BY MOLLY HAINES RIDDLE
Sweet Owen Editor
Since 1955, farmers the world over have made the trek to Owen County’s 961-acre Eden Shale Farm. Its claim to fame? Groundbreaking agricultural research centered on pasture improvement, management, and livestock grazing. While these topics may only pique the interest of a niche group, residents of Kentucky and beyond owe a certain degree of gratitude to the tireless efforts of the farm’s employees, past and present.
Operated by the Kentucky Beef Network since 2013, the farm’s origins date back to the spring of 1953 when a group of Owen County farmers decided to ask the University of Kentucky to develop a research farm to help them meet the unique challenges of farming land in the Eden Shale region—Eden, referring to the Eden Hills area, which includes all or part of 34 counties in the northern and central parts of the state, and Shale, referring to the type of rock common to the region.
O.D. Hawkins, born 1913 in Lockport, Henry County, would lead the charge, creating a committee of interested farmers and petitioning Frank J. Welch, then dean of the UK College of Agriculture and Home Economics, who responded, “If you people will make a farm available to the university, the College of Agriculture will operate it as a research and demonstration farm.”
After meeting with Welch, Hawkins was determined to see the committee’s dream of a research farm come to fruition, sending representatives to all counties in the Eden Shale area to gauge interest and found most were receptive to the farm’s creation.
While the committee’s plans were well laid out, the obstacle of raising enough funds to obtain land lay ahead of them. Hawkins served as chairman of a Farm Bureau committee that helped raise money, with area farmers asked to give one cent for each acre owned. Approximately $65,000 was raised, and the group eventually voted on five adjacent farms roughly four miles east of Owenton.
All combined, the farms totaled about 961 acres at the cost of $67.04 per acre for a total of $63,000, the equivalent of $703,272.76 today. Following its purchase, the Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation allowing UK to receive the farm as a gift and allocated $50,000 from the state’s general fund for initial research and educational work on the farm.
When the farm was turned over to the UK College of Agriculture in 1955, it was said that the “land was so rundown that a rabbit passing through had to carry his dinner.” While that may have been true, it didn’t deter Hawkins—the natural choice for the farm’s first manager—from the years of grueling work it would take to prepare the land for the research that would come.
In the first few years, more than 400 acres of land were cleared of brush and rocks and seeded to pastures or meadows. A central water system was installed to provide fresh water to residences, barns and pastures. A new three-bedroom home was built, and four existing homes were renovated. Dairy, beef, and sheep barns were built, as well as three upright silos and one bunker silo.
Six barns used for tobacco, storage, and livestock were renovated. A new tobacco barn, plastic greenhouse, farm office, a tool shed with shop space, and several other small buildings were built. Two and one-half miles of all-weather roads were created. Workers also dug three ponds and one small lake with 2.5 acres of surface and a depth of 20 feet. About 3,000 rods of new fence were built, with wood posts cut out on the farm.
By 1961, Hawkins and a number of laborers—paid $6 a day for 10 hours of work—had transformed the once-overgrown farm into a spectacle area residents were clamoring to see.
“Our tent is pitched, and I hope that in the coming years, Eden Shale will be of great service to the farmers in the Eden Shale area,” Hawkins told attendees of a field day held that same year.
Due to the farm’s topography, row crops requiring cultivation were only considered practical on a small percentage of available land. Of that available land, the majority was used for growing Burley tobacco. Hawkins, the son of an Owen County tenant farmer, knew many grasses and legumes grew well in the region. But to find out what other things might thrive, the first 20 years of the farm’s existence were spent experimenting with many types of agriculture.
Among the farm’s initial endeavors? Conducting wood lot management studies that pioneered work in the state’s Christmas tree production. As it turned out, Scotch pines for the holiday season were adaptable to the Eden Shale hills, and by 1961, 43,000 Christmas trees grew throughout the farm’s acreage.
“At one time, we had most anything you could think of,” Hawkins told the UK College of Agriculture years later. “We had an orchard, vegetables, greenhouses, and 50,000 Christmas trees. You name it, we had it on this farm. We had strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. People came in here by the dozens looking at our crops because it was new to them. They didn’t have those things. Even greenhouses, as common as they are now, were new back then.”
Eden Shale would also become home to the first u-pick strawberry operation in the state.
