Rural Matter: Part 2 – Burley’s bygone era
Jobe Publishing, Inc.
Reminiscing, Marty Pennington of Center, Kentucky points to a picturesque, grassy knoll on his spread of acres, saying that is where his great grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Pennington once lived.
Marty is a fifth-generation tobacco farmer who is both proud of and humbled by his family’s legacy.
In January Marty’s father, Jimmy sold his 70th tobacco crop grown on family soil. Jimmy passed away in February.
“He was already planning for his seventy-first crop,” said Marty.
Marty has a legacy in his own right, having sold 44 tobacco crops.
“I sold the first crop I grew when I was 14,” he said.
His Uncle Carl and first cousin Anthony have also made their living in tobacco.
Passing the family tradition down, Marty’s two sons, Austin and Nick both sold their first crops at the age of fourteen.
“Tobacco has paid for this,” said Marty, waving his arm across the expanse of pastures. I’ve paid for the farm and raised three kids on tobacco.”
However, this year Marty questioned whether or not to continue on.
“I wasn’t sure if we’d do it again,” he said because the tobacco is not what it used to be.
“A person couldn’t raise a family on tobacco anymore.”
In 1997 Marty had a bumper crop of tobacco; He raised 62,000 lbs. of tobacco on 22 acres. This year he will reluctantly grow 12 acres. The outcome is uncertain due to disease, fluctuating market prices, expenditures and changing weather patterns.
For example, a common disease affecting tobacco, frog eye leaf spot, has run rampant in recent years.
“Fungicides we have used in the past seem to have little effect on this disease today. Pesticide companies are reluctant to spend the time and money it takes to develop a new product, due to the fact that tobacco is such a small product nationwide,” said Brandon Bell, Metcalfe County’s Agricultural Agent.
“We used to sell to Phillip Morris, now we sell to a company that sells to Phillip Morris,” said Marty, in discussing changes.
“I recall one year when we paid thirty dollars for labor to help bring in a fifteen acres crop.”
That’s when farming was more of a family affair and everyone worked together.
For example, Marty’s grandmother Lovey Pennington lived to be 99 and worked in tobacco all of her days.
“She never did learn to drive a car but she loved to drive a tractor,” he said.
When it comes to weather, recent years including this one have seen far too much rain.
“The old adage that a dry year will scare you to death but a wet year will starve you to death is true, and it’s been too wet,” said Pennington.
The price of farm implements, equipment, and labor have also changed drastically.
“In 2016 when the tornado came through they tore down Dad’s tobacco barn,” said Marty.
“There was not enough money left in tobacco to justify rebuilding, so my Dad didn’t rebuild. It didn’t make financial sense to put that money into something that might only be used another two or three years.”
With the family patriarch Jimmy gone and burley at an all-time low in Kentucky, it isn’t likely to carry on to a sixth generation. That’s not to say it has fallen entirely to the wayside.
Twenty-four-year-old Austin just bought his late grandfather’s 44-acre house and farm and is also growing a tobacco crop this year. He is looking to the future with hopes that diversifying his farm with other commodities such as hay, soybeans and the like will help sustain his agricultural dream. He has also taken on work off the farm to make ends meet.
Young Austin is an exception in his generation, which have greatly let farming fall behind.
“The younger generations lack of the know-how for raising tobacco, making it almost impossible,” said Marty, who misses his father and the work ethic he instilled.
“Dad was in a great mood every day, never got upset about anything and worked hard all day long. The way he started the day was the way he ended the day and that is not common anymore,” Marty said.
Marty knows he is staring out at the horizon with great uncertainty concerning his family farm, he has not lost sight of what has been.
“We have been extremely fortunate, very blessed and lucky to have lived this way and to have been able to make a living this way. And I’m very grateful. Besides, it could have been worse. We could have been dairy farmers.”
Marty and his son Austin at the family tobacco barn.