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January 15, 2014

Grow McCreary County

Officials see economic, health benefits

WHITLEY CITY —  An offhand comment from McCreary County Judge-Executive Doug Stephens at December’s fiscal court meeting about getting the jail kitchen USDA certified for commercial use has created quite a stir in the community.

    While no one expects agriculture to become the county’s leading industry, officials are developing an agribusiness plan to take advantage of the farm-to-table movement which has been gaining ground across the country, particularly in Kentucky.

    “McCreary County is not a big agriculture county but we do have a lot of small, specialty farmers,” Judge Stephens said.

    The county plans to convene by the end of this month a board of “knowledge brokers” who can help facilitate agricultural programs. Stephens said the group includes four members so far though more partners are being identified.

    One such partners is Grow Appalachia, created in 2009 with funding from Paul Mitchell founder John Paul Dejoria to promote food security and better nutrition in one of the nation’s poorest regions. Managed by Berea College, the program was introduced in McCreary County last year.

    “Local agriculture should be one of the most important focuses of the country,” McCreary Deputy Judge-Executive Andrew Powell said, “not only from of a standpoint of feeding yourself in a bad economy but in terms of homeland security.”

    Judge Stephens agrees, noting that Berea has received national attention as a self-sustaining community.

    On its own, the benefits of Grow Appalachia seem limited mainly to its participants. But in conjunction with other initiatives, local producers could have the opportunity to significantly supplement their income.

    An example Powell gives is a local gardener selling tomatoes by the pound for a certain profit margin, which can be increased if sold in bulk to groceries or restaurants. The profit margin further increases if the raw tomatoes are processed into value added products such as salsa or spaghetti sauce.

    With the county’s median household income at just under $22,000, Powell noted that a $5,000 increase in income could help many local families. Those dollars turn over 7-9 times in a local economy, he added.

    Businesses could benefit as well, as the state offers incentives to purchase Kentucky Proud products. Public agencies and schools are also encouraged to buy local.

    The Kentucky Department of Agriculture has also established programs such as Ready, Set, Grow for youth and Homegrown Heroes for veterans.

    With Grow Appalachia starting its second year locally, the county plans to open a farmers’ market in May. Last fall, McCreary County Economic and Community Development Director Susan Stephens in coordination with the Lake Cumberland District Health Department applied for a $5,000 farmers’ market grant through the Kentucky Department for Public Health’s Healthy Communities Grant Program.

    The McCreary County Jail, which has now been closed for a year, has some $10,000 worth of commercial kitchen equipment (including a stove, fryer, refrigerator and sink). Judge-Executive Stephens is proposing to utilize the kitchen (as well as one office and one bathroom) as an incubator for fledgling food entrepreneurs.

    The rest of the facility including cells would be closed off.

    County officials recently met with the health local inspector to determine what needed to be done for the USDA certification needed to product value-added items.

    Powell noted that the facilities in question are in good shape, with some $300 spent to take up the floor tiles and seal the concrete floor.

    When that project is completed, Judge Stephens hopes to present fiscal court with a resolution to seek the certification.

    The building remains included with the county’s liability insurance policy but those using the facility would also needed to be individually permitted by the health department to legally sell their wares. Further details on how the program would be structured would be developed by the new ag board but the goal is to have the kitchen certified for use some time this fall so that producers can work with this year’s harvest.

    “This isn’t an all inclusive answer to solve all our problems but just one piece to a larger puzzle,” Judge Stephens said. “Every piece is important. This is an opportunity for community building.”

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