Sacred cows

Feed your soul at Keener Farm Day

By Paula Johnson

Photo: One of farmer Habekost’s old school hogs

Matthew Keener is a man with big plans – and not just those pertaining to the fifth-annual Keener Farm Day. He invited me out to the 160-acre spread and explains, “We love what we do here, and this is our chance to bring the community in to see it all in action. And the music and food – it’s such a great time!”

The farm isn’t the only Keener business. The Butcher Block is Keener’s retail operation, located in Kettering. The building housed a butcher shop for years before Keener took it over. The original butcher block is in fact still there and used regularly by Keeners’ life and business partner Amber Espey, who runs the shop and does the butchering. I see her every couple of weeks when I drop in to pick up my community supported agriculture (CSA), the monthly farm share package of meat, similar to a vegetable share most people are familiar with. She’s got a look – always decked out with sassy lipstick, full manicure, and cool cowboy hat, not even close to the neighborhood butcher I remember as a kid. I asked Espey about her role running the retail end of the Keener business. “The shop is my baby,” she says. “I see it come from the farm, I process it, and put it on your plate.”

And there’s a real demand for Keener beef. The newly opened downtown beer and charcuterie emporium Crafted and Cured has asked Keener to supply all the meat for their butcher shop. There are other plans in the works for Keener to expand to more businesses and restaurants. To that end, Keener is working with adjacent local farmers who want to move away from commercial row cropping to expand his herd.

A Moveable Fence

As we walked (carefully) among the cows, Keener talked about one of his inspirations and mentors, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virginia. Salatin bases his farm’s ecosystem on the principle of observing animals’ activities in nature and emulating those conditions as closely as possible. Like Salatin, Keener grazes his cattle outdoors within small pastures enclosed by fencing that is easily moved in an established rotational grazing system. Animal manure fertilizes the pastures – no commercial fertilizer is used.  The small size of the pastures forces the cattle to eat all the grass. “They have to eat everything, not just the newer, more tender shoots,” he explains. “We don’t cut hay. Everything is used. It’s a closed nutrient cycle. We look at the farm as a huge solar panel – what’s growing, we turn that into protein.”

Hog Heaven

After I met the Keener cows and chickens, it was time to take a road trip to meet the pigs, which supply The Butcher Block. “We work with other neighboring farms who have the same philosophy as we do,” Keener explains. An example: Hank Habekost’s hogs.  Keener drove me over to Habekost’s farm in his pick up. “Wait till you see these pigs!” he says. And there they were, lolling about under the shade of a copse of trees, playing and nursing and enjoying the summer day, as close to hog heaven as you could get. Habekost is interested in old school hogs, the heritage breeds he interacted with as a kid.

As we headed back, Keener says, “I want to show you something that’s really important. This is where we get our feed.” We pulled in to a place called Simply Feeds, which sells natural non-GMO feed for all livestock. As we toured the feed storage barn, he says, “Don’t worry about what you eat – worry about what you eat is eating. It all starts there.”

Sacred Cows

Things turned serious when Keener revealed his secret plan to infiltrate a national organization. I looked a little startled and asked which one. “4-H,” he says. 4-H, a group which has the reputation of fostering an interest in agriculture in America’s youth? Could 4-H possibly be an organization that cries out for insurrection? Yes, according to Keener. But his idea is change from within. “The reason American farmers aren’t practicing natural sustainable farming is largely due to the lack of exposure. I believe that if kids in youth programs like 4-H learned about what we are doing it might make a difference. The real problem is the competitions. They’re very much like beauty contests. The animals are judged by appearance, with importance on weight. Natural heritage breeds, which are allowed to roam, are not going to get as large as those fed corn and antibiotics,” he explains. He went on to describe practices like keeping the cows artificially cold to keep their coat growing longer. What are essentially bovine beauticians comb the coat backwards from the direction it naturally grows and trim it so that the cows look fluffier for judging. “So the focus is all on appearance, which is what I’d like to change. Then kids would be rewarded in these competitions for raising their animals in a healthy sustainable way, not just for show.”

I have no doubt that Keener will make some changes there, along with a whole lot of other things. Spending time with him made me think no one must have ever told him that a day is only 24 hours long. Proving his dedication, he says, “This farm has been in my family for 180 years. I want it to be in my family for the next 180.”

Keener Farm Day takes place at Keener Farm, 555 N. Lutheran Church Rd. in Dayton. Lawn chairs are encouraged to enjoy the pig roast, hayrides, farm tour, and live music. The event runs from 4 – 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17. Admission is free. For more information, please visit or call 937.854.2751.

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at

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