Hey folks! This is Kelsey Cloonan, new Grow Appalachia Site Coordinator and Community Agriculture Director at Cowan Community Center in Letcher County. I’m thrilled to be here at Cowan where there is such a long history of community based food security work that continues so strongly today. One of the most exciting things for me, besides getting to work with an organization that places the people of its community above all else, is the chance to work in food security and agriculture right here in Letcher County.

This is the land that part of my family comes from. On Cram Creek and Pine Creek in Mayking, my Granny and Papaw grew up and fell in love, eventually moving to Jessamine County where I would come to know these mountains from their stories. I also got to know these mountains through their garden. They grew a large garden every year, and when we would visit in the summer, I got to help – digging fresh taters from the earth with Granny, under beans that towered to the sky – so high she needed a ladder come harvest time. Watching my Papaw slowly walk along the rows, regarding each and every detail of the land he studied and loved, I began to develop my own relationship with the land around me.

Now, having found my way back all the way home in my thirties, it feels like one big, beautiful circle. Coming home to not just Eastern Kentucky, but to a life full Eastern Kentucky gardens and gardeners.

Getting my hands in the dirt early on digging for doodlebugs at Granny & Papaw's

I swear I was having the time of my life!

Everyone in the garden during one of our spring visits to Granny and Papaw's.

High Bridge, KY

Developing a very early love for snap peas.

High Bridge, KY

After small balcony and roof gardens over the years, finally getting to grow in a big in-ground garden at my Aunt and Uncle's!

Wilmore, KY

The next stop on my own gardening journey, Cowan Grow Appalachia has welcomed me with open arms. This year, many of our local producers are still in the process of recovering from last summer’s flood. Thanks to Grow Appalachia, growers have had access to soil testing for heavy metals and many gardens have been replenished with high quality compost to offset large sand deposits and improve overall soil health. I’ve noticed an increased need for supplies like t-posts, trellising, fencing, and ground cover– a lot of which was swept away. Cowan’s Grow Appalachia program this year takes on an even more important role as it helps growers not just replace what was lost and navigate ways to adapt growing practices, but also come together to build each other up for another growing season. I hope that as Cowan’s Site Coordinator, I’m able to create an environment where growers feel connected, hopeful, joyful, and empowered with know-how and equipment they need as we move into this season. So far, thanks to support from our partners and enthusiasm of our growers, this long time work at Cowan looks to be just growing and growing.

Here are updates from a few of our Cowan Grow Appalachia participants!

From Feathered Farm, Andrea Taylor is a home-based grower and market vendor who was a part of Cowan’s Grow Appalachia community early on and is back with us this year! She and her family grow on land that has been farmed by her family for the past four generations. Last year, Andrea and her family joined the City of Whitesburg Farmers Market to sell their farm fresh eggs and will be doing so again this year.

We garden on very small .65 acres to be exact so we have to get crafty to produce enough for our family. This years cold crops seem to be doing great along with my companion marigolds. Starts in the green house of tomatoes are looking beautiful and I can’t wait to get them in the ground, but not before Mother’s Day! Gotta stick with Grandpa’s ways.

This year I am taking the tomatoes and potatoes out of the garden and trying something new with them in hopes of gaining more growing space and learning new ways to do old things. We are making a tomato patch on a separate section of the yard that gets more sun, with at least two 16 ft cattle panels. Hopes are to grow enough to preserve all the tomato product my family consumes in a year. Salsa, cold pack tomatoes, spaghetti sauce and tomato soup. I am transferring my potatoes to the hill behind the garden, at the base of the mountain, and cover it in a heavy straw bed. It’s new but after much research I believe it will work, keep down weeds behind the garden, expand our potato harvest and keep us from cutting them when we dig them, allowing us to keep them longer through the winter. This year we are hoping to be able to break the garden into different spots and expand our pounds harvested.

From Knott County, Rebecca and her family are first time Grow App growers! Rebecca and I found out at one of our first Grow App meetings that she and I were actually neighbors for a short time when I lived in Knott County– just one of the many wonderful connections thanks to Grow! Her kids Conner and Ryker also participate in our Young Growers & Makers program. Seeing the entire family engaged and excited about growing has been one of my personal highlights this year.

This is my first year growing in many years. My father usually grows our family’s garden but I’ve taken over as he’s aging. We’ve started over 100 plant starts! Cabbage (stone head, sharp head, early jersey), bravo broccoli, and kohlrabis. We’ve also got onions, lettuce, cauliflower, cabbage, and 1 tomato is grow bags. We’re trying grow bags and no gas powered tilling this year. Our tiller was damaged in the flood and we’ve still not repaired it. So far our growing season is off to a great start. I’m worried about the possibility of a hard late frost and  any possible impurities that will come back in the soil samples. Our extension office is quite backed up on getting samples back right now. I’m excited about the grow Appalachia classes on pest control, and weed management. I’m also excited to learn more about organic fertilizers. 

Alice White is another first year grower with us! Alice came to our very first Tuesday Table Talk at CANE Kitchen this year. Our Tuesday Table Talk lunchtime gatherings started up as a way to encourage continual community building among local gardeners and farmers. Farming and gardening can often be isolating in ways– us on our own with maybe a partner or friend toiling away the day with our plants and soil. Events like Table Talk are exciting because not only do they give space for growers to meet and spend time with other growers, but they allow for connections, network building, and skill sharing to happen on a regular basis. The brand new connections made among our local growers that have happened this year have left me in awe. We all know the kind of magic that happens when growers get to talk with other growers all about growing! Here are some words from our new grower Alice on her first months of this year’s growing season in her new home:

This is my first year growing outside of herbs and flowers! In addition, we moved to a new home making repairs and trying to make it our own. Trying to soak everything in, raising a family, and keeping a household; it has been a juggle. However, receiving encouragement from the program, seeds, and class information has made it easier and more enjoyable.

I had to tear out a playground with gravel, add suitable dirt, build a fence, and paint it.  So far this year, I have planted 6 blueberry bushes, 4 peach trees, 5 blackberry bushes, 3 persimmon trees, garden vegetables/herbs, and 30 plus other trees and plants for ornamental purposes and provide stability to my hill.

I actually look forward to the classes and fellowship because I always learn something new!

Thanks to our growers, Andrea, Rebecca, and Alice for their contributions to this month's blog! And to all of you for reading.

I'll sign off here with a beautiful photo of the view from Alice's garden. We'll see y'all next month!