Farming fuels healthy lifestyle, passion for sustainability
She became the first SOAR Small Production Loan Fund recipient this summer and will use the funds to expand her bee hive and sell more specialty products.
Gross hasn’t always been a farmer, however. When the coal mine that Gross worked for in Harlan County shut down, it also took the jobs of her husband, father, brother and sister. The family moved to Laurel County, where she found work as a legal secretary, and her husband traveled the country working in construction. Then the Great Recession struck, and both of them were jobless for two years. The town of Lily has a post office, fire department, a couple of convenience stores and a dollar store, so there weren’t many opportunities for employment. So Gross and her husband began to grow their own food. At first, they didn’t know how would make ends meet. Family and friends helped weed. Children played alongside the garden.
“It was hard, back-breaking work but so worth the end result,” Gross said.
Now she wants to take the produce she’s generating on her one-acre plot of land and sell it beyond just a road-side stand. The Kentucky Innovation Network London Office, which is run by Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, has been helping her develop her business plan and is introducing her to local restaurants who are interested in serving local produce. It’s building upon the help she’s received from Grow Appalachia. Gross said she hopes that she’ll eventually be able to rely on the farm for their main source of income. Currently, she travels for her job in the construction field, but the work comes and goes.
With the SOAR loan, Gross is going to grow her apiary and expand her bee hive to sell pollen, pollen products, honey and specialty honey. “I call my husband ‘the Bee Whisperer’ because he can go into the apiary without any protection and doesn’t get stung,” Gross said. “Everything she knows about bees comes from her husband, who learned about bees from his grandfather, and by teaching herself with YouTube videos.”
She also has applied for a grant to put in a high tunnel, which is an unheated greenhouse that extends the growing season – a must for a farmer who doesn’t have a lot of land.
Another interest Gross has is educating people through her Facebook Page and YouTube channel under the name of the farm, Prepared Household. A video posted on YouTube about recycling pallets for rabbit cages has had more than 29,000 views. Melanie also wants to educate school-aged children about local food.
“We need to get away from synthetic food and reduce obesity, which you see a lot of in Laurel County,” said Gross, who has lost more than 30 pounds since she began farming and eating the food she produced. “I was told a story about a kindergartner who asked what was on her plate during lunch. When she was told it was chicken, she answered ‘That’s not chicken. Chicken is round.’ I want to work with schools to do a field day, so children can learn about healthy, sustainable food and how their families can grew food in their own backyard.”
Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation and Grow Appalachia created the low-interest loan fund for small farmers in 54-county SOAR region of Eastern and Southern Kentucky. The fund was established with support from a $200,000 grant through the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy.