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Tuesday, April 27, 2021

In Other Words: Whether You Grow A Garden Or A Community You Must First Plant a Seed

Eric and Kim Keef of Springcreek Farm

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Farming is hard work. Eric Keef knows. Oh, he may play it off as a labor of love (and it is) but it’s still hard work. And that hard work has grown roots deep in the Northern Kentucky community. 

Meet Ethan and the team.

I visited his farm, appropriately enough, on Earth Day. Eric and I began our conversation a few years ago at the Fort Thomas Farmers Market.  Every week we would make small talk about about the weather, produce, pickles, our aches and pains. He has an energetic and engaging personality and will chat with you on just about any topic. I enjoy the spicy pickles he makes and my wife likes the produce. 

A row of produce and a volunteer flower in one of the tunnels.

Keef and his wife, Kim, own Springcreek Farm outside of Maysville. It is 65 acres nestled among rolling hills. Strodes Run meanders through the low area and paints a bucolic picture as it meanders around the bottoms and curves around a low hill to make its way to the river. The quiet is punctuated by periodic rooster crows and the excited Stella, the Rat Terrier and true ruler of the farm, as she tries to engage her pet chicken in play or enthusiastically greeting visitors. Eric greeted us in the driveway with a wave and a smile. He says that when Kim saw Strodes Run meandering in the lowland she was hooked. It’s a comfortable and peaceful place. 

It’s amazing what the Keefs and their farm hands produce in relatively self-imposed confined areas. Even though he has the acreage, he doesn’t plant large fields. Most of his produce grows in tunnels, those long structures with curved roofs that are covered in fabric. Not only does the tunnel keep crops warm during cold periods but it also protects them from pests and violent weather and that is important to a small organic based farmer. He controls water via an irrigational system. It’s a fairly controlled environment that allows him to maximize growing periods and crops.   

We entered the first large tunnel. The rows were covered with fabric to protect them from the last chill of winter. As he pulled the covers off he revealed rows of large healthy red and green lettuce punctuated by some gorgeous volunteer flowers from last year’s crop. And that’s when I caught the earthy, green aroma that I always associate with greenhouses. It was good. 

Simple aphid trap.

Keef has a simple but smart way to trap aphids. He coats a yellow Solo cup with Vaseline, turns it upside down, and staples it to a low stake. The insects are attracted to the yellow but get stuck in the vaseline thus protecting his crops from certain destruction. He is a member of the Organic Association of Kentucky (OAK) so he won’t spray chemicals. Keef is a no-till farmer, which means the soil is not turned with machines. The soil disruption can release unwanted weeds and carbon. So he plugs the plants that he starts in his hothouse into the rows in the tunnels. It’s a lot of work to grow a salad. 

In the seven years that Springcreek Farm has been in existence Keef supplies a vendor in Morehead with produce to sell as well as the Bee Hive restaurant in Augusta (a favorite with Fort Thomas folks) and he manages to appear at four weekly farmers markets - Fort Thomas, Covington, Crestview, and Maysville.  His wife, niece, and a couple of seasonal employees help. 

But it wasn’t a straight path to get where he is. As a young man, he joined the Navy. His wife, Kim, says, “He joined the Navy to see the world but ended up on a submarine.” She chuckles and Eric nods in agreement. He studied construction technology at college in Miami, Florida where he met Kim. He joined the Army, then got into construction, worked in a paper mill, and when he retired he thought he’d give farming a try. He is from Alabama and recalls that “I come from a farming family on one side of my family.” His grandfather had a truck farm. He never had a drivers license so he hooked a trailer up to the tractor, since he did not need a license to operate that, and drove that to area towns to sell his produce." And a young Eric sat on the back and helped. That tradition continues. 

So whose idea was it to start the farm? Kim says, “This is Eric’s farm. We were living on a small farm but were looking for a place a little bit bigger…. There was nothing here when we found this place.“ Eric built everything on the farm - the house, the tunnels, the hothouse, the chicken coop, the raised beds, and he has ambitious plans for more like a processing building with a large walk in refrigerator. And he’d like to host farm-to-table or other farm oriented events. 

Kim works as a Physician’s Assistant so the bulk of the farm labor is up to Eric and their seasonal help. But together they chart sales, seeds, demands, trends, and chart everything. There is no rest. There is always room to improve. It’s hard work but they enjoy it. You can hear it in the enthusiasm and energy of how they describe what they grow and the comments from their customers. They are connected, rooted. 

Eric Keef at the Fort Thomas market

Keef’s introduction to farmers market happened as he drove by a market one day.  He says, “I can do this. I have a garden.” So he began to sell his produce. But as he got deeper into marketing his market produce he created more inviting displays and eventually became the manager of the Maysville Farmers Market. He says, “I was chair for three years. Then I got into the Fort Thomas market and I thought that this is how a market should be run.” And here is today. Growing. Harvesting. Presenting. Promoting. And he sits on the new Fort Thomas Farmers Market board. It’s hard work.

We stand out in the field with the horses nuzzling us for food. My wife lets them eat a head of lettuce from her hands. I look around the farm and ask him what he enjoys from all of this. He says, “All of it. I enjoy making people happy. If I didn’t work, I’d get sour. I get pleasure from people liking what we grow.” And that’s it right there. That’s all you need to know. That’s how you grow quality produce. That’s how you grow community. It’s hard work. But it’s worth it. 

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