Hi! I’m Ms. Marlena Bolin, farmer and sole proprietor of Girl Next Door Farm! I am a fifth year farmer, inspired by a dream of self-sufficiency, health and environmental advocacy, and a lifestyle similar to many an ancestor. I was born and raised in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky. But I do have some agricultural roots… My father grew up on a 2100 acre farm with his parents, and grandparents in French Lick, Indiana. My mama grew up in St. Matthews and Jeffersontown, Kentucky.
My great grandparents, Goldie and William Bolin owned the Castle Knoll Farm in French Lick, Indiana; Orange County. It was a dairy and hog operation with some row crops. William’s parents, Philomena and Bennett Bolin, my great great grandparents, farmed out in Brooks, Kentucky; Bullitt County. Actually, Philomena and her many children ran the farm operation, while Ben worked in a Louisville factory after his military service.
My great, great grandparents on my mom’s side were Stumlers out of Indiana. They are cousins to the Hubers. They both had farm operations. The Stumlers went on to have a family restaurant and the Huber’s have a vegetable and orchard operation, with a restaurant, winery and farm store. My grandma, Alene Stumler (maiden name), learned about food preservation from her mother, Mary Ann Stumler, who had a diverse backyard garden.
Though I was not raised on a farm myself, I was drawn to the idea of growing my own food and feeding myself. I value having a skill, craft, or trade. I was lucky to have family that taught me the value of hard work, independence, and a green thumb. I believe these to be the foundation of my farming principles: stewardship, discipline, self-sufficiency, and a sense of duty.
I studied Cultural Anthropology at the University of Louisville, graduating in 2005. I went on to work in the legal field after college, in hopes of pursuing environmental law, but after four years I still hadn’t found my niche. I loved natural landscapes and eating, and set out to enrich my life through the incorporation of these interests. What I learned changed my career path.
Meanwhile, I was experiencing some health problems which were a direct result of my food choices. I call this time frame my Quest for Health. My doctor suggested I start eating organic/chemical-free, plant-based whole foods and discontinue eating processed and conventionally raised or grown products. I was in a position to take the advice. This got me started on the road to wellness, though it was a dietary transition not an overnight matter.
I began doing volunteer work for two local non-profit organizations: The Community Farm Alliance and EarthSave Louisville. This involvement was supportive to my diet and lifestyle change, and very educational with regard to current issues surrounding food, nutrition, land and agriculture. I was introduced to the negative effects of an industrialized food system. I learned of eroded and nutrient depleted soils and crops, health and land devastations related to monoculture, CAFO’s, GMO’s, chemical pesticides, antibiotics, steroids, hormones and other ‘additives’ in our diet and food production.
I also learned of a counter movement taking place among concerned citizens, farmers, advocates, etc. in effort to restore balance within our food system. It suggests local initiatives to generate a profound effect on local economies across the state, country, and globe. These have and are taking the shape of: small family farm operations, tenant farming, farm internships, urban farming, community gardening, Farmer’s Markets, Community Supported Agriculture, Farm to School programs, The Healthy Hometown Movement, the Slow Food Movement, Stone Soup events, educational potlucks, conferences, Buy Local campaigns, local food distributors, and countless other locally owned businesses and non-profit organizations sharing information, raising awareness, creating opportunity, and buying local. The momentum is growing in Kentucky for a sovereign, local food economy.
THE INTERNSHIP & JOB (2009-2010)
I had a strong desire to participate in this movement well beyond what my volunteer efforts had allowed for. Upon my lap fell a farm internship opportunity at Field Day Family Farm with Farmer, Ivor Chodkowski. Like many an intern before me, I moved into that old farm house on the Oxmoor property with three other ladies. What a year! Being that I’m a legend in my own mind, I saw the transition from office to farm as something like this: Power, money, prestige, and security to being a trusted servant, living on faith, room and partial board, and a humble stipend.
The first month was hard; quite possibly the biggest mistake of my life. My spirits were at an all time low and feelings of inadequacy high. What a learning curve and physical adjustment. No more dry climate controlled conditions. No more chair, desk, or internet access. It was all field, all day. Come rain or shine, 102 degrees or 29. My mantra became, “If she can do it, I can do it.” I thought of my great grandmother having to endure the farm. I knew I could, too.
