I grew up the oldest of six kids. My mom and dad built a house with the GI bill after my dad served in WWII. The eight of us lived in 900 square feet.
The house was built in a new subdivision carved out of farmland in Northern Kentucky, long before the Interstate, when the vegetable vendor wheeled his cart by to sell his produce, the milk company brought bottled milk to your front porch, the egg farm delivered eggs and the local grocery delivered food. These weren't convenience services, they were necessities.
Not every home had a car, and if it did, dad took it to work leaving hundreds of houses filling up with kids as the returning soldiers and their young brides got busy building a family, and a roaring economy.
My dad was the first person in the history of his family who had never farmed for a living. Which meant that when we visited our relatives, often we were going to a farm.
Our back yard had a barbed wire fence separating us from the farms behind us. One jump over that fence with my hatchet, bowie knife, canteen and knapsack, I could wander the vast forest behind our subdivision that spread out for ten miles to the banks of the Ohio River, without ever seeing another house, or a road or another person. This is where I lived as a boy. It became my happy place and I knew from a very young age that I wanted to live on a farm one day.
At 15 I met my wife of 49 years, Harriet. It was truly love at first sight. But that's another whole story.
As our relationship grew I came to learn that her family had been early pioneers in Kentucky, having crossed the Cumberland gap and carved a wonderful and successful life out of the mountains of eastern Kentucky. The wilderness, farming and an appreciation for the "old time ways" of doing things coursed through our blood. It is truly a match made in heaven.
We spent our young years getting an education, but finding time to be in the outdoors as much as possible. We made up our minds that as soon as my schooling was done we would start looking for a farm, but first things first. We had a family to start.
Our oldest of two sons was born in 1980. Within a few weeks my friends dropped by to see our new baby. On one memorable visit two buddies said they were on their way to go scouting a farm in Owen County Kentucky for deer hunting. I was hypnotized by the idea.
My father had never hunted at all in my lifetime. But I had. I began with an old BB gun, and in high school I bought my first shotgun to hunt squirrels. Shortly I started looking for anybody who had a farm, whose grandfather had a farm, or anybody they knew had a farm where I could hunt. In those days rabbits and quail were plentiful and made up my entire weekends through high school, college and law school. But when I heard about deer hunting my imagination ran wild.
After all, it was the plentiful game in Kentucky that brought Daniel Boone here to explore, survey and make a life for the rest of us in the dark and bloody ground known as "Kentucke" the Iroquoian word for "prairie". As the story goes, when Col. Boone first stood on a high ledge and looked out over the vast grasslands of this new frontier, the wind blowing our signature prairie grass was named. Boone thought at first he was watching waves upon water because as the grass bowed and bent it gave off a blue sheen, hence its name "bluegrass" and that of our own contribution to the arts, "bluegrass" music.
The idea of deer hunting so enamored me that at the moment I fist heard of it, I became absorbed in it, and remain so to this day.
After a number of seasons hunting in Owen County, I ran across a piece of land for sale. I made it my goal to buy it, but I was just a one man lawyer, now retired after 42 years, a country lawyer with the same secretary the entire time, and no money. It was 1985 and the economy was tough, interest rates were high and land costs low. I found a way and bought what is now, Steepleview Farm.
It had been an old dairy farm decades earlier, predominately a tobacco and hay farm by the time I first saw it, and run down due to the age and infirmity of its owners. What we bought was more of a "tear her downer" than a "fix'er upper" but with youth and dreams and and lot of hard work, we bought the place and undertook a lifetime of loving work to make it the beautiful gem it is today.
After two years of work to make it livable we moved with two small sons from our home in the suburbs to what was then a very remote neck of the woods, so remote that we couldn't get a plumber, an electrician, a painter or any help at all to come this far. So, I had to learn to do it myself, and without the help of Youtube, the Internet or "How To" videos. In fact in those days, the only phone call that wasn't long distance was to my neighbor to the north. Even a call to the neighbor across the street was to a different area code.
Our first winter in the house was quite memorable. We didn't have a furnace, the house had been abandoned in the middle of a plowed field. When it snowed outside, it snowed inside, the windows rattled in the frames.
We had to tear out the galvanized plumbing, replace the knob and tube electric, remove all the overhead extension cords that fed the out buildings, start rebuilding fences and clearing land. And here's where it gets really fun. We did it all with hand tools.
I had no equipment, you couldn't rent it back then, and I knew from reading how the pioneers in my wife's family had done it. It could be done, it was very hard work, but I felt as if I was walking in the footsteps of our frontier ancestors. And to make it fun for the boys, so they wouldn't fell like it was work, we dressed up as pioneers, as cowboys, in Amish looking clothing, sometimes buckskins, sometimes Civil War attire. We were living history together and sharing it with any one who wanted to come. And boy did they.
