A Different Breed

Laura Karr at KG Acres relies on nature to supply her needs

By Shawndra Miller

»On a windy spring afternoon, Laura Karr scoops a handful of corn from a small metal pail and tosses it on her lawn, where turkeys strut in full regalia, fanning their white-and-black tails. A few guinea fowl hunt for kernels, while a portly rooster jogs across the grass, not to be left out. “That’s my Buckeye roo,” she says. “See him running and running? That’s Brown Junior. Mr. Brown’s his dad.”

Here at KG Acres just outside of Lebanon, Karr keeps heritage poultry for fun and profit — and for the future. Heritage breeds have come down through the generations as tried-and-true. In an era of industrial-level sameness in the poultry business, Karr is part of a movement to preserve the existence of these rare and often endangered livestock breeds.

“I avoid commercial breeds completely,” she says. “We need to keep the gene pool healthy and well managed and the only way to do that is by … making birds and selling birds. I’m not a breeder of show-quality birds, but I try to preserve the integrity of the breed as best I can.”

“There’s a huge pool of genetic resources there,” she notes.

One of her favorite breeds is the Buckeye, exemplified by Mr. Brown pecking near her feet. It isn’t just his pea comb (signifying cold tolerance) and shining mahogany plumage that she appreciates. She raises Buckeyes in tribute to Ohio’s Nettie Metcalf, who originated the breed in the late 1800s.

“Buckeyes are the only American breed raised to its standard by a woman,” she says, then clarifies the statement: She doesn’t really believe there was only one such occurrence in the history of American hen husbandry. “Let’s say it’s the only American breed raised by a woman who got credit for it,” she says with a laugh.

Buckeyes are just one of many heritage birds that range free in Karr’s capacious yard. She lives and farms with her husband, Jim Gifford, on their homestead east of Lebanon. A job transfer brought them from northern California in 1992.

Aside from poultry, they market eggs, seedlings, produce and honey, and Karr even repurposes feathers into artful pieces for home decor and personal adornment. But the whole farming operation came about by accident. “We didn’t anticipate becoming a business,” she says.

The farm had its origins in a Christmas gift. A family member gave Gifford a beekeeping kit about 15 years ago. His bees were so successful that the couple wound up with an abundance of honey, so a grower friend suggested taking a farmers market table to sell the excess.

The initials of their last names inspired a name of “KG Bees,” and their honey label whimsically showed a bee dressed like a Russian Cossack.

Then their vegetable gardens produced so heartily that they added that surplus to the table. After that came chickens and more eggs than two people could eat. “Then all of a sudden,” she says, “we’re a farm.” KG Bees expanded to KG Acres.

Now, a series of cold frames in the driveway enables Karr to offer her gardening customers well-cared-for starter seedlings. With the flock trailing her, she opens the lids of a few frames on this chilly spring day and lists some of the plants within: endive, collards, lettuce, kale, mustard, spinach, parsley, lavender, thyme, marsh mallow, nettles, lobelia, oregano, clary sage and hyssop. Soon she will have warmer-weather starts of eggplants, tomatoes and peppers to add to the mix.

Customers appreciate the variety. No Big Boy tomatoes here, but if Amish Paste or other heirlooms are desired, KG Acres likely has it. When it comes to herbs, Karr starts a lot of Ayurveda and other medicinal plants that aren’t generally found at a garden center.

Matt Dinn of Brownsburg, became a customer of Karr’s after meeting her years ago at a summer farmers market. “Back then there weren’t a whole lot of options and she (Karr) was fantastic about answering all of our questions,” he says. “Once I got to know her more, I appreciate what she’s doing …. we try to make sure to support her because we need more people like her.”

Diversity is her goal when it comes to birds as well. She breeds Royal Palm turkeys, runner ducks, guinea fowl, and several chicken breeds, including the comically bouffanted Golden Crested Polish. For layers she keeps Columbian Wyandotte, Ameraucana, Delaware, Buff Orpington, Barred Rocks and more. A pair of Pilgrim geese round out the flock.

Though for several years she offered free-ranging turkeys by preorder at Thanksgiving, that’s no longer part of the business. The low profit margin and strenuous work involved made Thanksgiving turkey sales impractical. Instead, she’ll offer them as poults (juveniles) to other farmers and fattens one for her own table.

From a purely aesthetic point of view, her flock is a showstopper. “I love looking out there and seeing all the different colors and shapes and sizes,” she says. And the varied plumage serves her well in creating “featherworks” — wreaths, jewelry, hair clips and the like — out of their feathers.

This unique enterprise gives her an added income stream that helps support her “poultry habit,” as she puts it. Home decor and personal adornment pieces made of feathers have wide appeal, and many people also buy single feathers to put in a vase. “I think it’s something in our genes,” she says. “Just like people collect shells, rocks, plants — it’s the same need. We need to be close to wild things.”

Karr didn’t grow up farming but loved helping her grandparents garden, and she always kept pet birds. As an adult, she went into agriculture. With a doctorate in entomology and toxicology, Karr worked for Dow AgroSciences, where Gifford continues to work. She was conducting insecticide research and racking up patents when chronic illness forced her to take medical leave in 2008. When her position was eliminated, her industrial ag career was over.

But as it turned out, that unfortunate turn would end up changing her life for the better.

She found that chronic migraines, allergies, asthma and other health problems all went away after she left her workplace for good. “It made me realize that corporate culture is not for me,” she says. “I’m making a lot less money now, but I’m living clean and feeling good about what I do.”

Once she began working at farmers markets and interacting face-to-face with marketgoers, it wasn’t long until she committed to organic methods. “It really opened my eyes to growing organic, which I hadn’t ever thought about when I was in big ag,” she says. “I wasn’t really hostile to it, but it wasn’t in my mindset back then. I’ve learned a lot from my customers.”

Having studied plant-derived substances with insecticidal properties, Karr says she’s always leaned toward the notion that “nature gives us what we need if we just know how to find it and use it.”