I’m such a glutton for punishment; I stayed on for another season as an employee. In my tenure, we raised chickens, hogs, and lots of chemical-free fruits and veggies! The work became more enjoyable and I began to catch on. On average, we had a crew of 6-8 and we farmed 6-8 acres. We worked the Bardstown Road Farmer’s Market every Saturday, and sold wholesale to many others.
I moved out to the La Grange property that year – 2010. We built a 60ft x 6ft x 9ft low tech green/hoop house out of rebar, reinforcing fence, plastic, and hard labor! My neighbor plowed my field that fall and disked the spring of 2011. A kind soul loaned me the use of his 1958 Massie Ferguson Tractor, from March until September, which literally allowed me to begin my own farming business. Special thanks!
In 2011, I was a committed vendor at the Rainbow Blossom Farmer’s Market on Lexington Road in Louisville, KY each Sunday from May-October. I sold my produce to various local buyers including Harvest Restaurant, The Root Cellar, Fox Hollow Farm Store, and Grasshoppers Distribution.
The first season seemed totally experimental. It was interesting, challenging, uncertain, empowering, frustrating, and rewarding. Two and a half feet of spring rain stunted all my early crops; an incorrect potting soil Ph level burned 3 rounds of transplants; then the heat advisory for two months with a drought sure made for a nervous first season! As a saving grace, it was an amazing fall. I have learned much about the lay of the land, the soil composition, timing, scale, discipline, humility, and faith.
It has been a great first season overall. I am very thankful for the opportunity to farm and for all the people that have helped me along the way. I am welcoming the much needed rest of the winter, but am looking forward to doing it again next year all the same. And doing it better!
YEAR TWO (2012)
Well, 2012 was another great year! I felt more organized, confident, and competent. I was given the opportunity to be an alternate vendor at the prestigious Beargrass Christian Church Farmer’s Market. My crop sales nearly doubled from last year, and I bought a nice, new compact Tractor – a L3400 series Kubota with a front loader to be exact. My big ego wanted a full-sized Massie Ferguson but, my little pocket book could only afford the Kubota!
Spring was strange. We had 80 degree weather in March. Needless to say that had its pros and cons. We then went right into the worst drought on record that summer. And, although I had my irrigation in place and was relatively unaffected, I ran water around the clock! I was interviewed about the impacts of the drought on agriculture. It was good to have some media love! Here is the link: http://www.whas11.com/news/local/Heat-lack-of-rain-taking-toll-on-local-farmer-162628796.html.
I also had the privilege of being featured in an article entitled, “Reap What you Sow,” for an online publication called Manner and Lane: A Southern Lifestyle Guide for Women. In it, I mention feelings of being married to the farm, and a sense that I baby my plants as if they were kin. It’s true. The farm is my pride and joy. Here is the article: http://us5.campaign-archive2.com/ u=26a54ad5355b1d4aa78489567&id=889f383eae&e=30dc615b1c.
Another noteworthy mention goes to my tomatoes. I had some of the most beautiful tomatoes you ever did see! I grew a variety of seed that was passed down by my Great Grandpa Bolin called a Pink German. I also grew Cherokee Purple, Striped German, and Brandywine Heirloom varieties. My largest tomato this year was just over 2lbs! Proud, proud, proud. Naturally, I canned tomatoes like a mad woman. Most excitingly, I got my License to Operate and sell my canned and dried goods at the Farmer’s Market and through CSA. In addition to tomatoes, I canned: chili paste, green beans, applesauce, pears, pickled beets, and sun-dried tomatoes. It’s good to have some shelf stable food reserves!
Lastly, I must share my gratitude for the CSA program participants, with a special thanks to the work-share members. Farming is a gamble. And it takes a solid group of people committed to the work and committed to eating seasonally and responsibly to restore local food networks. The work-share is rewarding because you begin to see skill development and a true sense of satisfaction among members. A feeling that they are understanding farming as a system and not just a novelty. I’m really looking forward to new and renewing members this upcoming year. It’s a honor to have so many supportive Kentuckians in my corner! Here is an editorial from one of them: Editorial in Mkt Newsletter 2012.
