Laura Freeman, the Kentucky entrepreneur best known for introducing antibiotic- and growth-hormone-free lean beef to the country three decades ago, is currently enjoying a second, third, fourth and fifth career, each with a nod to agriculture.
On any given day at Freeman’s Mt. Folly Farm in Winchester, the hub of activity around which most of her most recent enterprises revolve, you might see four generations of women walking and working the land.
Freeman and her mother, Talitha, her daughter Alice and granddaughter Ana have explored and worked all 1,200 acres of the property, which supports fields of organic hemp, heritage corn and cover crops, 150 head of cattle, goats to keep the hollers cleaned out, plus an assortment of shepherd dogs and barn cats.
Freeman grew up in Winchester and her Kentucky roots are strong and long on her mother’s and father’s sides. A philosophy major at Duke, she graduated in the late 1970s and got a job as a newspaper reporter in Anniston, Alabama.
Her mother had inherited part of the Kentucky land from an aunt but soon realized an industrial farming system wasn’t working. Instead of watching her mother sell the farm, Freeman offered to come back and run it.
After back-to-back farming disasters—a drought caused crops to collapse and cows to be underweight, followed by a government dairy buyout resulting in plunging cattle prices—Freeman was ready to change the business model of the farm. She had seen extensive drug use in cattle production, especially in big feedlots out west.
“I thought if people knew about this they would want something different,” she said. Still in her 20s, she started Laura’s Organic Beef, a prescient branding maneuver but one that didn’t quite work when she incorporated the business in 1985. She changed the name to Laura’s Lean Beef and, in 1991, brought on John Tobe, a recently retired executive from Jerrico, Inc., and a fellow cattle producer.
“We built it up into a pretty big company,” Freeman said. “It was always an entrepreneurial venture.”
In May of 2005, Freeman was “smashed up” from a horse-riding accident. Tobe took over and “sold the thing, which I thank him very much for doing,” she said.
Freeman convalesced for almost two years in Kentucky, and Laura’s Lean Beef was acquired by Colorado-based Meyer Natural Foods in 2007. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed, and Freeman has no involvement in the company today.
She and her second husband lived in his home state of Massachusetts from 2008 until 2015, when they decided to move back to Kentucky. Freeman has been busy ever since. She runs five enterprises in Clark County: Mt. Folly Farm and its crops, a B&B, a mercantile store, Wildcat Willy’s Distillery in downtown Winchester (scheduled for a spring opening), and she is also developing a Moonshine Trail.
“Carter County and Whitesburg will be on it when I get it going,” Freeman said of the tourist trail of micro-distilleries. “I’m all about supporting the regional economy.”
Freeman’s daughter, Alice Johnston, got Mt. Folly Farm certified organic and into the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s industrial hemp research pilot program during its first year of operation. Even though she thought hemp was for rope, Freeman quickly learned about the nutritional value of the hemp seed and the extract from hemp leaves and buds.
“I thought, ‘What if you put that with dark chocolate and antioxidants like cranberries and make as healthy a candy as possible?’” she said.
Freeman got a microprocessor license and started making chocolate. “It wasn’t good; it wasn’t bad,” she said. In 2016 she reached out to Ruth Hunt Candy Company in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, and got help perfecting her recipes. Today, Laura’s Hemp Chocolates are Kentucky Proud products and are available in boxes and tins at Good Foods Co-op, Kroger stores throughout Central Kentucky and Louisville, at Laura’s Mercantile shop at Mt. Folly Farm and online at LaurasMercantile.com.
With the help of Mt. Folly COO Ben Pasley, the mail-order store got up and running online in time for the 2016 holiday season. In 2017 Freeman remodeled an old summer kitchen on the property for Laura’s Mercantile, a small shop that’s open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. In November she started renting a B&B, having restored a two-story log cabin built in the late 1700s.
As she expands and extols hemp production and sustainable farming practices, as well as tending to her own retail endeavors, Freeman still finds time to advocate for both agricultural and entrepreneurial values.
“Shopping local and getting involved with your local and regional business community is incredibly important in this day of Amazon,” she said. “It’s a way to build community, and people need community.”