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The Sweet Smell of Success in Accomack County

Ken Blair, Tractor and Seeder

“Military guys have a special set of skills to go into the unknown. When others say, ‘let’s see if this will work,’ a veteran will say “let’s make it work.”  Ken Blair, Accomack Poultry Producer

Ken Blair’s love of agriculture began when he started working on a potato farm at the age of 12. He rode his bicycle to the fields to help with planting, harvesting, and hauling irrigation pipe. He continued working for local farmers in high school and loved every second on the tractor and combine.

Though he enjoyed the work, Ken didn’t think he could make a living as a farmer and enlisted in the Army. The former medic travelled around the world in his 12 years of active duty service but jumped at the chance to return home to Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Now a nurse practitioner in the National Guard, Blair is proud to say that his son will be the 12th generation of his family to live in Accomack County.

Ken was working as a firefighter for the City of Richmond when his wife suggested moving back home after a trip to visit his family in Wachapreague. Blair gave her an opportunity to back out before getting a friend to scope out some options for a new home.

“I wanted to live on a road with no lines on it,” says Blair. “The property we picked happened to be an old poultry farm with two chicken houses. I still can’t believe my wife agreed to it, but I don’t think you could get her to leave because we’ve made so many improvements.”

Ken now raises poultry for Tyson and has steadily grown the operation, building three more chicken houses on 27 acres of land over the last 15 years. Like any other farming operation, he has had good and bad years but is quick to point out that prices are more consistent than commodities like grain and you don’t have to worry about weather.

He first began working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to explore options for reducing emissions from his operation. He started with a granular litter treatment and District Conservationists Tina Jerome and Jane Corson-Lassiter helped him develop a conservation plan that included concrete Heavy Use Area (HUA) pads, a waste storage facility, and tree plantings to serve as a windbreak for odor control.

“I’m a pretty big stickler on smell,” says Blair. “My neighbor recently came over and said ‘my wife was just talking about you.’ You hear a lot of negative comments about poultry operations, but she replied, ‘we’ve got a chicken farm nearby, and we never smell it!’”

Working with NRCS staff, Ken has recently planted about 12 acres of pollinator meadow in front of his farm, and is now raising bees. He started with four hives and wants to expand to 20. Blair has developed a good relationship with a nearby nursery that offers a bountiful menu of flowering plants and makes sure to schedule insecticide spraying at times when the bees are not as active.

Relationships are important to Blair, who takes pride in his farm and community. Though he won’t be sharing his books publicly, he says they would clearly show how much he spends to support the local economy. He also takes care to keep his buildings painted, grow flowers, and trim his trees.

“My neighbors come up to me and say, ‘we like what you’ve done with the farm," says Blair. “All the things I do with NRCS help me to be a good neighbor and steward of the property and the shore.”

He encourages other veterans who might be interested in agriculture to “find a piece of land and start growing things.” He also recommends getting to know your local NRCS and Farm Service Agency team to find out what’s available for you. His journey started with one request and blossomed into a great relationship.

“I like not having it all for free,” Blair says. “As a farmer, you should have some sweat equity. NRCS will help, but it takes some money out of your pocket. You will tend to take a little better care of the practices because you paid for them too.”