Will Bowling and his family are farmers and food entrepreneurs at Old Homeplace Farm in Clay County, Kentucky. Growing up in the winding “holler” of Twisting Sourwood, located on the Leslie and Clay County line, deep in the Appalachian Mountains, Will Bowling didn’t have a lot of entrepreneurial models to choose from. The most common professions were coal mining and teaching. About the only entrepreneurial choice you could have made in that time period and that part of eastern Kentucky was as a store owner or car dealer. The economy just wasn’t big enough to support much of anything else.
Will did have the benefit of growing up on a small farm. In the summers, his family tended a garden and raised vegetables. In the fall, they canned beans. It was hard work and brought families together and taught young people the value of work, but it was little more than a hobby. In the olden days, families had been raised on farmsteads like these, but those days were long gone. At least that’s what most folks would have said. But Will Bowling wasn’t like most folks. He decided to become both a farmer and an entrepreneur.
In order to make the leap, he first needed a farm big enough to make ends meet. The solution lay just a few miles away, however. At the mouth of Twisting Sourwood is Bullskin Creek. Follow that creek west and it flows into Red Bird River before emptying into the South Fork of the Kentucky River. Just past where Bullskin Creek makes its junction, one of Will’s ancestors, a gentleman by the name of Squire Hensley, had carved a farm out of wilderness in the 1800’s.
Squire was blessed with children, and raised 7 daughters. His generosity and love of family prompted him to give each daughter a farm from the original property. Squire’s love for the land ran deep, however, and family history tells us that after turning the farm over to his children he directed them to “Take care of the old homeplace.”
His generous gift provided Squire’s children a good start in life, but it also served to fragment the original property among many heirs. In 2004 the Bowling family received the opportunity to combine two of these disjointed tracts. Will’s mom, Gloria Bowling (Squire’s great-granddaughter) already owned about 30 acres of the original farm. Incidentally, one of her cousins owned 90 adjoining acres that included Squire’s original house site. The Bowlings purchased the adjoining 90 acres, resulting in the 120 acres they affectionately know as “Old Homeplace Farm.”
For the first several years, the Old Homeplace produced beef cattle calves for the commodity market. After several seasons of following this farming model, the Bowlings realized that there was an unmet demand for locally-produced foods in their community. Will knew that transitioning their farm enterprise to focus on local food production would entail some financial risk, but he felt the possible returns outweighed the uncertainty.
As the Bowlings began this venture, several acquaintances across the state expressed skepticism that farmer-marketed local foods could be viable in Eastern Kentucky. Will and his family disagreed with this sentiment and began selling farm-raised meats in 2006. They have not looked back since. Old Homeplace Farm now offers locally-raised beef, lamb, pork, eggs, and vegetables directly to customers and restaurants around the region. Will notes, “Before we started selling our farm products within the community we thought Eastern Kentuckians would be supportive of local foods and local farmers. Now, after eight great years of providing food to our neighbors, we can say that’s definitely the case.”
Of course, not all of Will’s time has been spent on the farm. He has been blessed with the opportunity to travel extensively across the United States and abroad. He was shocked to find that his chosen home is considered the single worst place to live in these United States. Will is evidently not alone in being skeptical of this claim; he recently married, and his wife Maggie, a native of Ohio, joined him in purchasing 55 more acres of Squire’s original farm. One more piece of the “Old Homeplace” has come home to provide food and opportunity for Eastern Kentucky!