The frame of a new home peeks out from the landscape at Keenbell Farm in Rockville, surrounded by half-thawed red clay and work trucks. When completed, the home will house CJ Isbell, his wife and two children, and serves as an apt, physical symbol of Isbell’s dedication to maintaining his family’s farming heritage in this small corner of Hanover County for a future generation.
Isbell’s grandfather, Joe Isbell, started the farm in 1951. Over the years, the farm produced cattle, pork and commercial grains. In 1998, Joe Isbell retired and sold off adjacent land, most of the farm’s equipment, its livestock and started leasing the land to another farmer.
Having grown up around the farm, in 2006 CJ Isbell decided to try to get the farm up and running again as a way to return to his family’s agrarian roots. By 2007, he had bought his first heifer, the first animal to return to the farm since 1998. And although he originally thought it was going to a side venture, Isbell is now looking at how the farm can expand to meet a growing demand for local food without sacrificing quality.
“Originally, when I was getting things back going, I just wanted to see the family farm going back again and figured it would just be something I’d do on the side,” Isbell said. “Really, it’s taken a whole new life and really turned into something way bigger than anything I’d imagined.”
Though they’re growing, Keenbell Farm remains predominately family-run. In addition to he and his father, Isbell’s wife and cousin make up the core staff at Keenbell Farm. Isbell said he has also reached out to extended family to encourage them to contribute to the family business and maintain its reputation as a family-run farm.
Though it’s a different operation than the one founded in 1951, Isbell said his grandfather is proud of the farm as it stands today and he routinely breaks retirement to check in on operations.
“He’s really, I think, enjoyed where the farm has gone and is hopeful to where we’re headed,” Isbell said. “We try, when we make decisions, to do things that would be in a manner fitting their legacy and the name that they’ve developed within the Rockville community and the farming community.”
Isbell said he grew up wanting to be a farmer but couldn’t picture how he was going to make a living from the land. When he began looking into how to make it work, the local foods movement was beginning to gain momentum locally and across the state, and there was a shortage of meat, mainly, because Isbell said it requires more land and capital than growing produce, for example.
Currently, the farm produces grass-fed beef, pasture-raised pork, free-range chicken and eggs, and some specialty grains. Currently, chickens and eggs are processed on site. Pork and cattle are sent off for slaughter in a USDA-certified facility in Fauquier County.
Isbell said this year they plan to add turkeys to the mix of their poultry operation, with plans to add goats and sheep in coming years. Keenbell Farm will also start cultivating honeybees this year, and Isbell said he has been in talks with bakeries and breweries about expanding specialty grain production.
But, Isbell said it’s important to balance the scheduled expansion with maintaining across-the-board quality.
“The 20,000-dozen eggs that leave this farm next year better be as good as the first dozen we produced six years ago,” he said. “I don’t want to get bigger and compromise our quality for the sake of quantity, because I think that’s what makes us different.”
Also separating Keenbell Farm from many other operations is its emphasis on stewardship. The farm received the 2013 Clean Water Farm Award from the Hanover/Caroline Soil & Water Conservation District, recognizing its work in conservation and community education and outreach.
It all ties in to what Isbell calls the farm’s “holistic approach” to farming, which all begins with the soil.
“If we fix the soil, it will feed the plants that feed the animals that feed us,” he said.
“The soil is what gives everything life on the farm…If we fix the soil, it will provide for everything else.”
Interest in Keenbell Farm began to grow when they started selling their products at the seasonal Ashland Farmer’s Market. Isbell said the initial customer response was phenomenal, and since then, the farm has grown by word-of-mouth.
“Our customers are our biggest marketers,” Isbell said.
In addition to buying directly from the farm, Isbell said small grocery stores and restaurants are beginning to carry his products.
Isbell said he would like to see the local farming movement become the future of agriculture, whether its through the farmer-to-consumer direct model or some sort of local or regional cooperative system or wholesale market that sells to grocery stores and restaurants.
He added that more new farmers are venturing into local food markets as a way to avoid the volatility in the larger, commodities market, where prices are set on national basis.
While the local food market remains its own niche, Isbell said he’s beginning to see a consumer shift in favor of local goods. At first, Isbell said his products were in high demand by well-to-do “foodies.” But over the past few years, Isbell has seen increased interest from middle-income families, drawn to the one-on-one relationship between farmer and consumer.
“We’ve seen more of our market go toward the average, American household that just wants to have that relationship with who produces their food,” he said.
That’s also possibly a result of one of the farm’s other principles – pricing their food affordably. Isbell said he routinely looks at the farm’s profit margins and adjusts prices accordingly as a way to make his products more competitive with those produced by larger farms and commonly found in the grocery aisle.
“I like to know what each enterprise is doing; that way, we can keep our margins tighter, keeping our products as affordable as possible for customers, and it keeps us in business,” Isbell said.
So far, this approach is paying off.
“Not in 1 million years did I think we’d be where we are or who we are,” he said. “I envisioned having some cows and enjoying my time on nights and weekends on the farm, but it’s really been just amazing … and it’s exciting to think about where we’re going to be six years from now, 10 years from now.”