.”
“It’s our backbone, though,” Serena said.
“We started with tobacco and then moved into cattle,” Brennan said. “Then I started renting farms that I actually grew up on. My dad got out of farming in the 1990s, but I started picking them back up.”
The majority of the acres are for corn and soybeans. The Gilkisons also grow cereal rye and several varieties of corn, including red corn, white corn and blue corn, which are specialty crops for two distilleries.
The farm is also in its fourth year of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture Hemp Pilot Program, raising hemp for either CBD production or grain production.
“We also raise about three acres of black raspberries, which brings our only farm-to-table product,” Brennan said.
The raspberries are used for Gilkison Farm jam and a barbecue sauce for Burley BBQ, of which Brennan is a partner.
Much like their fathers’ connection when they were kids, the Gilkisons have grown to understand the importance of connecting with other farmers.
“I think those connections are one of the most important parts of a good operation,” Brennan said. “If you can’t get along with your neighbors, if you can’t share ideas, you can’t be as successful. There are parts of the country where the environment is cut throat. I’m glad our community isn’t like that. I think everybody respects each other for the most part.”
Locally, the Gilkisons are connected closely with their literal neighbors, who they rent or crop share land with, and then the greater Clark County agriculture community. But the connection extends across the country, too.
“We are able to call our friends from around the country and talk with them, whether it is about legislation issues or how to prepare ground for a new crop we’re exploring, it’s helpful to be able to call each other and strengthen one another,” Serena said.
A farm of their size is bound to meet its obstacles, though.
“We’ve always had labor issues,” Brennan said. “We get the majority of our labor through the Visa worker program. And regulations have always been a hurdle.”
Having grown up on a tobacco farm, Brennan has also seen a shift in marketing methods.
“Being in tobacco, it was my opinion that we were never good marketers because we took what the tobacco companies offered us,” he said. “That’s one thing that has changed — that way things are marketed.”
That change has forced farm families to be creative with uses for their products. Take the Gilkisons’ raspberries — they are used for jam, barbecue sauce, a mixed berry ice cream and are being explored as an option for a beer variety by West Sixth Brewery.
“You have to be creative with the ways you market your product,” Brennan said.
For Serena, much of the creativity comes in ways to spread the word about agriculture.
“We’ve had to learn how to convince the consumer that we’re not out to hurt anyone,” she said. “We both come from families that have always been part of the community and have been active in public service. We’ve been involved in leadership programs, like the Kentucky Agriculture Leadership Program.”
“I think that inspired a lot of our way of thinking to try to educate the public,” Brennan said.
Much of that education starts at home, teaching their children the value of hard work.
“Neither of us were ever forced into farming,” Serena said. “We just had an interest. I think you have to be born with it. Brennan was. I have it about 50 percent of the time.
“Because of that, we don’t push farming on our own kids. But they all show their own interests. Most importantly, we teach them about hard work.”
For Serena, the idea of “reaping what you sow,” is one she wants to instill in her children.
“That’s huge,” she said. “Not every time, but most of the time, what you put into something, that is what you are rewarded.”
When their children are on the farm, the Gilkisons make it a point to teach them about how to treat the land and the animals.
“They know there are good days, there are some bad days and there are some really bad days,” she said. “They see life. They see death. They watch us obsess over the radar.”
Gathering at the table
As both families strive to raise hard-working children with an understanding of agriculture, they also have a passion for teaching other children those same values.
Much of that passion is driven by a belief that farming, agriculture and the people who make a lifestyle of it are misunderstood.
“For awhile, it was as though we were made out to be monsters,” Serena said. “People are scared of what they don’t understand. So we set out to build relationships. We want the consumers to get to know us.”
When Clark County third-grade teacher Jessica Thomas proposed a field trip to Gilkison Farm, Serena developed Ag Day.
“We gathered up some speakers and put it together the first year,” Brennan said. “Heather Cassill with Clark County 4-H loved the idea and the next year she organized it and we hosted it.”
In its fourth year, every third grader in the county is invited to learn more about agriculture, but the challenge was how to foot the bill for the program.
“These farm-to-table dinners were popping up at the time,” Brennan said. “We decided if we could get people out here to tell them what we do, we wanted that opportunity. We were also seeing that the schools were having to pay for buses and 4-H was paying for meals. We decided we would take the proceeds from our dinner and put them back into agriculture education.”
And who better to partner with than Serena’s childhood friends, Brandon and Amy Reece?
“We asked them if they wanted to help us and they were very eager to be part of it,” Serena said.
Out of the connection was born Harvest to Hand, a farm to table dinner to benefit agriculture education in the community.
The dinner consisting of locally-sourced meals is hosted in a barn on Gilkison Farm.
“We wanted it to be really authentic,” Brennan said. “We wanted to get people out here in this atmosphere. Last year was our first year. I think Amy and Serena hoped for 150 people. I hoped for 200, and we ended up with about 260 by the time we got tired of making tables.”
Local chef Steve Atkins prepared a meal with locally-sourced foods, from Reece Farm, Gilkison Farm and other local farm families.
“It’s just good fellowship,” Brennan said. “We like to talk about each course, about where those ingredients came from.”
In fact, the popular mixed berry ice cream flavor was developed for the Harvest to Hand dinner.
“Our ice cream was new at the time, and the strawberry had been really popular,” Brandon said. “We decided to do the mixed berry and debut it at the dinner.”
Last year, more than $4,000 was raised and donated to Clark County 4-H with the mission of creating agriculture education opportunities in local schools.
Along with Ag Day, the families want to implement other agriculture curricula at the schools, including an aquaponics lettuce project where students can plant, harvest and eat lettuce grown in waterbeds in the schools’ libraries. Serena would also like to see the Kentucky Agriculture Literacy program continue to spread throughout the district.
“Children are so open minded,” Serena said. “But, so many of them are many generations removed from the farm. They don’t know where their food comes from. Through these programs, they can learn about agriculture, know where their food comes from and we can break down some misconceptions about farming.
“In Kentucky, we might not get a lot of things right, but our agriculture community is strong and growing. We want to showcase that.” §