• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Agriculture evolves as fewer acres of tobacco are grown

WOODFORD COUNTY GROWERS raised 7.1 million pounds tobacco in 1992 to rank 6th in the state. By 2012, local growers raised only 2.17 million pounds of tobacco, with that number expected to drop to 1.5 million pounds this year. (Photo by Bob Vlach)

The agricultural landscape in Woodford County has changed significantly in recent years as fewer acres of tobacco and more acres of grain and other crops are being raised by local farmers. Woodford County growers raised 7.1 million pounds of tobacco in 1992 to rank 6th in the state. By 2012, local growers raised only 2.17 million pounds of tobacco, with that number expected to drop to 1.5 million pounds this year. "So there's been a big shift away from tobacco," said Adam Probst, agricultural Extension agent for Woodford County. He cited corn and soybeans as two grain crops growing in popularity among farmers in Woodford County who are moving away from tobacco crops to generate farm income. Besides diversifying into grain and hay crops, estimates have Woodford County farmers raising 21,000 head of beef cattle this year, an increase of about 2,000 when compared to 2012. "Backyard" poultry and pig production are other markets being tried on a less-significant basis as farmers continue to try to diversify their operations, Probst said. He described some diversified operations as being more like traditional farms, which were self-sustaining. More experienced farmers in the county are branching out into more traditional farming operations that are not as popular among younger farmers, Probst said. "A lot of it's just trying to figure out a way to replace the income lost from tobacco," explained Probst. ".They (older farmers) really relied on tobacco as an income producer for the farm, and they're still just trying to capture that lost income." While the average age of the American farmer continues to rise, Woodford County (with an average age of 59.5 years old in 2012) has experienced an increase in younger farmers in recent years, which Probst described as a "good thing." Still, he said many of those younger farmers are relying on "off-farm income to make ends meet." According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2012 census of agriculture, farming was the primary occupation for 276 principal operators in Woodford County. Another 437 farmers cited off-farm employment as their principal occupation. Hemp has continued to grow as a crop of interest among Kentucky farmers, according to Probst. He knows of three producers in Woodford County who have raised hemp - "some with marginal success." With no herbicides labeled for use on hemp plants, producers really have no options to control weeds when raising those crops, Probst said. "So the jury's still out on whether hemp can be viable or not, but there has been some good promise shown with that," he added. Woodford County's equine market remained fairly strong until the economic downturn of 2008, according to Probst. In spite of the downturn, Woodford County still ranked second in Kentucky and 18th in the nation with its inventory of horses and ponies, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture's 2012 census report. An inventory of Woodford County's 11,900 horses placed their value at $1.036 billion - again ranking second in Kentucky behind Fayette County, according to the 2012 Kentucky Equine Survey released in September 2013. In Kentucky, horses and cattle each contributed 16 percent of the agricultural cash receipts in 2015 compared to 22 percent for poultry - the state's number-one agricultural enterprise, according to estimates by the UK College of Agriculture. Because of the potential for creating a large local grain market, Probst described More Than A Bakery coming to Versailles as "one of the biggest things that could happen in the ag sector in Woodford County in the last 50 years." He said discussions are ongoing to see if a local grain milling facility can become a viable operation, possibly on 20 acres on Lexington Road known as Edgewood Farm.

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