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More Than a Market: Sustainable Farming from the Women of Appalachia

Red River Gorge Farmers Market vendors Emily Foster (left), Whitney Hamblin and Alex Petit pose for photos behind Hamblin's flower stand in Slade, Ky. on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022. Photo by Carter Skaggs.

Alex Petit begins each morning with a ritual. Consuming medicinal mushrooms and milky oats, Petit prepares for a day of farming herbs with reverence. Petit is one of several female farmers tucked away within the hollers of East-Central Kentucky, using plants to empower and engage community members.

The Red River Gorge Farmers Market provides these farmers with a space to meet consumers face-to-face and form connections. The market, open from May to October, hosts several small businesses from surrounding counties and provides goods ranging from fresh vegetables to herbal tea. It is located at the Slade County Welcome Center on Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.

Petit is a familiar face at the market and can be found set up next to Sarah Barney, owner of Among the Oaks, a medicinal herb farm located in Beattyville, Kentucky. Petit and Barney want to continue the rich history of herbal medicine within Appalachia and provide people with an alternative to pharmaceuticals. Petit is a self-described “hippie” who centers her life around holistic health and spirituality, but it was not always this way.

The morning's selection of vegetables and herbs from Revival Ridge Farm was bought out by the farmers market goers on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022 in Slade, Ky. Photo by Carter Skaggs.

In 2008, two days after graduating high school, Petit started basic training at the United States Air Force Academy. After graduating, Petit spent four years stationed in Mountain Home, Idaho. Following this, she spent two years at the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. After being in the military for 10 years, Petit retired on June 17, 2018. Reveling in her newfound freedom, Petit said she began backpacking around the world, traveling everywhere from Nepal to Nuevo León.

“I was really enjoying the adventure of travel but realized it was not filling my cup completely. These same things kept following me no matter how exotic my life got. I didn't feel complete fulfillment,” Petit said.

At the start of 2020, rock climbing led Petit to the Red River Gorge where she instantly fell in love.

Petit said she began her “plant journey” by foraging wild ginger, chanterelles and morels from the forest floor. It was then that she noticed how healing plant medicine could be. Shortly after, Barney needed another set of hands at Among the Oaks, and Petit was hired.

Among the Oaks provides dried herbs, teas and tinctures. They believe that plants hold the key to health and strive to provide high-quality herbs ethically and sustainably sourced.

Revival Ridge Farm owner Emily Foster sells her vegetables Red River Gorge Farmers Market in Slade, Ky. every Saturday during the season. Photo by Carter Skaggs.

Emily Foster, owner of Revival Ridge Farm, holds true to these same values, selling high-quality, locally grown produce. Foster, Petit and other female farmers can be found laughing and sharing plant knowledge on sunny market mornings. They have even joked about getting matching leather jackets for their “big girl squad,” Foster said.

Foster, with a zeal for sustainable agriculture and social justice, said she always had her heart set on having a farm.

After attending Miami University and graduating with a degree in environmental science and sustainability in 2017 and working on several farms, Foster said she was more than prepared for her own agricultural endeavor.

In 2020, Foster began her first growing season on half an acre within Muir Valley.

Foster named her farm Revival Ridge due to its geography and history as well as her personal journey.

“Our property is located on Tar Ridge Road, a gorgeous ridge line filled with magical forests, bedrock streams, waterfalls and dreamy old barns. The field where we grow was most likely a tobacco field until the ‘80s and hayed ever since,” Foster said. “Moving to Eastern Kentucky and starting my garden was in many ways a personal revival. My love for the land and growing things was restored at such a deep level.”

Outside of selling at the market, Foster currently has a 15-person community-supported agriculture program, or CSA. Individuals can sign up for a weekly subscription of vegetables and other garden goods. Foster hopes to continue expanding this program in future years. Largely supported by the prominent climbing community within the gorge, Foster said she believes there is no lack of enthusiasm or demand.

Revival Ridge is also open to visitors. Individuals who stop by the farm are often encouraged to pick what they desire for free or at little charge. Foster said she hopes to continue making farm-fresh food accessible to people within Appalachia by accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits at the market, implementing a sliding scale option for her CSA program, opening a donation-based farm stand, and more.

Whitney Hamblin, owner of Holler Home flower farm, explained how Foster and other seasoned RRGFM sellers have made her first market experience a pleasant one.

“This will be their second season working the market and they have been super welcoming, kind, and generally helpful. During the market, if you are struggling to do something, like set up your tent, they just stop what they're doing and come over and help you, you don't have to ask,” Hamblin said.

In her childhood, Hamblin said she fell in love with the film and novel “The Secret Garden.” Little did she know, she would grow up to sow seeds of her own. Tucked away in Irvine, Kentucky, lies Holler Home — a one-acre flower farm owned and managed by Hamblin.

Hamblin said she has always loved being outside. In 2016, Hamblin completed the Appalachian Trail — a 2,000-mile hike beginning in Georgia and ending in Maine. Two years later Hamblin set off for Brazil, where she finished a 21-day survival challenge broadcasted on the television show “Naked and Afraid.”

Throughout all of this, Hamblin said the thought of flowers lingered in the back of her mind.

Among The Oaks Herb Farm booth manager Alex Petit serves homegrown, homemade tea at the stand at the Red River Gorge Farmers Market in Slade, Ky. on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022. Photo by Carter Skaggs.

“I always kept finding myself dreaming about them or looking for some way to incorporate them into what I was doing,” Hamblin said.

She moved to Irvine in March 2021 to act as a caretaker for her parents and their 122 acres.

“The opportunity presented itself and I realized that I had all of the space I could ever want to make things grow. So I just decided, okay, let’s do it. Let’s throw some seeds in the ground and see what happens,” Hamblin said.

From there, Hamblin broke ground on Holler Home, growing a variety of flowers such as zinnias, sunflowers and black magic scabiosa.

“I feel like I can say with confidence, for the first time in my life, I think I will wake up every day excited about this,” Hamblin said.

Hamblin sells at the Red River Gorge Farmers Market but has plans of expanding to multiple venues in 2023. She also offers cut-your-own-bucket opportunities on-site as well as arranging services.

Holler Home Flower Farm owner Whitney Hamblin puts together a handpicked bouquet for a Red River Gorge Farmers Market customer at Slade, Ky. on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022. Photo by Carter Skaggs.

Within the next couple of years, Hamblin said she would like to offer bespoke arrangements for weddings. She would love to see bridal parties come and pick their own bouquets. Hamblin hopes to aid brides in moving away from commercialized aspects of weddings and refocus the experience on love and connection.

“What’s something we can do together that’s meaningful and creates memories and teaches people things and gets them outside? That’s what I want. I want to get people outside with the bugs in their face and the sun in their hair and remind them that they are very much a part of this,” Hamblin said.


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