RICHMOND As a boy, Joseph Farmer had no doubts about the path hed take in life.
I was sure that with the last name Farmer, I was going to be a pig farmer.
So where are the pigs?
Theres not one in sight at Lucky Clover Farm, a 5-acre piece of Madison County that on a sunny late-fall morning looks like a little slice of paradise.
But wait: Inside Farmers workshop, there is a pig, a 10-pound pink beauty named Wilbur carved from alabaster. Some Pig, as Charlotte the spider would write on her web.
Farmer, 51, may not have ended up as a pig farmer, but he did end up a farmer: He and his partner in business and life, Gina Micciche, operate Lucky Clover as a Kentucky Proud working farm, producing vegetables, preserves and baked goods.
But what draws the visitor in the holiday season is Farmers stone-carving business. Since he moved back to Kentucky four years ago, its turned into a thriving operation. Thats his 101st finished Nativity set on the workbench next to Wilbur. Thats his 102nd star of Bethlehem in his hands, being worked on. A craftsman doesnt make 102 of anything unless theyre popular.
These days Farmer is putting in long hours in the little green workshop behind his house. A newly installed coal stove keeps the place toasty, and a classic-rock station is kept on for company.
Im in here all week long without anybody to talk to, he says, and threatens to talk the visitors ear off. But its hard to feel too sorry for him. Micciche is steps away in the 100-year-old house, and their Lucky Clover operation looks like some kind of back to the land dream.
The first manger: Farmer has set up a small display of his pieces on the workbench. His goal is to keep the prices reasonable so that the average Joe can have a nice piece on their mantel, he says, and the result is that his pieces move quickly. Right now he cant make manger sets fast enough.
Wilbur is probably the only piece here thats older than six months, he says. Wilbur is a kid-magnet at art shows and is basically NFS. Other pieces are a face, an owl, a pair of rabbits. Ive always done nature pieces. Rabbits are my favorite. Owls are in, hes been told. Who does the face represent? Hes left the carving untitled and is open to suggestions.
I came in here and six hours later that face was there. I had never carved a face in my life, he says, and credits divine intervention for the way his pieces emerge. Hes been told the face looks like the Virgin Marys.
Farmer definitely didnt go to school to study sculpture, but he has been carving much of his life. Long ago it was wooden puzzles and ornaments that hed sell at Christmas fairs in Louisville. He made his first manger set 14 years ago with a rock, a Stanley screwdriver and a hammer.
I definitely work as I go, he says. I dont walk in the shop and say Im going to make this or that. But sometimes I have to make a Nativity scene because people are expecting it.
Most of his pieces are of soapstone or alabaster. Kentucky limestone is used in some Nativity bases, but, You hit it with a chisel and the chisel will bounce back. Indiana limestone, on the other hand, carves like butter.
Occasionally hell use rocks that people bring him, saying, See what you can make out of this.
To know what colors a dusty rock is capable of, he keeps water in a spray bottle. I was so ignorant when I first started buying stone. I had no idea why there were so many bottles around. Kentucky beeswax also brings out the subtle shades in a piece of alabaster. He buys it in bulk every year at the state fair.
The star of Bethlehem for his 102nd manger set is red alabaster with five points; the star in the finished piece on the workbench is white and diamond-shaped, as are many hes made. But some are green and diamond-shaped, and some have a trail like a comet. No two sets are the same, and he approaches each one differently: Sometimes Ill start with Mary to get the scale, then do Joseph, then the background. Sometimes Ill start out with the star.
Stop kicking my fish: Farmers boyhood certainty about his career path might not seem that unusual, until you learn that he grew up in the suburbs of Louisville. He went to Morehead State University, where he studied agriculture and spent many hours in the early-morning farrowing shift, bringing baby pigs into the world.
But he soon made his way to a job as caretaker/gardener in a very high-rent district outside New York City and lived for 15 years on an estate without pigs but with every creature comfort.
Across the road he could commune with world-famous artwork in the sculpture garden of PepsiCos headquarters. A huge stone grizzly bear by David Wynne inspired him. I could do something like that on a smaller scale, he thought.
When that job ended, Farmer was hired nearby at a community center and day camp.
I became Joey the Kentucky gardener, he says. I was teaching nature and science to 700 New Yorkers from the ages of 2 to 14. We raised ducks, guinea hens, we hatched luna moths, we had snakes and caterpillars. It was great fun because you could open up their world.
He taught soapstone carving, too. He could always see what others couldnt in rocks.
I used to tell the kids, Stop kicking my fish, when they kicked around an old rock next to his shop. For three years I knew what it was going to be.
Its now a trout living in a house in upstate New York.
Back to the garden: Farmer met Micciche at the community center. She was a Bronx native who, like him, was looking for a new start.
We were both divorced, he said. I always said that I would go back to Kentucky when my kids were grown.
Four years ago, they found their Lucky Clover on Craigslist, and Micciche has found her new start: Shes learned about baking with pawpaws, persimmons, shes baking for the arts and crafts show; those black walnuts hanging there are destined for her jam cakes. I crack em and she makes fudge, says Farmer.
Lucky Clover Farm has 2½ acres in cultivation. Were learning to go further into the season. Out in the garden are 500 broccoli plants just ended, says Farmer. Every Valentines Day, he and Micciche start thousands of heirloom tomatoes.
But this stone-carving business is taking up more and more of his time. And he and Micciche are fine with that.
My dad was my biggest fan, Farmer says. And he always told me, Theres more money in rocks than there is in tomatoes.