January 6, 2010

Even though the farmers market season technically is long past in Eastern Kentucky, a kitchen at the market location in London has not gone dormant.

Judith O'Bryan dreamed up the kitchen while at a Kentucky Women in Agriculture Conference several years ago.

O'Bryan is the family and consumer sciences extension agent for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service in Laurel County. She knew the farmers in her area would be able to see a bigger profit from their crops if they had a place to craft value-added products. In most cases, that means using a certified kitchen.

"After that conference, we built an addition onto our county office and made sure the kitchen was certified just for that purpose," O'Bryan said. "Unfortunately we were a little short-sighted, and we didn't make the kitchen big enough."

So O'Bryan and her colleagues went back to the drawing board and decided a structure at the local farmers market made a lot of sense.

"We talked about how nice it would be to have a hands-on place for the farmers to try new products and provide samples," she recalled. "Plus, I wanted a space where chefs could come in to demonstrate products the farmers were selling. Unfortunately we lost funding for the kitchen before construction was complete."

O'Bryan thought the project was dead, but then a couple of years ago, the District Extension Board got behind her idea and took a chance on the project, providing funding to finish the kitchen. Finally in August 2009, the kitchen was ready for use.

Even with the market season winding down, O'Bryan and her colleagues have found many ways to break the kitchen in. Tina Bledsoe, family and consumer sciences program assistant, has taught a variety of classes already at the site, even well into winter. On a crisp, cool December day she taught a cream-pulled candy workshop to four different groups of participants.

Bledsoe said that with five stovetops and ample counter space, classes like that are easy to teach and to make every participant feel like they are a part of the action.

She has plans for the kitchen during the upcoming farmers market season as well. At the end of the 2009 season, Bledsoe had an idea to walk around to the current vendors' booths and see what was popular that day. On that particular day, it was onions.

"So I bought a bunch of onions and brought them into the kitchen here and we made all sorts of things with them, even onion rings," she said. "So it's a great way to show people how to cook the items they can buy at the market that day. I want to do a lot of that next season."

O'Bryan said the community has been supportive of the new kitchen.

"Extension has been the major user of the kitchen so far," she said. "Since we didn't get it finished until August, it was a little late for the farmers. But our goal now is to continue using it for cooking classes until the farmers market reopens this spring. We want to use it to teach basic cooking skills, canning, and things like that."

O'Bryan and Bledsoe are currently scheduling special events that will take place during the famers market, including chef demonstrations. They also plan to work on a farmers market cookbook to help market local foods and producers.