Additionally, some of the state’s earliest research on Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue was completed at Eden Shale. The grass was planted in abundance and, according to Hawkins in 2004, helped save the farm’s hillsides. Although fescue is ideal for steep slopes because it grows vigorously and the root system holds soil, the grass is infected with an internal fungus harmful to grazing livestock. Through years of rigorous research, testing, and experimentation, Eden Shale’s livestock was eventually raised on pure fescue with few adverse effects.
In 1969, Eden Shale welcomed Joe Wyles to its staff, who would become the farm’s second manager following Hawkins’ retirement in 1979. Under Wyles’ management, the farm became home to an innovative project with a national influence on agriculture, one still felt by producers today in fly tags for cattle. The small plastic tags, developed and tested at Eden Shale, standard on most cattle farms, contain insecticide and are attached to a cow’s ear to keep flies away.
“Since fly tags were introduced, we’ve tested them every year for effectiveness before they were marketed to beef producers,” Wyles told UK in 2004.
A no-till drill for forages was also developed from tests at Eden Shale.
“Scientists believed that if the drill would work on our steep slopes and unique soil, it would work anywhere,” Wyles said. “Agronomists experimented on how deeply to plant seed. Agricultural engineers designed a machine to plant seed. They would bring it up here, tear it up, and go back to Lexington to work on it some more. The years of research resulted in the John Deere Power Till Seeder.”
While the farm’s contributions to agriculture were countless, UK formally suspended its management rights to Eden Shale in 2012 due to cuts in state funding for the university.
“That’s when the university called us at Kentucky Beef Network (KBN),” said the farm’s current superintendent Dan Miller. “They said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a farm we’re ultimately responsible for; we need to do something with it. Is there any chance you all would be interested in taking over that operation?’ That’s kind of how it got started and how we got involved.”
Although KBN was quick to step in and ensure Eden Shale’s continued legacy, it was with the understanding that dramatic changes were in order. With a lack of funding and personnel to continue research on the farm, its operating model became one based on demonstration, learning, and best management practices.
“We use (Eden Shale) as a working classroom where producers can see it, see how the technology works, did it work, what do we like about it, and what are cost-effective methods for whatever the production might be,” Miller added.
Miller and Farm Manager Greg Cole communicate with industry partners to test and demonstrate products in herbicide applications and pasture renovation and management with a focus on broadleaf weed control from companies such as Corteva Agriscience. Since KBN took over the farm, grazing research trials have been performed yearly through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for forage-based solutions to increase productivity in the Kentucky cow herd.
When looking at the farm’s most impactful work of the past decade, Miller points to research by Steve Higgins, Ph.D., Director of Environmental Compliance and Assistant Adjunct Professor with the UK College of Engineering.
“He focuses on solutions to make cattle farming easier in general but directly relates to winter feeding infrastructure, managing mud, and proper watering locations for cattle,” Miller said. “A lot of things about the health and wellbeing of the animal and how to make their environment conducive to them being more productive. We’ve had lots of projects put on the ground around those topics. Literally thousands of people have come to the farm to look at the infrastructure he’s put in. That’s probably one of our biggest, direct impacts on the Kentucky farm at this point and stage.”
The farm currently runs about 100 head of commercial cattle, which Miller said is slightly larger than the typical Kentucky cattle farm. Still, the KBN and Higgins are mindful of “real world” farms and work to ensure their demonstrations are scalable and that infrastructure on the farm can be purchased from retailers such as Lowe’s or Home Depot.
“We don’t want any solutions so complicated a farmer cannot reproduce it,” Miller added. “We keep things very basic and simple, allowing the producer to scale up or down depending on how many head they have.”
Though the farm may run differently today than in 1955 when O.D. Hawkins and other area farmers saw their dream of a research farm come true visitors continue to flock to the sloping hills of Eden Shale, where agriculture’s next big thing may only be one experiment away.
Since 2013, the Kentucky Beef Network has ensured Eden Shale Farm's continued legacy. Dan Miller, left, serves as farm superintendent, while Greg Cole, right, manages and resides on the farm. — Photos courtesy of Eden Shale Farm/Dan Miller
Editor's Note: To celebrate Eden Shale Farm's 50th anniversary in 2005, The University of Kentucky published "A History of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Eden Shale Research Farm” by Aimee Nielson. This, along with other UK publications and newspaper clippings collected by the late O.D. Hawkins, contributed greatly to this article.