What happens when a young couple, fresh out of ag school at UK, decides to ditch two promising jobs, buy 45 acres in Shelby County, and launch a full-time farming operation cold turkey?
It's no fairy tale that Shane and Mary Courtney have experienced since they took that fateful step in 2008. But nine years, four kids and 150 additional acres later, they insist they wouldn't consider any major changes in the career or family track they chose back then.
That's not to say there haven't been setbacks along the way, the couple told a visiting group of Agribusiness Industry Network members during a Sept. 7 tour of Courtney Farms. But they are more committed than ever, they say, to making their ever-evolving farm business plan a long-term financial success.
The Courtneys, natives of Grant and Washington counties, envisioned burley tobacco as the linchpin of their farm as they were getting started. They leased nearby farms and barns and planted 50 acres the first year. That acreage has since swelled to nearly 100 acres and is still a major component of their operation.
But along the way, they concluded that diversification into vegetable production would complement their seasonal work in tobacco, and ensure their H2A laborers a longer work calendar. And the added enterprises would also fit their goal of marketing a portion of their farm products locally.
The couple started small-scale, selling subscriptions to weekly deliveries of produce in season, got their horticultural legs under them so to speak, and quickly evolved into primarily a volume supplier of vegetables to wholesale markets in Louisville and Lexington.
They currently grow and market some 40 different vegetable varieties, ranging from tomatoes to Swiss chard, eggplant to zucchini. Their products are prepared and consumed in 100 different commercial kitchens and retail outlets in the Louisville area alone, including restaurants, groceries, school cafeterias and Kentucky Derby events.
The farm also is home to a herd of beef cattle, and this year for the first time, they are raising hogs and selling pork locally.
Grain production is also part of the Courtneys' ag portfolio. Shane said with commodity prices at their current low levels, he has begun producing non-GMO corn which he markets through Bagdad Roller Mill for use by several nearby bourbon distilleries.
Challenges have been many for the young farm couple as they face their 10th year as full-time farmers. Marketing strategies and production methods have been tried, discarded and modified many times as they've built their business.
But off-the-farm issues have caused them the most problems, Mary noted, including the astronomical cost of family health insurance, and a sometimes balky federal bureaucracy as they navigated the H2A guest worker program.
Case in point, there was a huge hiccup at the U.S. consulate last year and the Courtneys had to get by the entire year (2016) on six guest workers, instead of the 18 they needed. That meant a sharp reduction in their planned tobacco crop and season-long challenges to meeting marketing commitments for their vegetables. All that, of course, put a huge dent in their bottom line.
But the good news is they have been back at full strength for 2017, the weather has mostly cooperated and the proprietors of Courtney Farms are looking ahead to 2018.
"Every year we ask each other if one of us should take an off-farm job to provide a little added financial stability," Mary said. "And so far each year we've said no. The kids have fully bought into the lifestyle and I don't want to even imagine having to change that.
"It's been anything but easy, and at times it gets exhausting. But it's the most rewarding work in the world. It's exactly where we want to be."
Gary Huddleston | AIN Chairman