New UK dining center opens Sunday
Thomas Sargent and Robert Eversole started Crooked Row Farm in 2011, growing vegetables off Winchester Road for community supported agricultural programs, which let consumers subscribe to the harvest of specific farms. Four years ago, it moved to the wholesale market and began selling salad greens and other vegetables to restaurants.
This year, to keep up with demand — they supply salad greens, cherry tomatoes and bell peppers for the University of Kentucky’s local salad bar and Vinaigrette Salad Kitchen restaurants — they will hire more staff.
“We went from zero employees to four full time and three seasonal employees this year,” Sargent said. “Our production will increase 400 percent from 2018 to 2019.”
Sargent says Crooked Row’s explosion in sales and growth in employees is a combination of hard work, lots of research, due diligence and Ashton Potter Wright, the Bluegrass Farm to Table coordinator.
“She has established nearly every connection that we have,” Sargent said. “That position is imperative to the local food economy.”
Wright, the coordinator of Bluegrass Farm to Table, started in June 2014 as the city’s first local food coordinator in a pilot program that quickly became permanent. During the nearly five years she has been at the helm of efforts to grow the local food economy she has generated more than $2.7 million in sales for growers.
And that’s a conservative estimate, Wright said.
“It can be very difficult to track for a number of reasons,” she said. “But I try to be conservative.”
Vice Mayor Steve Kay, who pushed for the creation of the position in 2014, said Wright has been able to build and capitalize on growing interest and demand for local food and turn it into a supply chain. That’s something for-profit businesses wouldn’t do in 2014 because the market was too small.
“What she’s building is the long-term infrastructure for local agriculture,” Kay said. “I think she’s in a great position to build on what she’s already done.”
That $2.7 million is going back to small and medium-sized businesses like Crooked Row, Wright said. The city spends a little more than $85,000 a year on the program, though it has helped growers and farmers far outside Fayette County’s boundaries.
Wright has generated sales for 80 growers in 30 counties and connected them with 75 buyers, such as restaurants, schools and distributors.
Those farmers include Kathleen Butler of Butler Farms.
Butler, a former school teacher, started Butler Farms more than four years ago in Bourbon County. Her first year, she started with 1,000 chickens and 20 pigs. The farm now supplies chicken and pork to many local restaurants, including Vinaigrette Salad Kitchen, Epping’s on Eastside, Coles 735 Main, County Club and the Lexington School. It contracts with other local chicken producers to keep up with demand, which helps those family-owned small businesses, Butler said.
“With my farm alone, she has helped us secure over $200,000 in business the last three years,” Butler said of Wright. “If she doesn’t know something, she will find out. She plants the seed for local growers.”
Vinaigrette Salad Kitchen’s Adam O’Donnell said Wright has been instrumental in helping the growing restaurant chain find and buy Kentucky-grown salad greens, vegetables and meats. Vinaigrette has four Lexington locations, one in Louisville and a sixth opening this spring in Cincinnati.
“Ashton understands the pricing, business and logistics from both sides,”said O’Donnell, the operations manager for Vinaigrette. “She has been great at bridging the gap between the farmer and the restaurant. It can be difficult and complicated when it comes to pricing, business logistics, etc. But Ashton knows what we need as well as what the farmer needs and she brings concise, accurate and thought-through plans to the conversation.”
Wright, who has a doctorate in public health and is a former operations manager for First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, has also helped the University of Kentucky increase the amount Aramark, its food provider, spends on locally-grown food.
Just a few years ago, UK spent only $16,000 on locally-grown vegetables. But by opening a “locally-grown” salad bar in 2018, the university now spends $150,000 on locally-grown produce, including Crooked Row’s salad mixes, Wright said.
UK’s local salad bar program has been so successful that the University of Louisville opened a locally-grown salad bar in January and Morehead State University will open one in August, Wright said. Aramark has the food service contract for all three universities.
But developing markets for small to medium growers is only part of the job, Wright said.
Bluegrass Farm to Table also has increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables for Kentucky’s poorest residents through a program that allows people to use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, at local farmers’ markets. That program has now expanded to 54 sites in 32 counties through a partnership with Kentucky Farm Alliance. It is funded through a combination of grants.
In 2017, over 9,500 people redeemed vouchers for $72,000 in Kentucky farm products. That grew to 10,000 people who spent $90,000 on locally-grown food in 2018.
“That money directly supported Kentucky growers,” Wright said. “One of the things that gets raised often is local food is expensive and not always accessible. It’s not fixing the problem but it is offering an option.”
Wright has also worked with economists at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment to study health outcomes of people who participate in community supported agriculture programs, which deliver fresh vegetables and other locally-grown food to subscribers for a fee. University of Kentucky and Lexington city government give vouchers to employees so they can participate in CSAs.
A recent study by UK researchers using UK insurance claim data showed an average decrease of $900 in diet-related insurance claims for participants in CSA programs compared to UK employees who did not participate in CSA programs.
“They were very conservative and only looked at diet-related claims,” Wright said. “The largest decreases were for people who were considered high-risk.”
That research will be expanded to include insurance-related claims of Lexington government’s employees who participate in CSAs.
“We know the health benefits from eating more vegetables but this study show that CSAs are good investments for companies that want to control health care costs,” Wright said.
Organizations such as Valvoline, Louisville Metro Government and the Fayette County Health Department also have added CSA programs for employees .
Wright’s success over the past four years shows agricultural and ag-related industries has potential for growth in Fayette County and Central Kentucky, said Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton.
“Ashton has built a solid foundation in the last five years by establishing the Bluegrass Farm to Table program,” Gorton said. “She has stimulated an economic impact estimated at $2.7 million and forged meaningful relationships with local farmers, food producers, and buyers in and around Lexington.”
Gorton has tapped Wright to lead efforts to expand Fayette County’s agriculture-related businesses, particularly high-tech agriculture. Fayette County is uniquely situated to attract such businesses because it is in the process of building a city-wide high-speed Internet network and has UK and Alltech, an agricultural company, in its backyard, Wright said.
Hemp and hemp production may be part of that expansion, Wright said. Hemp sales in Kentucky tripled from $16.7 million in 2017 to $57.75 million in 2018, according to Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
“The vast majority are growing for CBD oil,” said Wright. But there’s tremendous potential in using hemp in other products.
“We need more processors and researchers,” Wright said. “The market right now is very volatile so we have to be careful that what we do is sustainable.”
While Wright moves into an expanded role, she will still act as match maker between buyers and growers.
The demand for locally-grown food shows no signs of slowing. Wright’s phone rings constantly.
Transylvania University recently switched to a new food provider, Bon Appetit, and it has already talked to Wright about sourcing more local food for the liberal arts college. The new Origin Hotel at the Summit at Fritz Farm, scheduled to open this summer, also wants to buy local food in its soon-to-be-opened restaurant.
“People know what I do and they reach out,” Wright said.