Charles Edwin (“CJ”) Isbell Jr. is carrying on a seventy-year family tradition at Keenbell Farm in western Hanover County. His grandparents, Joe and Kathleen Isbell, purchased the original 175 acres in 1951. Today, at 340 owned and leased acres, the farm specializes in grass-fed beef, pasture-raised pork, free range poultry, turkeys, eggs, and specialty non-GMO grains. Isbell recalled, “All that was on the property back in the early fifties was a two-story wooden house with daylight showing through the boards and an old corn crib.”
Starting out with laying hens, Keenbell Farm expanded into a feeder pig and cattle operation and eventually branched out into production of hay, corn, wheat, barley, and soybeans. His grandfather retired in the nineties after selling most of his operation. But his grandson continued to study and explore agricultural methods to bolster his dream of creating a viable and sustainable family farm. Following a business plan he developed with his father, Eddie, and equipped with just one heifer and $250 in savings, he and his dad began renovations on a couple of acres in 2006.
As Isbell explained, “Financially speaking, my dad hadn’t been able to have a farming career but worked full-time in the construction business. I was also doing my full-time job as a firefighter. But, with his invaluable help at night and on the weekends, we slowly and carefully converted land that had been leased for conventional grain farming and put it back into pasture for our natural meat operation. We formed an official partnership in 2008 with the idea of placing quality above quantity and integrity above profit.”
He added, “We also began growing specialty non-GMO grains—in particular, food grade heritage or heirloom varieties—grains that are now are grown, harvested, cleaned, tested, and packaged on the farm. The timing was also right in terms of the growing ‘farm to table’ and ‘buy local’ movements.”
Today Keenbell Farm acreage is split between livestock and specialty grains. Livestock numbers are: 110 beef cattle; 100 pigs; 1100 head of laying hens; 3000 head of broiler chickens and turkeys. Major crop yields are: 115 acres of corn yielding 100 bushels; an average of 25 acres a year of popcorn yielding 1500 lbs./acre; an average of 50 acres of winter wheat yielding 65 bushels/acre; 35 acres of rye yielding 35 bushels/acre; and 150 acres of multi-species cover crops yielding 3 tons/acre.
Isbell said, “All our products are sold as close to the end consumer as possible, which allows maximum retention of each enterprise’s value. Our livestock species are marketed as finished animal proteins, cut and packaged, and sold at our on-site retail store, at local farmers’ markets, and at several area grocery stores in central Virginia. We’ve also invested time and resources in a website and use various social media outlets.”
Keenbell Farm has an inspected poultry processing facility and uses an off-farm processor for beef and pork. They have contracts with regional distilleries and millers, offering smaller retail packaging for select grains.
In all aspects of his farming enterprise CJ Isbell has had the support of his wife, Jessica, for the last fourteen years. They met when both were working at an IHOP during high school. Isbell noted, “Jessica has made so many sacrifices throughout our marriage, dedicating her time, talents, and energy to raising our two children, Faith, 13, and Landon, 10, managing our farm store, and performing a hundred other daily farm-related tasks. She is the cornerstone of our family foundation and an integral part of Keenbell Farm’s success.” Jessica has been a member of Virginia Farm Bureau Young Farmers program since 2009.
On the county level, Isbell is a member and former board member of the Hanover County Farm Bureau and does volunteer work with County 4-H groups. He has worked extensively with Hanover Caroline Soil & Water Conservation District in their outreach and field day events as host and speaker.
On the state level, Isbell is an alumnus of the inaugural class of VALOR (Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results), an adult educational, leadership, professional and public speaking development program. It allowed him to spend two weeks in Argentina in 2014, studying farming and ranching methods in a country with topography as diverse as pampas, glaciers, and rain forests. He is a founding member of the Common Grain Alliance, and a member of the Virginia Association of Biological Farming (VABF). He also won the 2019 Hanover County ‘Legacy Farm Award.’ On the national level, Isbell has been a member of the Virginia Farm Bureau Young Farmers program for eleven years.
