Equine industry is critical to county, leaders, experts say
How important are horses to Woodford County? Very important, according to people within the horse industry and outsiders. No economic impact study has been done on the matter, but even Versailles’s pro-growth mayor, Brian Traugott, who said he knows of only one horse farm within city limits, said, “… they are certainly the most crucial part of our identity.” A study on the subject by the University of Kentucky has been commissioned by Woodford Forward, a non-profit land use advocacy group largely funded by leaders in the horse business. It should be complete in the next few months. Until then, we can rely mostly on anecdotal evidence – and the work of a Woodford County resident who helped conduct a study that looked at the importance of agriculture in Fayette County. Horse lover and scientist Lori Garkovich was born in New York City, and grew up in the upper Midwest before moving to Fayette County in 1976, then to Woodford County in 1983. “I’m in God’s country now. And I will die here,” she said. Garkovich is a professor in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Community and Leadership Development and the former chair of the UK Equine Initiative. Her school profile says she has “facilitated strategic planning related to economic development, land use and growth management, tourism development, and general community development.” She’s also involved with UK equine programs, “piddled around in dressage” for 25 years, managed horse shows at the Kentucky Horse Park, volunteers at others, and has a horse on her McCowans Ferry Road farm. A UK College of Agriculture study released in 2013 that Garkovich helped conduct examined the role of agriculture in Fayette County. It found Fayette County’s “agricultural business cluster” accounts for one in nine jobs and $2.4 billion in annual revenue. She told The Sun that if you look at farm employment data alone, “You’re only getting a tiny part of the real picture of the impact of an economic cluster, which is a geographic concentration of a particular industrial area. Their impact is much, much broader than simply their employment and the wages they provide,” Garkovich said. During a series of interviews she conducted with Fayette County business leaders, she asked, “Can you tell me if agriculture and the green belt of farms in Fayette County influences your business in any way?” The answer, said Garkovich, was “Absolutely.” Several said they were able to recruit top candidates from much larger cities because of the way Central Kentucky looks. “Part of the charm of Lexington is the countryside. When I really need to finalize a recruitment, I will take the person out along Pisgah Pike and then have lunch at Wallace Station, or dinner in Midway. This will always seal the deal,” the executive told Garkovich. Another said, “Nobody can believe that they can ride a bike for 10 minutes and be in the country.” Asked whether those findings translate to Woodford County, with about 1/12 the population of its neighbor to the east, Garkovich said yes. Federal data from 2012 showed that in 2012, Woodford County had 713 farms on 111,917 acres, which makes up 92.6 percent of all the land in the county. Garkovich and others point out that nearly every business in Woodford County benefits from the horse industry, from obvious providers like Woodford Feed to unlikely sites such as The Warsh House, a coin laundromat on Lexington Road that opened in February. Warsh House Owner Joe Nallia grew up on what he called “an ancient horse farm” in Lexington, so it was a natural for him to solicit business from horse farm owners and workers. He estimated that between 10 and 15 percent of his revenue comes from the horse industry, mostly from washing heavy horse blankets and wraps. Washing one or two blankets in home washing machines, he said, can wear them out within a year, whereas his industrial washers and dryers can handle seven or eight at a time. Garkovich said every farm, no matter the size, “is a consumer before it can be a producer,” paying for utilities, property taxes, gas, feed, equipment and maintenance and professional services like veterinarians and farriers. “What you begin to see is that a farm factory, if you will, has both an input effect and an output effect, but we don’t often see the input effect. And so there are a lot of related businesses that don’t appear under strictly ag, that in fact, enable, sell to those enterprises,” Garkovich said. “Even those of us who are what we call recreational riders, we spend money. It’s a very expensive hobby, I’ll admit.” Garkovich doesn’t criticize city leaders and members of the Versailles-Midway-Woodford County Planning Commission for their votes to annex land and make zone changes allowing for new homes and businesses on what was once farmland. She does worry that some of them aren’t aware of some of the less obvious benefits of farms. “When you have large amounts of open land, some of the problems that affect other urban areas such as storm water runoff, water contamination, don’t occur as often here,” Garkovich said. “Our farms make environmental payments for us that takes a cost from us as an urban place, because the land is paying for that in its very nature and its very character.” Asked whether Woodford County is on a path that may chase horse farms away, as some horse industry leaders have said, Garkovich said, “There is an assumption … ‘We don’t have to worry about the horses and horse farms, because they’ve always been here.’ The reality is if you don’t nurture them, they do pick up and move.” A bloodstock agent Kim Valerio has lived in Woodford County since 1998 and is a bloodstock agent for Michael Dubb, whom she describes as the leading owner in New York for the last five years. She pointed out that the majority of horses that ran in the last Kentucky Derby have a connection to Woodford County. She is a vocal critic of deals that will allow More Than A Bakery to open in Versailles and Edgewood Farm to be rezoned. (The Edgewood Farm rezoning has been approved by the Planning Commission, and the annexation of the property is up for a second reading and vote at the Aug. 2 Versailles City Council meeting.) “I bet you the majority of those people have not walked around on that chunk of land (the More Than a Bakery site) and walked around on the Big Sink or studied where the water flow goes …” Valerio said. “For them to plop it down right next to some of the biggest tax-generating farms there is a little bit concerning as far as them doing their due diligence.” The 336-acre Edgewood Farm property, which may also be the future site of Bluegrass Community Hospital, is another target for Valerio and others. “I know if that property goes into development, you’re going to lose a lot of agriculture around it, and I’m not talking about crops. I’m talking about millions of dollars’ worth of horses. … Putting a housing community along the back side of that Edgewood property is basically the worst thing that could ever be done to this community,” Valerio said. A mayor Traugott, who’s led the charge to expand Versailles’s city limits and is a former member of the Planning Commission, has been the target of public and private criticism by horse industry leaders. “I would take issue with what seems to have been a years-long contention, at least since I’ve been involved, that you either do what the horse industry says or you’re against them. And that’s not the case at all. I appreciate the horse industry’s role in the history and the future in Woodford County, and they are certainly the most crucial part of our identity,” Traugott said. “With that said, there is a little thing called economics, that, when you’re in this position, you have to take into consideration.” He called the suggestion that annexations and zone changes will chase away the signature industry of Woodford an “extreme position.” Traugott pointed out that that the land where More Than A Bakery will sit was first sold by a leading horse farm for industrial purposes. Edgewood Farm is not a horse farm, though it is adjacent to one. Before the interview with The Sun, Traugott said he compared the property taxes (the main source of funding for the Woodford County School District) he pays on his home with that of a top horse farm in the county. That farm, with 107 acres on two tracts, pays one-eighth of the property tax that he pays for his house and quarter-acre lot. The agriculture property tax rate farms pay is much lower than that of homeowners. Even with payroll and other tax breaks, More Than A Bakery will pour millions of tax dollars into city and county coffers. New development on the Edgewood Farm property will do the same, Traugott said. He wondered aloud about one possible motivation from his horse industry critics. “The farms don’t want to compete for labor. That’s what really hurts them. It’s not the land use, it’s the labor. The more opportunities, it drives up wages, which is no good for them or a lot of businesses for that matter. It’s good for the worker,” Traugott said. Farm owner/former first lady Libby Jones is the co-owner of Airdrie Stud in Midway and was from 1991-1995, Kentucky’s first lady. She was a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee formed to advise state Transportation Cabinet officials on the proposed Northwest Versailles Bypass, which is, for now, a no-go. During the CAC meetings, Jones was a vocal critic of routes from Falling Springs Boulevard to Frankfort Street and Frankfort Road that would split farms. “People just don’t understand the economic impact of the equine industry,” Jones said. “You’ve got some of the biggest, most influential horse farms in the country in Woodford County.” She called Edgewood Farm a critical buffer between Versailles and the equine industry. After a brief interview, she followed up with an email, which said in part, “The over-arching point that I would make is that we are in an enviable and unique position here with everything needed to make Woodford County even more special. We can have BOTH well planned and affordable, smart growth, while simultaneously preserving our position as a critical part of the Horse Capital of the World. Simply put, in order to maintain that title, we must locate all growth in a manner that will protect our farms and our agricultural industry from incompatible land uses. The next battle Some of these people will gather at the Aug. 2 Versailles City Council meeting before the council votes on the Edgewood Farm annexation and zone changes. At the last meeting, Woodford Forward’s Billy Van Pelt II issued a statement critical of council members who moved the process forward with a first reading: “The decision by the Versailles City Council ignored the community-wide opposition that was clearly expressed and recorded in the Planning Commission public record documents and comments made at the public opinion. The voters of Versailles, Midway and Woodford County were not heard at this meeting, but they will be heard on Nov. 8, 2016, and Nov. 6, 2018, in the next two elections,” Van Pelt said.