For six or so years, Matthew Keener lived the life of a cattle rancher in Montana.
He herded on horseback and got used to outhouses.
There was no electricity, and a lot of nothing but beautiful big “empty” spaces.
“It was the best thing I ever did in my whole life,” Matthew said. “It was definitely rough at times, but it was worth it.”
Home was calling the one-time Wright State music education student, and he couldn’t ignore it.
“I was done playing, and it was time to come back and start taking care of business here,” the 38-year-old said as two Australian cattle dogs laid near his feet.
Now, roughly four years later, the grass-fed beef and pastured poultry he raises on Keener Walnut Grove Farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in Trotwood can be found on dinner tables in local houses and on the menus of some of Dayton’s most popular restaurants and taverns.
“Ours (animals) get raised to go straight to a family or straight to a restaurant,” Matthew explained.
‘No $%!# in anything we sell’
Pushing farm-to-table even farther, The Keeners opened Keener Farm Butcher Block, 2857 Crescent Blvd. in Kettering.
Customers can buy non-GMO meat and other products raised by Keener and other local farms from the store. Information about farms will be displayed with products.
“There is going to be no $%!# in anything we sell,” Matthew said.
The store will sell sausage, nitrate-free lunchmeat and kits made by Matthew’s girlfriend Amber Espey. She helps run the farm with Matthew and his parents — David and Karen Keener — and makes a mean Philly cheesesteak and chicken noodle soup.
‘We have to protect this baby’
You’ve likely eaten Keener farm meat.
Restaurants in Dayton and surrounding communities including The Trolley Stop, Lucky’s Taproom, Lock 27, Sunrise Cafe, Snicker Bar and Grill, Mudlick Taphouse, Zetland Street and Antioch College use meat from the sustainable farm at 555 N. Lutheran Church Road. Olive: an urban dive has worked with Keener Farm the longest.
A growing number of Dayton-area residents eat Keener’s CSA beef, eggs and chicken.
Pork produced by local farmer Hank Habekost also is included in monthly deliveries ranging from 8- to 20-pound shares for $70 to $137.
“Our biggest fastest growing group is younger parents who just had babies,” Matthew said. “They see this baby, and they say ‘I don’t trust (factory farm produced meats). We have to protect this baby’.”
‘We are taking back control of our own farm’
Matthew Keener's great-great grandfather John Keener bought the land that is now Keener Walnut Grove Farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in 1830. Matthew, his parents - Karen and David Keener and girlfriend Amber Espey now work it. The farm specializes in grass fed beef and pastured poultry. All photos by Amelia Robinson
The CSA is a big change for the farm, which had produced corn and beans share-cropped 36 years by a neighboring farmer.
Andrew Jackson, this nation’s seventh president, called the White House home the year Matthew’s great-great grandpa John Keener traded four horses and a wagon for the land.
The family has owned the property — now roughly 110 acres devoted to farm and 50 acres of old growth forest — since then, but Matthew is the first Keener to truly farm the land since his grandfather Ephraim Keener got out of farming to work for General Motors.
The Keener children weren’t even allowed to play in the fields.
“We are taking back control of our own farm,” Matthew said. “My family has been here for 230 years.”
‘We are growing so fast’
Matthew said he fell in love with cattle ranching after working at a college friend’s family ranch. He never went back to Wright State.
Knowing the farm needed a rebirth — the appraised value of of his family’s land skyrocketed 141 percent from $194,570 in the 2011 to $468,990 this year — Matthew decided to come home.
Starting with four cows on four acres, he convinced his dad that a CSA could help.
It hasn’t been perfect — he lost one of his first four cows that first year — but Matthew’s position was strengthened with success.
Last year, the farm produced 75 beef cows.
“We are growing so fast that we are going to have a couple hundred (cows) in a few years,” the graduate of New Lebanon’s Dixie High School said. “We will continue to graze here as much as we can until we reach the cattle and grass balance point and then will get another (second) farm.”
The farm follows the model of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, which bills itself as “family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm and informational outreach.”
“I looked at what he was doing and saw it would work on our small acreage,” Matthew said. “It would be easy for us to direct market it to the city.”
‘Your money stays here’
Matthew said his animals are healthy and have a good quality of life because of his farm practices.
“I want to see cows here out in our pasture and not stuck in a barn,” he said.
Chicken manure is used instead of chemical fertilizer on fields.
“We are trying to get away from as much fossil fuels as we can,” Matthew said.
The pasture-raised, bug-and grass-eating birds follow grass-fed beef in the field rotation.
“The consumer is getting super nutrient-rich food that has great flavor,” Matthew said.
A big benefit of buying meats locally is that you can talk to the farmer and learn for yourself where your food comes from.
“Anybody is welcome to come here to see how we are doing this,” Matthew said.
Matthew said the CSA is helping to save his family farm. It has communal benefits, too.
“Your money stays here. It does not instantly disappear, and it is not going to a big corporation,” Matthew said. “You are ensuring that animals are treated correctly, and it is promoting good animal health.”