May 5, 1999 | By: Mark Eclov

Visitors passing through the mountain regions of eastern Kentucky may have a hard time envisioning this largely vertical terrain as a fertile area for farm crops.

But people like Wolfe county strawberry grower Donnie McQuinn and Morgan County vegetable growers George and Erma Fannin will tell you that this land and climate can grow some quality crops.

And Terry Jones, a horticulture specialist in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture agrees, stationed at the Robinson Experiment station.

"The potential roadside and farmer's market situation in eastern Kentucky is good. "Right now there aren't enough growers to meet even local demand," said Jones.

Jones added that along with a need for this produce, there is also enough land to grow a diverse variety of vegetables and fruits.

"It may look as if we have a limited land resource base, but we have a tremendous amount of river bottom left that can be used for vegetables and fruits" said Jones.

"Some of our hillsides and mountain tops are great spots for fruit trees. If you plant on the north and east facing sides of a mountain, you can delay bloom and get better fruit color and the breezes on the hillsides will help keep down disease problems," added Jones.

But having the land and a potential demand for your product are not always enough. Mountain growers will tell you that success also depends on intangibles such as loving the work, choosing crops that fit current work schedules and finding reliable markets and labor. These are factors that relate to growing fruits and vegetables anywhere in the state.

George and Erma Fannin started raising sweet corn on a portion of their Morgan county river bottom land in 1991. They sold that first crop under the shade of two big maple trees located near their house.

Since that time the maple trees have blown down, but the Fannin vegetable operation has expanded to nine acres of sweet corn and six acres that produce crops as diverse as pumpkins, squash, broccoli and tomatoes.

They started with sweet corn and graduated into green beans. Their previous county agent and current Extension Ag agent Chris Lindon have been helpful in finding information on management practices and Terry Jones provided tips on crop varieties, pest control and marketing. They also contacted numerous specialists at the UK College of Agriculture for advice on developing markets and production techniques.

The Fannins also have the necessary labor pool. Their children provide periodic help and three local women help with the constant care and harvesting process that goes on throughout the summer. A close friend helps transfer fresh produce to markets in Lexington.

"You will need lots of schooling and it costs money for equipment. You have to enjoy it," added George Fannin.

Jones also emphasized that success is best achieved by starting small and working your way up to a manageable operation.

"I would begin by going one step larger than our personal garden and grow enough additional crop so that you can either be sell it at a roadside stand or take it to a local farmer's market," said Jones.

"By selling your produce with more experienced growers, you can begin to understand such issues as quality marketing and pricing. If nothing else, you will quickly find out if you can stand the general public squeezing all your produce to see if it is ripe!" said Jones.

Vegetable crops should also be chosen according to their requirements for labor and equipment.

"A commercial cabbage crop is a good way to start," said Jones. "If you have grown tobacco, it is the next step up. You use a lot of the same equipment and you will need a better spray program and that teaches you to be a little bit better manager."

The next step would be to try a crop of peppers that are resistant to bacterial leaf spot. "This teaches you to use such items as black plastic mulch, tensiometers, drip irrigation and the appropriate spray program," he said.

Jones calls raising tomatoes the next quantum leap. "A tenth of an acre of properly grown tomatoes can generate $3,000 of income... but you earn it. Producers will need a professional sprayer in addition to all the other equipment needed for less labor-intensive crops.

And count on about 500 hours of picking labor per acre of tomatoes," added Jones.

"For beginning fruit growers, crops like blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are a good way to start. They demand less management than tree fruits or strawberries," said Jones. "As a homeowner, you can grow varieties of apples or pears that are resistant to rust, scab and fire blight, but the appearance of these varieties suffers from some of the summer diseases," he said.

Fred Deaton currently manages a "hobby" apple orchard of over 250 trees in Breathitt county. He started with three trees and was tempted to increase his orchard after he learned to inexpensively graft trees through his county agent Lowell Hamilton.

"The market is there for apples. The quality we can grow here is excellent. If I wasn't working full-time (as a principal at an area technology school) I could make this a paying propostion," said Deaton.

Commercial quality apple growers will need to invest in the appropriate equipment including such items as a sprayer, air compressor, professional pruning equipment and refrigerated storage equipment which can take the initial investment costs well over five figures.

Donnie McQuinn started growing fruit crops in 1980. His property can best be described as steep hills bordering the Red River Gorge state park where he has successfully grown strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and pears.

McQuinn is not afraid of work and he loves growing fruit crops. After spending a full day as a school teacher, he can be found working in his gardens till dusk.

"I was a farmer's son and enjoy tinkering with it. Strawberries are more labor intensive than anything, but they sell very well. Blackberries also sell well and take less work. It takes wise management of your time and very little TV time. I spend as much time setting alongside the road selling my produce as I do in the growing process," said McQuinn.

McQuinn has turned to Jones and Wolfe County agent Ted Johnson for information on how to grow his crops, control disease and store his harvested produce.

Jones said that most agriculture agents possess at least a basic knowledge of how to get started in horticulture and fruit crops and have written information, instructional video tapes and vital links for solving problems and arranging for training sessions with state subject matter specialists from the UK College of Agriculture.

Contact: 

Writer: Mark Eclov 
Phone: 606-257-7223

Source: Terry Jones
Phone: 606-666-2438