In the area of stewardship, Isbell noted, “Protection of the environment is the core value of our farm and one of the keys factors we use when evaluating management decisions. Being in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, we decided to install exclusion fencing—at twice the minimum buffer from water—to keep livestock out of the farm’s lake and streams and to stimulate wildlife refuge areas.”
Keenbell Farm practices intense rotational management of all livestock raised. Most are moved daily, but at a minimum of every three days, allowing for natural distribution of manure and preventing the buildup and potential runoff of nutrients. They also installed over 12,000 feet of underground water lines and 40,000 feet of fence line. Isbell has worked extensively with NRCS, the local Soil and Water Conservation district, and Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Isbell added, “We use precision agriculture with grid sampling and variable rate fertility application as well as planting multi-species cover crops to sustain a living cover and as a key component in our crop production cycle that has nearly eliminated the need for routine chemical applications. Through these measures we’ve been able to practically double soil organic matter, reducing erosion and increasing water/nutrient holding capacities and reducing runoff potential.”
As with any farming enterprise, challenges have inevitably arisen. Isbell recalled, “Starting out, the biggest challenge was learning retail sales and navigating direct sales’ legal requirements. Through trial and error and detailed record keeping, we’ve developed a digital recording system that tracks items both in inventory and as part of a historical data bank. This helps us figure out how to diversify our crops, livestock, and products to compete and thrive in today’s market.”
Another challenge came in the form of a lack of seed cleaners and available grain processing in the region. The solution was a decision to build their own capacity for cleaning and, after the initial equipment installation, the investment paid for itself within the first year and propelled significant expansion as the demand for local grains increased.
Having accomplished so much in such a short time, Isbell’s future goals remain growth and family-oriented. On the livestock side he’d like to increase and refine their hog breeding, increase overall species supply to meet increasing demand, obtain final approval for finer processing of red meats on site, and establish online shopping and direct-to-consumer shipping by the end of 2020.
On the grain side, Isbell commented, “We’d like to refine the rotation and management of our no-till grain operation with minimum-to-no spray, increase cleaning capacity with additional equipment, install our new packing machine for small quantity sales, and explore the possibility of an on-farm distillery.” He added, “Jessica and I will be encouraging and helping our children to become more involved over time in the management and operation of the farm.”
In the few moments when farm duties relax their relentless pace, CJ and his family enjoy short trips throughout his beautiful home state and getaways to Nag’s Head where they like to boat and fish. CJ said, “If or when I ever retire, I’d like to take a trawler through The Loop—the Intercoastal Waterway—all the way from the Great Lakes, down the east coast, and back up the Mississippi River to its origins.”
With such an intensely hands-on operation, Isbell can see the fruits of his entire family’s labors each and every day. He commented, “I feel so fortunate to be able to carry on this important agricultural tradition. To farm in an ecologically responsible and sustainable manner that produces healthy products is its own reward in many ways. But we also receive so much positive feedback from our customers about how eating healthy food that exceeds organic standards has made a positive difference in their lives. That response keeps us accountable and motivated and makes everything worthwhile.”
Charles Edwin Isbell Jr. was nominated Virginia Farmer of the Year for 2020 by Laura Maxey-Nay, Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources, Hanover County and Rachel Henley, Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources, Powhatan County. They said, “C.J. Isbell is the quintessential hard-working, humble, stewardship-focused farmer whose curiosity drives him to research, learn, and discover ways to improve the land, animals, and community around him. He uses field days, farm tours, 4-H youth projects, and industry conferences to encourage conservation practice among other producers.”
Maxey-Nay and Henley added, “CJ generously shares his hard-earned knowledge about pasture management, livestock nutrition requirements, organic feed grade grain, poultry slaughter, equipment use, local meat supply, and soil health. His ability to adapt and innovate will ensure Keenbell Farm’s growth and success for many years to come.”
A distinguished panel of judges will visit CJ Isbell, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, the week of August 10–14. The judges include John McKissick, long-time University of Georgia agricultural economist at Athens, Georgia; David Wildy, Manila, Arkansas, the overall winner of the award in 2016; and Cary Lightsey, Lake Wales, Florida, the overall winner of the award in 2009.