May has finally arrived, and soon we’ll hear the much anticipated pounding of the hooves. The 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby is here! For the fourth year in a row, the smells at the track include the delicious aromas of Churchill Downs Executive Chef David Danielson.
Danielson, in his fourth year as executive chef and his seventh year with Levy Restaurants in Louisville, is committed to buying local foods and supporting farmers in Kentucky.
“We are committed to direct impact to local farms,” Danielson said. “We want to ensure that the “local food” trend resonates into good consumer practices throughout this state.”
Nearly 20 local farms and processing operations supply everything from mint and strawberries to cheeses and seafood. The newest local farm supplying produce to Danielson is Aqua-Fresh Farms in Mount Washington, an aquaponics operation growing 12 varieties of lettuce and strawberries in a greenhouse.
Overnight success and farming aren’t two topics that typically go hand-in-hand, and while overnight is a bit of a stretch, the owner of Aqua-Fresh Farms, Tom Wantye, is certainly on the brink of farming success in a relatively short period of time.
In the last six weeks, Wantye, 53, went from occasionally having to throw out a couple hundred heads of lettuce to partnering with Danielson for 4,000 heads of lettuce for the Kentucky Derby. Danielson wants more long-term, like two to three greenhouses more.
“Trying to get as much produce out of the ground is challenging with Derby being the first week of May,” Danielson said. “Aqua-Fresh Farms is a game changer with being able to grow 12 months a year.”
Wantye started 2.5 years ago playing with the design of his aquaponics operation as a hobby.
“I worked to get it to what I want,” he said. “I designed the whole system myself and was told that what I’m doing is impossible. I grow vertically and horizontally, and I’ve been up and running for about a year now.”
Wantye explained that it’s a small operation, with a 35x85-foot greenhouse that has the capacity to grow about 8,000 plants.
“It’s small, but it has more plants than you could imagine (in this space),” he said. Wantye runs a small trucking company and has trucked produce between Kentucky and Florida for more than 30 years, but is looking forward to expanding his farm operations and retiring from driving. In addition to the aquaponics farm, he works with his friend, Cameron Taylor, who owns Whitaker Run Farm, an 11-acre dirt farm in Mount Washington. They’re getting ready to plant more than 10,000 tomatoes just to service local consumers. That doesn’t include the demands that Danielson has brought for more of Wantye’s produce.
“It’s overwhelming,” he said, of the sudden increased demand and success. “I’m not ready (in terms of greenhouses built), but I’m the kind of guy…well, I’m going to make it work. I’m going to bend over backwards to make it happen. This is my baby now.”
Anyone not attending Derby can still taste Wantye’s lettuce, though. He participates in local markets around Bullitt County. You’ll find him every Saturday and Wednesday at the Mount Washington Farmer’s Market starting June 3. Check out the farm Facebook page, too.
The local food concept is growing, whether it’s Churchill Downs buying local, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture supporting farm to school programs, or the Kentucky Association of Food Banks purchasing “seconds” from local farmers to feed hungry Kentuckians. Farmers Markets and knowing who’s growing your food is popular.
According to last year’s Local Foods Marketing Practices Survey conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, more than 3,200 Kentucky farms reported direct farm sales of food, including value-added products. This added up to more than $65 million, with the Commonwealth coming in 19th in the U.S. in the number of farms selling locally and 26th in total sales of local foods.
There’s plenty of room for Kentucky to grow in the local foods market.
“The data show us there is a tremendous growth potential for Kentucky farmers to raise and sell directly to the consumer market,” said David Knopf, director for NASS’s Eastern Mountain Regional Field Office in Kentucky. “Only about four percent of the farms are directly marketing their products. With commodity prices at levels which make it challenging for farmers to receive profitable returns, direct sales may be one way for growers to capture more of the food dollar.”
Farmers and producers like Tom Wantye will have the opportunity to show if more farms are selling local foods later this year when NASS sends out the Census of Agriculture. The Census is conducted every five years, and surveys every farm in the country. In addition to being the only source of uniform, comprehensive agricultural data for every county in the United States, the Census will also measure local food market practices during the 2017 growing year.
The Census, too, will show if the Commonwealth remains number one in the U.S. in horses. Kentuckians already know they’re tops in horses (Kentucky Derby is the best!), but it’s good to have the NASS statistics to back up the brag.
Local Foods Numbers in Kentucky
Direct Farm Sales*
- Total farms, excluding value-added products: 1,651
- Total sales, excluding value-added products: $20,451,622
- Total farms, only value-added products: 1,926
- Total sales, only value-added products: $44,978,853
Direct to Consumer Sales**
- Total farms, including value-added products: 2,574
- Total sales, including value-added products: $35,035,819
Horse Numbers in Kentucky
- #1 in numbers of horses and ponies (2012 Census of Agriculture)
- Total farms with horses and ponies: 19,012
- Total numbers of horses and ponies: 141,842
- Sales of horses and ponies in 2012: $178,341,000
For more information about NASS statistics and data or the Census of Agriculture, visit https://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Kentucky/.
*Direct farm sales of food (crops and livestock raised on Kentucky farms) includes farms selling to:
- Institutions and intermediary businesses (schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, wholesalers, processors, distributors)
- Retailers (grocery stores, restaurants, caterers, food cooperatives)
- Direct to consumers
**Direct to consumer sales, a subset of direct farm sales, include:
- Farmers markets, onsite farm stores, roadside stands, Community Supported Agriculture arrangements, online sales, pick-your-own operations, and mobile markets.
Lisa M. Ferguson
NASS Public Affairs