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Farming in the shadow of the city

Source: Kentucky Farm Bureau

The Greater Cincinnati area encompasses 4,546.5 square miles with a population of 2,268,393 which equates to 498.9 people per square mile, all according to census data.

With those kinds of numbers, it would be easy to think that this region has little to do with farmland and everything to do with cityscapes, subdivisions, and commercial development.

Honey Locust Farms in Kenton County, Kentucky focuses on weddings and agri-tourism events.

But the counties of Boone, Kenton, and Campbell that border the Ohio River and are short distances from the downtown area of the River City, are homes to many farming communities that have been in existence since before Kentucky was a state.

The 2022 Agriculture Census indicated there are 1,673 farms in this tri-county area which include 138,847 acres of farmed acreage.

For the farm families themselves, being located near such a large metropolitan area comes with its set of challenges, but there are also many advantages.

Bob Schwenke, along with his brother Russell, who are the second of three generations of farmers, own and operate a row crop farm in Boone County where they raise corn, soybeans, and hay. He said it is a great area for many reasons but there are also many challenges associated with being so close to such a large urban area.

“We have been farming in this area along the Ohio River for many years and have a nice farm, but we are in a county with 136,000 people so we have a lot of neighbors,” he said. “Moving equipment is a pretty big hassle getting up and down the road, so we use radios to communicate when we are doing it and only move at certain times of the day when the traffic isn’t as bad.”

Schwenke added that while there are issues, mostly with people who don't know them or have little knowledge of the farm, there are also those days when people stop and tell him how much they like what he is doing on the farm.

“There are those people who say they love what we’re doing even though they don’t have a clue about what we are doing when it comes to the farm,” he said. “But it’s nice to have those people who appreciate it and love the way the farm looks.”

Expanding their operation is also a challenge with so much commercial development around.

“The biggest drawback for us is being in an area where you don't have a lot of room to expand,” he said. “But we have been pretty blessed being here close to the river. We have rich soils, and our yields are usually good. We can also be at a grain elevator in Cincinnati within an hour which helps save on fuel costs. A lot of places in Kentucky are two or three hours away. There are definite advantages to being here in this area.”

While the Schwenkes are a more traditional farm, they have many farming neighbors who have produce selling through local markets or meat producers in the county.

“So, we've got quite a bit of agriculture here, in between subdivisions,” he said.

Art and Becky Darnell own and operate Honey Locust Farms in Kenton County, located just to the east of Boone County. It is a traditional cattle and hay operation coupled with an agri-tourism component by way of a wedding/meeting venue.

The two are first-generation farmers who have taken advantage of the farmland that is a big part of the county's topography while gaining access to the growing population that surrounds this region.

“Since I was 13 years old, I wanted to farm and when Becky and I got married, she knew I wanted to farm,” he said. “At that time, she had a house in Covington, and I was sharecropping raising tobacco, a little bit of corn, had a few cows and some wheat and hay. And every public job I ever took was to supplement my farming habit. Some people like to golf or fish, I like to farm!

The will to want a farm of their own came to fruition in 1987 when the two purchased a farm in the Piner community while both were still working other jobs.

The original farm was 144 acres and has grown over the years to about 270. Tobacco was a mainstay of the operation at first and served as the basis for their payments, but the Darnells took the tobacco buyout, expanded their cow-calf herd, added a freezer beef component of the business, and eventually built the wedding venue after a tornado took down one of the tobacco barns.

“That was supposed to be Art’s workshop but after we built it people would call and want to have meetings or parties and eventually weddings and this year is our 10th wedding season,” Becky said.

Certainly, the population of the area has helped their wedding business grow, but the Darnells are community-minded and often have various local meetings including their FFA Alumni and their county Farm Bureau. In fact, the facility hosted Kenton County Farm Bureau’s 100 anniversary in 2019 with over 1,100 in attendance during the day-long celebration.

The Darnells have also turned into educators of sorts through the many events held at the farm and by having young people come to the farm to work.

“It’s surprising how many people in this area don’t know of the farms here or how their food is grown,” Becky said. “But it’s neat to see these kids who have, either worked on the farm or came here through FFA and knew little or nothing about agriculture. Now they are living and working on their own farms because they developed a love of agriculture.”

Art is quite at home on the farm and is living a lifelong dream enjoying this rural area of the county while taking advantage of a growing population just down the road.

“I never have to take a vacation because every day on the farm is a vacation to me,” he said.

While the Darnells celebrate being that first generation on their farm, the Neltner family farm in neighboring Campbell County is multi-generations old.

“I’m the fifth generation and serve as the farm manager now,” Kevin Neltner said. "And my son works with me now full-time on the farm."

The Neltners have always raised vegetables on the 50-acre farm but it has diversified throughout the years. Today they sell a variety of produce and value-added products straight from the farm and at area markets.

“We’ve always used every square inch of the farm and we have diversified a little bit,” Neltner said. “But I’ve had to give up a few fields for parking area.”

In addition to the produce, some of which is grown in greenhouses, now, the family has created an agri-tourism destination for meetings, family gatherings, and weddings.

“We've also done corporate events and starting to do graduation and engagement parties," Neltner added. “We've even had two celebration of lives events here.”

The farm is also home to one of the largest fall festival events in the region complete with a pumpkin patch, corn maze, and dozens of family activities. It usually runs from the end of September to the end of October and brings thousands of visitors from all across the area and beyond. It is the only fall festival in the area to provide horse drawn wagon rides.

Being 20 minutes from Cincinnati has proven to be a big advantage for Neltner’s Farm giving those living in or near the city a taste of the country.

“It’s definitely an advantage being close enough to the city, but still feeling like you’re out in the country here,” Neltner said. “I'd never be able to make it vegetable farming. So, we need the agritourism part to make it. But what is amazing to me is when people come back, bringing their kids and grandkids. It makes you feel good to know multiple generations of their families have enjoyed our farm.”


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