As grocery store shelves emptied in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Kentuckians replenished their supply by going straight to the source — local farmers’ markets like Bluegrass Berry Farm.
Kentucky Farm Bureau aims to connect consumers to these local food sources through its Certified Farmer’s Market System, which supports the highest quality farm markets in the Commonwealth. This year, KFB named Bluegrass Berry Farm as Warren County’s newest addition to the list, alongside current members Jackson’s Orchard and Nursery, Chaney’s Dairy Farm and Hilltopper Creamery.
The program was started by current KFB President Mark Haney in 1996 to help Kentucky farmers market their fruits and vegetables to the local community. While the program originally focused on produce, it has expanded to include 126 farms across Kentucky offering a wider range of locally sourced produce, including flowers and trees, dairy and animal products, said Fran McCall, commodity specialist at the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation. .
The program’s goal of bringing consumers directly to local farms to buy their food has been particularly successful since the pandemic hit. In 2022 alone, 22 farmers’ markets were certified, McCall said.
“A lot of them have established more relationships with local farmers and have a better appreciation for what farmers are doing,” McCall said. “So that was really an upside versus the negative of the COVID pandemic – that we got a little bit closer to where our food supply was coming from.”
Bluegrass Berry Farm has experienced the pandemic firsthand. Her plant sales soared, and she took advantage of the increased demand to educate consumers about where their food comes from. Kim Essig said interacting with new customers and seeing farm life firsthand made her feel blessed to live and work at Bluegrass Berry Farm.
“I think I forget that it’s not, even in Kentucky, maybe it’s not always the norm with people still living in Bowling Green or the big cities. Even though they can drive and see, when they arrive at a farm they sometimes think, “This is amazing,” Essig said.
Kim Essig and her husband, Jeff, own and operate Bluegrass Berry Farm as a family business. They started growing blueberries about a decade ago in their three-acre backyard in Bowling Green. Their daughter had previously used the space to ride horses, but once she grew up and found new interests, Kim and Jeff Essig wanted to find something else to take over the area. They switched to blueberries after discovering that the crop could live for over 30 years.
However, in their rush to get going, both men made their share of mistakes, said Kim Essig. They didn’t think about preparing the ground or setting up proper irrigation, so they had to replant a year later. Their second attempt paid off, and in 2014 they sold their crop to the Blueberry Grower’s Association in Edmonton and had an offer to take over the nursery from the then owner of the Bluegrass Blueberries name and estate.
The Essigs accepted the offer, and five years ago moved their operation to their current 50-acre farm just outside Bowling Green for more space to grow blueberries and strawberries and develop the nursery. Since then they have branched out beyond berries putting acres into hay, nursery stock, vegetables, fruit trees and vineyards. The KFB certification should boost the farm’s current marketing efforts, Essig said.
“It really generates a lot of awareness from people who wouldn’t necessarily know we’re here,” she said. “So (marketing) is not hard between street signs and social media and being on the certified farmers market circuit. All of this combined is really, really helpful.
In addition to offering high-quality local produce at fair prices, farms must meet several other criteria to become KFB-certified farmers’ markets. They must be members of KFB, provide a clean and safe environment for visitors, and have a permanent non-residential structure on site from which their products can be sold. The majority of produce for sale must also be grown, produced, or bred by the farm owner.
Once certified through an inspection process, farms receive KFB advertising and promotion in their publications and on social media, networking opportunities with other certified farm markets, marketing training , management training and other business benefits. All certified farmer’s markets are listed and searchable on the Kentucky Farm Bureau website by name, county, zip code, and product offerings.
Warren County is now home to four certified farmers’ markets, putting it above the county average, McCall said. Chaney’s Dairy Farm and Jackson’s Orchard and Nursery have been on the list since the program began, while Hilltopper Creamery was added about five years ago.
Although the KFB has yet to establish official measures, anecdotal evidence shows business picking up after farms became KFB-certified farmers’ markets, McCall said.
“We’ve seen a lot of people looking for that local buy, that opportunity to support their local communities and their local farmers and just to have a connection with their food, and also to get to know their farmer and also go out and have that farming experience and that urban-rural connection,” McCall said.
Jeff Essig fell in love with farming as a child while visiting his grandfather’s farm in Bowling Green during summer and winter vacation. Even after moving to the West Coast and meeting Kim, he was still talking about Kentucky, she said. When they got serious about dating, she said she saw the writing on the wall. Sure enough, in 1992, the same year they married, the Essigs moved back to Bowling Green.
The family still operates the farm with the same love of planting, Essig said. Chase Kelley, Essig’s son-in-law, runs the blueberry nursery with help from the local Amish community. He said being able to work around and for his family is a highlight of the job, in addition to seeing everything grow.
“It’s a bit of a slow process, but you can watch it from the very beginning until it gets to the client and they get it, and it’s really rewarding,” Kelley said.
The nursery grows over 25 varieties of blueberry plants, which are sold in person to local consumers and shipped to customers in all 50 states. As strawberry season draws to a close, blueberry season is approaching and Bluegrass Berry Farm will be offering pre-picked blueberries in the coming weeks, Essig said. Later this summer, the farm will sell honey, followed by a variety of field vegetables in July and August. After that, Essig said the family is planning some fall vegetables later.
“What our focus is right now as a small family farm is to increase our plantings and try to hit almost every part of the season throughout the year,” Essig said. “The bigger picture is a fully diversified fruit and berry farm, as well as vegetables and produce so that the local community can benefit. It’s healthy food, and we can impact the community with food that’s reasonably priced, but grown in a healthy way.
As Bluegrass Berry Farm continues to grow, the Essigs run programs and tours to teach school-aged children how to start gardens, grow blueberries, or produce honey. The farm is already offering a free two-hour blueberry course to help potential gardeners avoid the same mistakes the Essigs originally made.
This month, KFB Agricultural Education Manager Scott Christmas is hosting a workshop for local teachers on the farm, which Kim Essig says could have an immediate impact on area schools. That’s what Essig is all about – serving the community through food and maintaining momentum – and the new KFB certification could amplify those efforts.
“Knowing that we put something in the ground and it’s going to be harvested, I feel such a heavy responsibility to move it forward,” she said. “As long as I know we’re doing all we can to be good stewards of the land that God has given us and to get things done and harvest them and sell them or eat them or set them up for myself , I feel like I did a good job in my day.