Courtney Farms is in the second year of diversifying away from a dependence on tobacco income and into vegetable production through a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

“We started out tobacco farmers and have quite a bit of tobacco still,” said Mary Courtney, who owns the 94-acre Kentucky Proud farm near Bagdad in Shelby County with her husband, Shane. “I don’t know how long we’ll stay tobacco farmers because we don’t want to be at the mercy of other people with the uncertainty of the industry right now.

“We wanted to diversify,” she added. “That’s the reason we went into vegetable production.”

Courtney Farm’ CSA has doubled in size over the past year, from 48 members last summer to 96 now. Although the farm is located in northeast Shelby County, most of its membership is in neighboring Jefferson County to the west.

With the CSA booming, the Courtneys thought selling their excess vegetables at a farmers’ market would be a perfect fit. But last summer, with Shane busy tending to the family’s 65-acre tobacco patch, Mary discovered that being a farmers’ market vendor isn’t for her.

Mary started last summer selling at some farmers’ markets in Louisville, but it proved very labor intensive with lots of packing and unpacking. She had to load and unload vegetables, cash registers, table cloths, and signage, as well as tending to her two young kids, one of whom wasn’t even crawling.

Turned into real challenge

“It was really challenging for me with two children,” said Mary, who also didn’t like having to compost some of the vegetables that didn’t sell.

There had to be another way, Mary thought, to sell small amounts of vegetables to individuals. “So over the course of the winter, I kept thinking about this,” she said.

The A La Carte program

The solution she came up with was Courtney Farms’ A La Carte program. Mary calls it “sort of a virtual farmers’ market” that allows people to go to the farm’s website, www.CourtneyFarmsCSA.com; place a small order ($12 minimum for non-CSA members), and choose between six locations in Shelbyville and Louisville to pick it up.

Mary discussed her idea with one of her business confidants, Louisville Farm-to-Table Program coordinator Sarah Fritschner, an author and former food editor for The Louisville Courier-Journal.

“Sarah thought it could work really well, too, and gave me the confidence to go for it,” Mary said. “I don’t know anybody else that really does what we do.

“For some people, the regular CSA is not a good fit,” Mary said. “Maybe they don’t eat a lot at home, their schedule is helter-skelter, or they’re not crazy about cold-season crops but love warm crops like sweet corn and melons. It’s a little different twist to a CSA.”

A La Carte offers vegetables grown at Courtney Farms. They include: three varieties of beets (candy-striped, golden and red), rainbow Swiss chard, cucumbers, freshly-dug garlic, green onions, two varieties of squash (yellow and Zephyr, which is part yellow and green), and zucchini.

For additional A La Carte offerings, Courtney Farms collaborates with a number of local farmers, most of whom reside in Shelby and surrounding counties:

• Swallow Rail Farm in Simpsonville provides asparagus, blueberries, herbs, eggs, lamb, and specialty vegetables.
• Mulberry Orchard in Shelbyville supplies apples and peaches.
• Stone Cross Farms and Cloverdale Creamery in Taylorsville provide beef, pork, and English-style farmstead cheeses made from local milk in four flavors (plain, smoked, chive onion, and Cowbells in Clover, which is similar to Double Gloucester).
• Highland Livestock in Waddy supplies frozen hamburger patties and ground beef, and beef jerky in hickory-smoked original and black pepper varieties.
• Debbie Young in Finchville provides Hampshire-Suffolk cross lamb.
• Cedar Haven Farm in Waddy and Shelby Countian Suzi Rice both supply blackberries.
• David Davidson in Henry County and the Hogg family in Shelbyville both provide eggs.
• Franklin County producer Mike Salyers supplies mild and hot sausage, and asparagus.
• Franklin County beekeeper Joel Shrader provides raw honey.
• Fayette County producer Todd Clark supplies whole chickens and turkeys.
• Smiley's Strawberries in Washington County provides their namesake fruit.
• Gilkison Farms in Winchester supplies black raspberries.
• Steve Isaacs in Nonesuch provides table grapes.

There have been some growing pains with A La Carte, as with any new venture, but Mary is happy with the results. “Once we get the kinks out, get the logistics worked out, I think it’ll be really good for us,” she said.

Also sells to grocery stores

Courtney Farms also sells to grocery stores and distributors such as Grasshoppers, a Louisville-based CSA that gets its meats, dairy products, and produce from more than 60 family farms in Kentucky and southern Indiana.

“They complement each other,” Mary said of sales to both grocery and distributors. “Whereas a CSA member will appreciate the beauty in a two-legged carrot, a grocery store wouldn’t allow it.”

Mary said the recognition of the Kentucky Proud logo and the association with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s marketing program has made a big impact on her CSA business.

“To me, it’s real simple,” Mary said. “The Kentucky Proud logo is a brand for all of us Kentucky farmers. It’s an easily recognizable brand for the consumer. They know if they choose that brand, they’re supporting a local farmer.”

Courtney Farms proudly displays the logo on its CSA boxes. “When the boxes leave, we have our [Courtney Farms] sticker and the Kentucky Proud sticker on all of them,” Mary said.

Children of Kentucky farm families

Mary and Shane both grew up on tobacco and beef cattle farms in Kentucky, Mary in Springfield and Shane in Dry Ridge. Mary’s father is still a full-time farmer in Washington County.

During the summer of 2001, while attending college at the University of Kentucky, Mary was an intern at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. She worked with dairy, goats, and beef, and was also involved in preliminary meetings for the marketing program that later became Kentucky Proud. Those meetings taught Mary something “that never left my mind,” she said — that local food was the wave of the future.

After Shane and Mary graduated from UK and got married, they settled in Shelby County in 2003. Shane taught agriculture at Shelby County High School, and Mary worked as a lender for Farm Credit Services.

“Both of our childhoods were rich in farming,” Mary wrote on the farm’s website, “yet as adults we found ourselves working very long hours indoors and not getting to enjoy a passion we shared.”

The Courtneys took the first step in that direction by starting a lawn care business called Lawns of Perfection, which they still operate today. That got them back outdoors and gave them the confidence to return to their roots in 2006, when they purchased their farm.

“Following in the footsteps of our parents, we are traditional tobacco farmers,” Mary wrote. “Needing to diversify, and the strong desire to raise our two children on the farm, we have turned to answer a community need: nutritious, local food — delivered.”

When Mary tends to the farm’s 20 acres of vegetables, she takes her children, 3-year-old Lucas and 1-year-old Elly, with her.

“I’ll never forget, one day last year, I needed 60 more Brussels sprouts,” Mary said. “All our farm workers were gone, it was just me and the kids, so all three of us went out to the field together. I had her (Elly) in a car seat, and I tucked her in under the Brussels sprouts as I went down the row picking, with okra on the other side helping shade her.”

Mary is proud that her kids aren’t like many of their young peers, some of whom are separated two and three generations from farming.

“They do everything along with us,” Mary said. “They’ll grow up appreciating everything they eat.”