Letcher County native turns centuries old family land into successful farming enterprise
Tim Sanders was the first of seven children born into a coal mining family in Letcher County. His father built a home on a parcel of land on Indian Creek that had been in the family since the early-to-mid 1800s. This deeply rooted heritage resonated strongly with Sanders and is integral to his overall success.
When the coal industry began to decline, the Sanders family moved to Kingsport, Tenn. seeking opportunity, but young Sanders kept his roots close to his heart. Immediately after graduating high school, he enlisted in the United States Navy. He served four years, and following his discharge enrolled in college at East Tennessee State University. It was during this time he married his wife, Becky, and began working for a local company as a welder, mechanic and eventually was promoted to supervisor.
After another two-year stint in the Navy, Sanders completed college and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Health. Career pursuits led him to employment in Arizona, but again, Appalachia Kentucky remained close to his heart.
In Arizona, Sanders worked with the Gila River Indian Community. “Two years into that position, I was asked by the Tribal Governor and the Community Manager to develop and implement an Emergency Management Department to serve the needs of the reservation. The resulting program was one of the first ever in Indian Country nationwide,” Sanders said.
The program implemented by Sanders caught the attention of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in addition to the Department of Homeland Security, who utilized Sanders’ success as a model program for Indian Tribal Governments across the nation. Sanders continued consulting with various governmental agencies in addition to serving as Emergency Management Director for the Gila Indian River Community.
Sanders added, “In 2013, we decided to pack up and move back here. When my grandmother passed away in 2001, I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase my grandparents’ property, so we decided to move back to Letcher County. Our intent was to raise produce and some livestock as a means to be somewhat self-sufficient. And that’s how I became a farmer….”
His endeavor started with intense research. “I looked into livestock breeds extensively before selecting Tamworth pigs, Dexter cattle, and Spanish goats. I considered everything from size to temperament to hardiness. I wanted to raise heritage breeds and heirloom vegetables as a throwback to what my grandparents and parents did on this same property.”
Driven by his family’s rich heritage, Sanders intended to celebrate his past by forging a future. “This property has been in my family since 1830, by a land grant from the Governor to one of my ancestors rewarding his military service. Many of my ancestors are buried in the family cemetery on the property. I wanted to try and reclaim and rehabilitate the property to honor those who came before me.”
In the beginning, Sanders raised and sold heirloom vegetables. However, as his livestock flourished and increased in number, he took the necessary steps to legally sell his farm fresh meat. “As the quality of our product became better known, we began to concentrate more on meat sales with less emphasis on produce. I applied for and was awarded a grant from Kentucky State University through their Small Scale Farm Grant Program for the purchase of an enclosed trailer and commercial freezers/refrigerators.”
In 2017, Sanders began selling at the Pikeville Farmer’s Market. “All our animals have been bred, born, and raised right here on the farm… It is important to us that the animals we process are raised in a natural environment, with proper care and attention, and without the routine use of antibiotics or hormones.”
Sanders pays close attention to his livestock’s quality of life. This attention to detail is evident in the quality of the meat. “They browse and graze on grass, and even the pigs live and forage in the pasture and the woods. This is reflected in the taste and quality of our meat products. Our beef products are dry-aged twenty one days to enhance and concentrate the flavor and tenderness. Some of our pork products are cured and smoked before being packaged. We do continue to raise some vegetables for sale at the market, but our emphasis is on meat. We also sell directly from the farm to local customers in Letcher County.”
Initially, the farm was not financially independent. “Substantial capital investments, the cost of the initial breeding stock, and the cost to feed the livestock until they began to produce animals that could be processed for sale made it necessary to invest personal funding in the farming operation,” said Sanders.
As of 2018, Indian Creek Settlement Farm was breaking even. In 2019, Sanders projects a profit. When asked what advice he would give to any person interested in commercial farming or agriculture endeavors, Sanders said, “Someone just starting out with a similar operation should take the time to research the type and number of animals they want to raise… The research should also include working with agricultural extension offices, university extension services, and local officials to get a feel for the potential customer base, farming methods, environmental impact of the farm operations, and other useful information. Local and state health officials, permitting agencies, and local suppliers should also be consulted with.”
The nostalgic nature of farming coupled with the rise in popularity and interest of farm-to-table operations and local foods makes the business aspect easy to discount. Sanders, however, was methodical in planning the business side of his venture. “Establishing a business plan, a budget, a marketing plan, and planning for sufficient funding during the start-up period are also important considerations. The Kentucky Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (KCARD), Grow Appalachia, Kentucky State University, and the University of Kentucky’s extension services are all available to assist. Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, through a partnership with SOAR, may be able to assist with funding. USDA grants may also be available to the farmer.”
Sanders emphasized the responsibility involved in farming, “It requires a commitment to daily care and feeding of livestock, no matter the weather, one’s health, or the working conditions.”
One thing Sanders considers essential to his enterprise is connectivity. “It [the internet] has enhanced our ability to establish and maintain contact with fellow farmers, subject matter experts, and customers. We make fairly good use of social media applications such as Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest to help in marketing our products. I expect that we will make even more effective use of the Internet going forward.” In the future, Sanders hopes to add online-ordering to his offerings.
“We will continue to look for opportunities to partner with and participate with local, regional, and state agricultural and development entities as Eastern Kentucky continues to move towards a more diversified economy.”
Like so many Appalachian entrepreneurs, Sanders has embraced technology for furthering education, establishing and expanding his business model and has utilized connectivity as a means for communicating with his customers and marketing his products.
Regarding the future of Appalachia, Sanders said, “It is imperative that local, state, and federal funding resources and emphasis on rebuilding Appalachia continues. Public/private partnerships are important as well. I feel that SOAR is an important bridge to a sustainable economic future for the region, including a sort of rebirth of the same agricultural activities that once provided for the families who settled and worked these rich and fertile bottom lands and hills.”
Sanders’ work is reflective of SOAR’s Regional Blueprint for a 21st Century Appalachia, which highlights connectivity and local food as two of its seven goals.
For more information on Indian Creek Settlement Farm, or to contact Tim Sanders, click HERE