YEAR THREE (2013)
Another year passed and I’ve found that each one is filled with its own set of challenges and opportunities. I set up shop at both Farmer’s Markets in Louisville and increased my CSA membership. Unfortunately, this spring I lost 80% of my transplants to a fungus that caused them to “dampen off” after germination. The germination was spotty but, once established the area at the base of the stem appeared to be pinched, thereby killing the plant. What caused this?
A) The cold, damp spring and hoophouse conditions. My hoophouse is not a greenhouse. It doesn’t heat, ventilate, or provide airflow – unless the ends are open. Solution: position fans inward at both ends of the hoophouse creating circulation and, add a heat source. I used kerosene. I also built a “Germination Chamber” that was able to control the soil and air temperature more than the hoophouse could. This allowed for quicker germination and stronger sprouts. Next year, I may lease space at a local nursery and forget about it.
B) Unsanitized reusable plastic plug trays. Reusable trays must be sanitized properly or they can develop fungal spores over the winter. Wash, rinse, and sanitize with a 10-1 bleach solution to kill any potential spores.
C) Potting mix. I’ve traditionally bought my own ingredients and mixed it proportionally from scratch. I was advised to trust a premixed soil that contained a natural anti-fungal agent. So far, so good. Lesson learned.
Next, I participated in the UK’s plasticulture program. They provided the bed shaper/mulch layer, plastic mulch, and drip tape. The mulch retains heat and moisture, suppresses weeds, and increases yields. We laid down 18 beds. There were many lessons here as well. It was difficult to lay and difficult to lift but my potato and tomato yields were amazing. As a part of the program I was required to keep diligent records which, in the long run, really helped me determine my true cost of production. And because the plastic was so thin and the scale in which I used was so small, its ecological impact was minimal. Win-win.
Lastly, I participated in KSU’s grant program and bought a big, beautiful box that we converted into a cooler. This has impacted my production in wonderful ways. One, it keeps food at proper storage temperatures thereby preserving its integrity and safety. And two, it saves on labor so that we can harvest and deliver more efficiently.
It’s been a very productive year and I had my best summer and fall crop ever! My tomatoes were a hit again, and grew with high yields. I feel very blessed to continue to serve the community and to see the farm’s progress. Thanks for your support Kentucky!
YEAR FOUR (2014)
There were many blessings in 2014. I outsourced my earliest Spring transplants to nearby Starview Greenhouse who did a beautiful job. The Ott’s know what they are doing. My plants were stronger and healthier because of the consistently warm climate that his houses provided. My low tech, low tunnel hoophouse is no match for the real thing. Because I’m a short-term tenant farmer without the security of land ownership I won’t invest in a high-tunnel or actual greenhouse of my own.
But we are beginning to look for our own property – that is, my fiance and I.. Yes, I got engaged in April of 2014! The farm search is on! Check out my bling.
In April, friends from Kentucky State University and TOJ Farm helped me lay plastic mulch again this year – twice as much as last year. Very knowledgeable crew. Increased yields, decreased labor – still a pain to remove! I did make the mistake of not fertilizing the fields prior to mulching and ran into some nutrient deficiencies and disease pressure. The fish emulsion I used afterwards wasn’t enough. Another lesson learned: Dress beds with manure prior and follow up with necessary nutrient requirements.
I also had a tremendous amount of loss to deer and hail. You just can’t plan for everything. You can, however, be proactive! No fence building for me – again the infrastructure issue. I’m talking hunting. Hunting has been a pastime for me for the last 3 years. I’m growing my own food, why not hunt it too? This year I was able to hunt, harvest, and process 2 Does for their healthy, omega-rich meat, and help to reduce the population problems in Kentucky. Special thanks to John and Art Lander in Henry County and my cousin Jim Vernon in Spencer County for their mentorship and hospitality.
Despite all the things I cannot control – here are some notable mentions of this years accomplishments. Girl Next Door Farm won two 1st place ribbons at the Oldham County Fair on our Heirloom Tomatoes and German Extra Hardy Garlic. We won 2nd place on our Jalapeno Peppers. Bragging rights!
Also, our tomato yields were high enough this year for us to bottle our very own Marinara! We bottled 350 jars and sold every one of them. Very exciting to a tasty, shelf stable item that people can trust.
And then there was the garlic planting. We planted 60 pounds of beautiful, hardneck garlic this year – just over 2,000 feet, double spaced. Our biggest planting yet. Come on 2015, we’re ready for you!