We hosted many campouts, boy scouts, school groups, friends and neighbors. From campfires out in the woods, to bluegrass bands and fireworks on the fourth of July, we opened up our little piece of heaven to everyone. We invited kids to come fish, men to come hunt and along the way when they saw what we were doing, they even pitched in with a day or two of work.
Eventually the boys grew up and moved away. They found beautiful wives of their own and made their lives in Lexington where they had gone to school at the "Big Blue" UK.
One evening as Harriet and I were having dinner alone on the deck, a tractor working a field I had leased for a tobacco crop stirred up dust that blew over our plates. Harriet looked at me and said "Isn't there anything else we can do to make money on the farm, something more conducive to OUR lifestyle?" I had to stop and think a minute. The first thing I had to think about was "What does she mean 'our LIFESTYLE'? I was a little struck by that. I didn't think of what we had been doing as a "lifestyle". It was just what I did every day.
We heated with wood, which is a big job. We raise all of our own food, a full time job plus. We butchered beef, we butchered hogs, raised chickens, built fence, pruned an orchard and worked every available hour 'til after dark many many nights, to take care of this place. Lifestyle? I told her I'd think about it.
I had become a lawyer because I heard lawyers spent a lot of time in libraries, and I had always loved reading and loved libraries. So, I went to the local agriculture extension office and asked the agent "What else other than tobacco, cattle and hay can I do to make money on our farm?" He handed me a stack of pamphlets, brochures and magazine articles. I was in heaven. I had a new course to study.
I'll never forget seeing the cover of a magazine that boasted that "The future of farming is organic food." What in the world is organic food, I wondered.
Remember, we had very little access to the internet, and there was certainly no Whole Foods, Fresh Market or the like. I couldn't think of ever seeing the word "organic" on any label anywhere. Kroger's didn't have an organic section, much less feature "organic food" in any way. So I studied on it.
I came to learn that it was a movement that seemed to be centered in California. So, Harriet and I packed up and went there. We traveled all over the state, from LA to Oregon, stopping everywhere we could to learn what was going on. And soon we discovered that in California, "organic" was not a "movement" , it was a religion.
There were no stores that were not organic. And they had farmers' markets there, something not yet seen in Kentucky, and the farmer's markets there were "happening" events, with large enthusiastic crowds, lots of organic growers and tons of information to learn.
We came home from the trip and we agreed, organic food is what we'd been growing for all our lives on the farm and didn't know it.
We had learned to grow food naturally, to preserve it by canning, freezing, drying, and fermenting. Our preferred source of protein was venison and rabbits, and quail and fish from our ponds. I told Harriet "We can do this. And, it is going to be a while until it catches on in Kentucky, so we have plenty of time to practice and make mistakes without anybody knowing what we are up to." And that's how we got started in running an all natural produce farm for over a decade.
But things change. Farm work is hard, hot, dirty and doesn't pay much. Labor on a large scale production is in low supply. We still do all of our work by hand, no tractors with air conditioned cabs. Profit margins are very slim and without chemicals, we were fighting a nuclear war with bows and arrows. Crop losses were heavy.
Along the way we started developing recipes from how we had learned to use fresh healthy produce feeding our family. We started having some of our crops turned into jarred products, shelf stable, able to be sold long after the fresh produce season had ended.
Then in 2018 we decided to increase the time we were spending making shelf stable products (called "value added" products). And that part of our business showed real potential for growth. Then COVID hit.
By 2021 we were really in a pinch. The fresh market sales in 2020 were great, but as soon as people got used to ordering online and doorstep delivery, another level of difficulty was rolled in our path.
The kitchens we had been renting to make our value added products had not re-opened, people were less interested in driving to a farm in the heat of summer to get produce when they could get the grocery to bring it to them. We had to do something.
In the summer of 2021 a second house which was on the farm when we bought it but which we sold 30 years prior, was for sale. It was, to say the least, in deplorable condition. But never one to shy away from the impossible, we bought it and started the renovation of what we came to learn was a circa 1858 home with a deep history in our community.
On December 1st, 2022 we will complete a two year project, the regeneration of "The Old Coates Homestead', home to our new commercial food manufacturing facility, my new country law office (Old lawyers never really retire, they just lose their appeal), the farm office and, a real jewel, a short term rental (think AirBNB) suite that makes the perfect romantic country getaway where the option for private gourmet meals will be offered.
It's been a long journey to here. I hope there's a lot more to come, Lord willing. But one thing is certain.
Steepleview Farm is truly a little piece of heaven, and we still believe that we are called to share the blessings God has bestowed upon us with as many people as possible.
Today we raise the ingredients for our amazing gourmet foods which we make right here on the farm and sell online.
We also operate as a business devoted to helping others by guiding them through the tricky waters of the "value added" food movement. We help them develop their own recipes, produce and package their products for them, counsel land consult on developing demand within their own niche and in the end help them add an income stream to their households by introducing to the world the amazing quality, flavors and enjoyment of small batch craft foods.