Expansion dream close to reality

mvoorhis@sierrastar.comJuly 8, 2014 

The Kern Family has been farming in North Fork for 14 years. What began as a small operation, with the family delivering to a handful of close friends, has mushroomed into more than 200 families signed up as Kern co-op members.

Because of the increase to their customer base, the Kerns went from selling their produce in the town co-op, to the old town theatre, and now to their current spot in a small basement beneath the visitor's bureau in downtown North Fork for the past eight years. With no shopkeeper onsite, the organic farm operates on an honor system, under which specified members unlock the shop, fill out their own receipts and then lock up afterwards.

That's about to change. With a goal of increased visibility and attracting an even larger customer base who have the desire to eat healthier, the Kerns — Hansel, wife Sue, and children Becky and Aaron — are in the process of renovating a 1,200 square-foot building, formerly a coin laundromat, on Main Street.

It's a project Hansel has dreamed about before he even started farming — a project that has been in the planning stage for about a year now, with renovation just recently begun.

"We're pretty much starting from the ground up," Hansel, who worked as a stone mason for 30 years throughout the Mountain Area, said. "The floor and walls are rotted out. Aaron and I have done the demolition work, and will do most of the masonry ourselves."

Because Hansel and Aaron are putting in the labor, the Kerns will receive rental credit from the building owners — area dentist Ed Fey and wife Margo. "We're so thankful to the Feys and their good energy," Hansel added, "and for the faith they have in us to pull off a successful business."

The Feys are not only Kern Farm co-op members, but are huge supporters and excited about the prospect of an organic country market in North Fork's future. Doing all they can to ensure this dream is realized, Margo's son, David Omley, a general contractor, will build the building.

That takes care of the exterior. Then there's the interior costs to consider, which is why the Kerns have posted on IndieGoGo.

"You know I'm very hesitant to ask for money for a family business," Hansel explained, "but if people want to think of it this way ... we've been doing the North Fork Elementary School garden for 14 years, and have donated tens of thousands of dollars of our own money for supplies and to haul good soil in; we've donated thousands of people hours, too, to work the soil every year, plus we donate a full day every Friday — so this is kind of like a vote of solidarity — kind of like a reimbursement for all the years we've been giving back to the community."

The Kerns need $30,000 to complete this project and have raised a little more than $3,600 so far to help defray the cost of refrigeration units, shelving, and bulk bins.

"We're bringing in some funds," Kern continued, "but it's not enough to accomplish the whole task. We love our lifestyle, but it's not a huge money maker. We're constantly competing with the mega corporations that control the pricing of foods that offer less and less nutritional value. These corporations are able to keep food prices low through subsidies and their sheer size."

"We have received lots of support via letters and emails, and everyone seems to be excited about our store opening," Lisa Gilardi, a Kern Farm employee for two years, added, "but we understand that finances are pretty tight for most people. While we have had about 1,600 views, we have less than 40 donors."

One of the main reasons this project is so important to Hansel is the lack of close accessibility to good, healthy and organic products.

"Folks have to travel to Oakhurst or down to the valley," Hansel said, "so we want to provide that service right here in town. This will be a small-time family-run country market with minimal packaging, bulk bins, featuring not only Kern Farm, but other Mountain Area growers and artisan products like wool or handmade soaps. This will keep more money circulating in our town, and further build our sense of community."

The family-operated business offers a variety of seasonal row crops including heirloom vegetables, sweet peppers, hot peppers, squash, broccoli, and cucumbers, summer tomatoes, and garlic; fruit trees including apples, plums and nectarines — all grown without pesticides, chemicals and GMOs.

In addition to selling their own products, Kern Farm, which is in the process of receiving organic certification, sells products from T&D Willey Farms in Madera, a currently certified organic operation.

Optimistically, the Kerns hope to open the store by the end of the year.

Funds are being raised through the crowd sourcing website, IndieGoGo.com. On this site, there is a list and cost of items needed — indiegogo.com/projects/kern-family-farm-s-new-healthy-market/x/6310640.

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