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Popular tomato growers from Central Kentucky receive 2020 Bill Best Award on Dec. 4


By Carol Lea Spence
University of Kentucky

Central Kentucky growers Mark and Velvet Henkle, of Henkle’s Herbs and Heirlooms, will receive the 2020 Bill Best Award for Food and Farm Stewards from the University of Kentucky’s Food Connection at 10 a.m. Dec. 4. The award presentation will be part of a virtual First Friday on Facebook Live and YouTube.

The honor is named after Bill Best, collector and preserver of heirloom beans, author and director of the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center. Lilian Brislen, executive director of The Food Connection at UK, said the award is a way of thanking the people and organizations who dedicate their lives to building and preserving local food ways.

Velvet and Mark Henkle use high tunnels for much of their tomato crop. (Photo by Sarah Caton)

“The award is named after a man who has saved hundreds of varieties of heirloom beans and tomatoes, and whose work will sustain Appalachian foodways for future generations,” she said. “This year we’re honoring one of Dr. Best’s proteges, and, I would argue, the best tomato growers in the state of Kentucky. A big claim, I know, but anyone who has visited with Mark and Velvet and enjoyed their produce can attest to their generosity of spirit and knowledge and the unparalleled quality of their products.”

The Henkles take praise like that with modest smiles.

“That’s a very bold statement, and I appreciate it,” Mark Henkle said. “I think the synergy of the two of us together and our attention to detail, love of our customers and wanting to constantly bring a quality, consistent product to everyone makes us strive to fulfill that.”

Best and Mark Henkle go back 15 years.

“Mark worked for me as an intern during the summer and fall of 2005, including selling at the Farmers Market in Lexington. He and Velvet then started their own market garden the following year and have since become, in my opinion, the best growers of heirloom tomatoes in Kentucky,” Best said. “They have gone from field production to high tunnel production and have increased their knowledge significantly.”

The Henkles took a small piece of property in Jessamine County and turned it into a success story. They raise many varieties of heirloom tomatoes, as well as herbs, beans, peppers and broccoli. The years have taught them a great deal about extending the growing season and treating pests and diseases in healthy ways by using beneficial insects and organic methods. Mark Henkle attributes that to a UK entomology class he took under Professor Daniel Potter.

“When I took a class from Dr. Potter, one of the things I wondered was, ‘Why spray when you can have these other beneficial insects and these little ecosystems built up over time?’ That got my brain going – let’s try that approach. The customers really do appreciate that,” he said.

Mornings at the Lexington Farmers Market will find the Henkles waiting on a steady flow of customers.

“They have developed an excellent customer base and educate anyone and everyone who buys from them about the varieties they are selling,” Best said. “And they always have a long line of customers at the Lexington markets, a good indication of their success.”

The public is invited to view the live award presentation as well as talks by Brislen, Best and the Henkles on theFood Connection’s Facebook page, orYouTube channel.

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