Farming is a family affair in Campbell County

Back in the 1860s, the Walter property in Campbell County’s Camp Springs was a pig farm and blacksmith shop. It evolved into a truck farm growing fruits and vegetables that the Walters hauled to markets in Newport and Cincinnati. Then in the 1940s, it grew into a dairy farm, and in the ‘60s, the family raised beef cattle.

Today, the Walter farm is the home of StoneBrook Winery, where grapes are grown, wine is made, and the public is invited to taste and buy some of the more than a dozen varieties of fruit and grape wines it produces.

The property has been in Dennis Walter’s family for 150 years. “The farm has survived by being able to adapt to changing times,” Walter says.

That’s true for many of the farms in Campbell County, where it’s not unusual for the family estate to be handed down from generation to generation for a hundred or more years. Despite the pressures on the agricultural way of life ranging from weather to development to changing consumer tastes, the small, family farm has been remarkably resilient in Northern Kentucky’s easternmost county.

That was clear after a recent tour through the backroads of Campbell County’s Camp Springs area on an annual trek sponsored by the Campbell County Conservation District.

Walter, 72, bought the farm from his father in the late ‘70s, juggling the family business and a full-time job at Cincinnati Bell. “I worked off the farm to support my farming habit,” he jokes. When the opportunity for an early retirement appeared, he took it, and turned to the farm full-time.

As he contemplated what to do with his 100 or so acres, a neighbor mentioned that the region had once been home to dozens of vineyards. Walter looked into it, and in 2001 planted his first grapes, the vidal blanc variety. He started harvesting them in 2003, selling the produce to another winery.

His wife had the idea of producing their own wine, however, “She knew as much as I did about it, which was nothing,” he says. So they found a partner, Terry Shumrick, a longtime winemaker who had worked at Chateau Pomije in Indiana for years. The Walters learned the trade from him.

Today, StoneBrook Winery is back to holding wine tastings on weekends and the Walter’s son Brian is part of the team after making a career change.

Down the road, Kevin Neltner is the fifth-generation owner of Neltner’s Farm. It’s been in his family since 1892. It’s a full-time vegetable farm that adapted to the unpredictability of farming by opening up its 50 acres to weddings and a popular fall festival.

“The wedding business and agritourism is what made us able to survive,” he says. The wedding business has taken a hit during the pandemic, but the fall festival is still on, scheduled for Sept. 25 to Oct. 31.

Kevin NeltnerLike other multigenerational farmers in the county, he’s seen development of housing moving south from Newport, Fort Thomas, and Alexandria. “It’s sort of scary,” he says. “Every corner you see all these subdivisions going taking acreage and acreage. Once you develop it, it’s done.”

In the 20 years between 1997 and 2017 (the latest data available), 4,200 acres once devoted to agriculture in the county have been lost, about 8%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census. There were nearly as many farms in 2017 – 577 – as there were in 1997 – 584. And they are small. The average size is 80 acres.

It looks like the Neltner farm may stay in the family’s hands for another generation. The 47-year-old and his wife have two sons, ages 16 and 21. “I told them, ‘You grow up and do what you’ve got to do,’” he says. The oldest is in college majoring in business. During a recent conversation, “He said, ‘Dad, I think I’m going to stay here.’”

At Little Rock Farm on Ten Mile Road, Stephanie Zink is the third generation to own the property. It’s been in her family since 1938, first as a dairy operation, then beef cattle. Now it’s a certified organic vegetable and grass-fed beef cattle farm. Chickens and turkeys are also raised, and the public can buy organically grown freezer beef, pork, and chicken, as well as fresh produce, jams, and baked goods. The growing interest in sustainably produced food has helped her business.
“People are more aware of where their food comes from,” Zink says. “They want to learn what your processes are. You see a growing concern about getting something fresh and healthy.”

That’s echoed by Amy Winkler of the Campbell County Conservation District.  “After Covid, we’ve seen a boom in the local food market,” she says. As they have for decades, family farms are adapting. “They’re coming up with new ways to sell their products and improve their business,” she says.

In 2005, brothers Chris and Kevin Enzweiler and their father, Linus, came up with the idea to start a vineyard and winery in Camp Springs, where the Enzweiler family has lived since the 19th century. They were encouraged by a state program that assisted farmers in converting tobacco land into vineyards.

Kevin has a degree in chemistry and is a pharmacist at St. Elizabeth Healthcare. His brother works at GE, and Linus is retired. They’ve been tasting and selling wine at Camp Springs Vineyard and Winery since 2009.

The whole family partakes in selecting the varieties to bottle and sell. “It’s fun,” Kevin says. “We get everybody together and try out a new wine and that’s the one we put out to the public.”

Anna Zinkhon was raised on a small farm in Camp Springs and wants to share that experience at her Misty Ridge Farm, a riding stable and horse farm that she started in 1996. It was a project that she and her husband were building when he was killed in a car accident. She had a corporate job in IT and he was going to handle the day-to-day at the new farm. After his death, she moved forward with the plan while maintaining her full-time job.

“I gave myself five years to build the business on nights and weekends after he died,” she says.

In 2001, she quit her job and turned full time to Misty Ridge, a 40-acre property that now offers riding lessons, boarding, camps, and overnight stays.

“What was missing in people’s lives was the ability to just have fun with horses,” she says. “That’s how I grew up. In the summer, we’d grab a sleeping bag and a Mountain Dew and Doritos and camp out in the back pasture. The ponies would wake us up in the morning. If it rained, we ran to the hayloft.”

It’s a way of life that, thanks to the enduring traditions kept alive by resilient farmers like her and many others, might just continue for another 150 years.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is the managing editor of NKY Thrives, an award-winning journalist, and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.