CAMP DICK ROBINSON — As consumers continue to be concerned about the quality and cleanliness of the foods they eat, a new business in Garrard County is taking the "eat local" mantra to a higher level.
Marksbury Farm Market seeks to bring locally raised beef, pork, poultry and other foods to Central Kentucky tables. The basic idea is twofold: provide affordable slaughtering services to farmers and offer locally produced meats to consumers.
Partners Preston Correll, his cousin Greg Correll, plus stone mason Richard McAlister and former state official John-Mark Hack combined their resources and talents to bring Marksbury Farm Market to a spot between Lancaster, Danville and Nicholasville. (The Marksbury name comes from the name of the local voting precinct.)
The $3.5 million facility includes a 12,000-square-foot, USDA-inspected processing plant that opened in August on the as-yet-unopened stretch of the new U.S. 27 west of Camp Dick Robinson Elementary School. Less than a mile to the west, not far from where temperance crusader Carrie Nation grew up, sits the retail store that opened in November. It offers a variety of meats under the Marksbury Farm brand, plus sausages, salamis and cured meats.
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The store also sells Weisenberger Mill corn meal from Midway; Elmwood Inn Fine Teas from Perryville; organic coffee from Red Hot Roasters in Louisville; several cheeses from Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese in Barren County; hormone-free milk, yogurt, cream and buttermilk from J.D. Country Milk in Logan County; and fermented soy sauce from Bluegrass Soy Sauce in Louisville.
"I'm passionate about good food, so it's really easy for me to tell somebody, 'Try this, it's great,'" said McAlister, a Garrard resident whose stonemasonry company did the entrance to the Fasig-Tipton horse auction company in Fayette County.
But what sets Marksbury Farm Market apart is its commitment to bring local meats from local farmers to local customers.
"There's no reason in the world not to believe that this region, with its natural resource base, its producers and its market, can't be the good-food capital of the United States," said Hack. In the late 1990s to 2003, Hack was director of the Governor's Office of Agricultural Policy, which oversaw how Kentucky spent millions in tobacco-settlement funds.
Central Kentucky has USDA-inspected processing facilities in Casey and Nelson counties, but the addition of the Garrard plant offers a closer alternative for area farmers who want to sell their meats off the farm and get them into restaurants and institutions such as universities, said Preston Correll. Earlier this month, the processing facility passed a "best practices" audit that will allow its meats to be sold to those institutional buyers.
The company already has made inroads with some restaurants in Louisville, which has a program to connect farmers and regionally grown food to schools and consumers.
The partners in Marksbury Farm Market also hope to start a network of "buying clubs," or distributors in neighborhood associations or faith communities.
"We're not looking to get people to sell our product, necessarily," Hack said "Rather, a member of a faith community would agree to be a distributor for us, and we will provide their network of friends and fellow faith community members with a menu of pre-packaged meat boxes, and they'll order those boxes through a Web-based system."
The boxes would be packaged in Garrard County and then delivered to the distributor, who would get them to the people who ordered.
"It's a decentralized model of meat production, but it's community-based," Hack said. "We're really looking to integrate and strengthen communities through relationships around good food."
To ensure the food is good, producers who supply meat to Marksbury Farm Market agree to a set of guidelines that reflect the company's core values and mission.
For example, producers agree to provide a sanitary environment for their animals. Marksbury guidelines state that "Continuous indoor confinement or indoor confinement with an inadequate outdoor run is unacceptable. When indoor confinement is required, as in brooding young chickens, clean bedding and fresh air must be maintained."
Other guidelines emphasize that animals must be fed a natural diet, have no added hormones, and should be subject to humane handling.
In addition, in keeping with Marksbury Farm Market's goal to deepen the relationship between consumers and their food, producers agree to openness and transparency. That means Marksbury suppliers are asked to be accessible to company representatives and customers "assuming appropriate respect for farmers' time and privacy," according to the guidelines.
There has been little resistance to such guidelines, said Preston Correll, who farms in neighboring Lincoln County. Perhaps not surprisingly, a large portion of poultry to be produced for the market will come from Amish and Mennonite farmers in the region who didn't take up the practice of confining livestock anyway.
"Our pork and chicken producers are either old-timers who are not scared of it because they did it growing up. Or they are alternative farmers that ... are passionate about our way of thinking and really want to do it that way. Or they are alternative communities like the Amish," said Correll.
Pete Cashel of Terrapin Hill Farm near Harrodsburg has had hogs processed at Marksbury and plans to take pasture-raised chickens there, too. He said it's been tough for Central Kentucky consumers to find locally raised chicken and pork.
"So I believe Marksbury is filling a void there," Cashel said. "Everybody realizes that animals raised in these factory farms are full of antibiotics, steroids and hormones, and are not healthy, and folks are beginning to realize that their health is directly related to the food they eat. By providing a market that people can go to, to buy local product, is a valuable thing."
Garrard County was a natural site for the market because it's in the middle of large beef-producing counties such as Boyle and Lincoln. Kentucky is the largest beef-producing state east of the Mississippi River. Garrard ranks 23rd among Kentucky counties in beef production, according to the Kentucky Agricultural Statistics Service
With the decline in Garrard's tobacco acreage during the past decade (from 3,130 acres in 1999 to 770 in 2008), the county is also ripe for new agricultural income. Its ranking in total cash receipts from crops and livestock dropped from 49th in 1999 to 63rd in 2008.
Many Kentucky beef cows go out of state to feed lots, where they are finished before slaughter. Marksbury Food Market's partners think there is a way to keep livestock here, add value to it and sell it to those interested in healthy food.
"That's part of the narrative of this commonwealth; our tendency to send our natural resources out of state for other people to add value to and make the most money off of it," Hack said. "So what we're trying to do is create a place where we can maximize the value of our natural resource base and of our farm experience, and maintain as much of that value here."