• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Farm tour shows Woodford farming in midst of changes

The two stops on this year's Woodford County Farm Tour offered insight into how local farming families are coping with the changing face of agriculture in Central Kentucky. One family has diversified its farming operation to deal with lost tobacco income. Another family chose to lease their land to a farm manager who's now trying new technologies and production practices to maximize profits from tobacco and soybean crops. Louis Lee Haggin III and his three sisters own Sycamore Farm - 1,200 acres on Military Pike near the Fayette County line. Their father purchased the farm in 1937, and he and his family raised tobacco, corn, beef cattle and horses before and after World War II. Family members continued operating Sycamore Farm after Haggin's father died in 1980, before he and his siblings made the decision to turn over their farming operation to Darrell Varner. "It's the best thing that ever happened to Sycamore Farm," said Haggin during Monday morning's Woodford County Farm Tour. Currently, under Varner's management the family-owned farm grows 330 acres of soybeans, 120 acres of corn, 60 acres of tobacco, and has 160 acres of pasturelands for beef cattle production. Earlier on Monday morning, John Wilhoit and Sue Churchill welcomed the Woodford County Farm Tour to their family's Thistle's End Farm. Historically known as "Old Homeplace Farm," the farm on McCowans Ferry Road has been in Wilhoit's family since 1850. Wilhoit, who grew up in Houston, and his wife, who grew up in a subdivision, were not farmers when they moved their family to what they now call Thistle's End Farm 17 years ago. Tobacco and cattle were raised on the family farm in the years before recent changes in the agricultural economy led to a sharp decrease in tobacco production in Central Kentucky. "We no longer grow tobacco on this farm - we haven't in the last five years," said Wilhoit. He said cattle are still raised on his family's farm by Bryan Richardson on "a couple of hundred acres of good pastureland." "Sue and I," Wilhoit explained, "we've been trying to diversify and figure out ways to keep this farm going and make it economically viable for us and our family to be able to hold onto." They started raising sheep this last year, and more recently added a few pigs to their diversified farming operation, with vegetable production also being tried. "We have a lot of big ideas," said Churchill. She relied on two sheep mentors to teach her about sheep management and sheep nutrition, and also a guard donkey named Festus. "He's a natural enemy to dogs and coyotes. So if a dog or coyote comes around (our sheep) - he will fight them," said Churchill. Said Wilhoit, "We're constantly changing things, and we're constantly struggling with figuring out how to make things work." One of their biggest successes to date has been leasing five acres to Aaron Stancombe and Anna Bynum, who live in a cabin on the farm where they raise chickens and flowers. "One thing with flower farming," said Stancombe, "is I'm constantly having to plant and constantly having to harvest (the flowers) - and harvesting takes a lot of time." He and Bynum grow an array of perennial and annual flowers to create bouquets and ornamental arrangements for weddings, which they sell through their business: Bellaire Blooms. Later on Monday morning at Sycamore Farm, educational sessions were offered on a chemical topping method for tobacco plants (to increase profits by decreasing labor expenses) and a soybean nitrogen management trial, which transforms nitrogen from the atmosphere into a usable form to achieve higher yields. Fewer people turned out for Monday's Woodford County Farm Tour than last year's 50th annual tour. Hot and humid weather likely played a role in some folks choosing not to participate this year. "I wish it was about 20 degrees cooler," said Wilhoit, during his farm tour welcome at his family's Thistle's End Farm along the Kentucky River in southwestern Woodford County.

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