By Jennifer Moonsong
Jobe Publishing, Inc.
Rural Matters Series – Part I:
The counties of South Central Kentucky are known for fertile fields, and a strong sense of pride when it comes to the rich family farming tradition deeply rooted there.
However, over the past few decades, the average Kentucky farm has seen a plethora of changes. According to census data, Metcalfe County had 2,086 farms in 1909. By the 2012 census a little over 100 years later, the number was less than half, with a meager tally of 924. Data for neighboring counties reflects a similar decline across the state and region.
“In the past, the small farm was much more diverse. It was not uncommon for families to grow a few acres of tobacco, raise a few hogs and a little corn to feed a variety of livestock, which often included a small dairy herd,” said Brandon Bell.
Bell is from a long line of farmers and has served as the Metcalfe County Agricultural and Natural Resources agent for the UK Extension Service for 15 years.
He is not alone in his observations.
Many have noticed these undeniable changes, including 80-year-old Bub Waddell, who has observed the ever-changing nature of farming for going on a century.
With his father dying when he was only 8, he took to farming early at the age of eleven. That was 1950.
Waddell says that in the 50s farming was something nearly everyone did; not so much a career path, but a way of life.
“Well back then just about everybody sold a little milk, whether they were the landowner or not. That was when they still canned a lot of milk, everyone had two or three cows,” he said.
Dairy was a very vital part of family farms. At one time there were over a hundred dairies in Metcalfe County, and it was similar for all surrounding counties.
“Everyone has hogs they slaughtered for meat, chickens for eggs. They grew their own corn and before they ground it I can remember them chopping it with a hatchet,” said Waddell.
When young Bub first went back to the family farm, he grew seven-tenths of an acre of tobacco and is still proud of his hard work. He fondly remembers when his mother purchased their first home canner in the mid-1950s.
“She got a canner so we could have a better way of life,” he said. Later in the 1950s and early 60s, the popularity and availability of deep freezes also improved quality of life, exhibiting the vital importance of the garden.
“I didn’t know anyone who didn’t have a garden. Everybody canned everything they could get their hands on,” Waddell said.
Sadly, those fond recollections are a thing of the past, as the cost of farming in 2019 exceeds potential earnings.
For example, in 2004 the tobacco buyout had what is seemingly a permanent impact on what was once Kentucky’s principal crop. In 2002 there were still 29,237 tobacco farms in the state and by 2007 the number had dwindled to 8,113. Twelve years later, the forecast is even gloomier.
“We are definitely in a worse position now than five years ago. A lot of this has to do with the global money market and their impact on the price of our tobacco,” said Dr. Bob Pearce, the UK Extension Tobacco Specialist.
For starters, the smoking rate continues to plummet.
“South Central Kentucky primarily grows burley tobacco, and it has very few other uses,” said Pearce. Also, the United States imports a significant portion of domestic use tobacco.
“Tobacco companies can buy it cheaper than we can grow it,” Pearce added. “We don’t know what the future of Kentucky agriculture holds, and there is a level of uncertainty related to tobacco production in the state.”
Dairies are also a thing of the past.
“In 1993 when I started working as a vocational agriculture teacher there were 274 dairies in Barren County, there are 30 now,” said Barren County’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent, Chris Schalk.
In recent years Kentucky dairy farmers lost money just trying to keep their operations afloat, and the consumption of milk went down.
“With dairy and tobacco no longer the mainstays, we are looking for a replacement,” Schalk said.
With all of the complications facing family farms many are asking what, if anything, will be the savior. The answer is yet to be determined.
In the meantime, those who still farm find the silver lining in the preservation of a way of life, and values they hope to pass on to coming generations.
“It (farming) teaches children responsibility, discipline, and hard work. It allows them to experience the satisfaction that comes from a job well done, while also preparing them for the many bumps in the road that life throws at us,” Bell said.