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Lexington Herald-Leader | 07/29/2002 | FARMERS KICKING TOBACCO HABIT

Posted on Mon, Jul. 29, 2002

Success of alternative crops eases burley's hold on region

By Jim Warren

In 1999, Kevan Evans did something almost unthinkable for a Kentucky farmer. He quit raising burley tobacco.

Convinced that federal tobacco supports were drying up, Evans went looking for new crops. Today, his 175-acre farm in Scott County is thriving, producing a mix of new products: apples, apple cider and vegetables, backed by traditional staples like cattle and hay. He sells his products through farmer's markets around Central Kentucky, through an area farm cooperative, and through a store he created in a converted tobacco barn on his farm.

Evans' operation is shaping up as one of the early successes in a brave new world of Kentucky agriculture in which farmers, seeking alternatives to shrinking tobacco dollars, are trying out a whole barnful of new, non-traditional crops: produce to prawns; goats to grapes; mushrooms to worms.

To make his farm work -- without the golden crop that Kentucky farmers once could count on for steady income -- Evans had to master multiple new skills: business management, marketing, planning, and vegetable cultivation, which is considerably different from tobacco. He says he's still learning.

"We've fumbled around some, and we've had some failures trying to find things that worked," Evans, 49, said last week. "I don't know if we're there yet, but I do think we're seeing some light at the end of the tunnel."

To be sure, the new crops are small change alongside tobacco which, despite reduced quotas, brought Kentucky farmers cash receipts of more than $674 million in 2000 (receipts for last year aren't yet available). In contrast, cash receipts from vegetables were $12 million in 2000, up from $7.9 million in 1997. And nearby states continue to outpace Kentucky in vegetables. Ohio vegetable farmers took in almost $141 million in 2000, while cash receipts from vegetables in North Carolina were almost $299 million, U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show.

Nevertheless, experts say experimentation with new approaches are essential because Kentucky farmers will need a variety of crops, not just one, to survive in the future.

No silver bullet

"There won't be any single, 'silver bullet' crop to replace tobacco," said John Mark Hack, executive director of the Governor's Office of Agriculture Policy. "We'll be producing some of this, some of that, a wide range of products."

So far, the state has distributed about $90.5 million in tobacco settlement money to help farmers try or develop new possibilities. But they say it's too early to tell which new ones will be money makers. Almost inevitably, some will fail.

"The jury definitely still is out on some of these new opportunities," Hack said.

Western Kentucky farmers who got into the promising pond-raised catfish market are facing strong competition from Vietnam, which has depressed prices nationwide. Farmers say that while they had expected competition from large catfish producers in the deep South, they were blind-sided by the influx of fish from overseas.

Meanwhile, Kentucky farmers are finding that their new crops are just as vulnerable to drought and disease as tobacco was and, in many instances, demand as much if not more labor. Experts say those are only some examples of the demands, risks and uncertainties Kentucky farmers will have to master as they move out of the predictable, federally regulated tobacco market. To survive in the new world of agriculture, the experts say, Kentucky farmers will have to be better businessmen and women, more adaptable, faster on their feet, and more willing to change -- in other words, more like other business operators in today's global marketplace.

Caution needed

No one should look to the future through rose-colored glasses, cautions Scott County Extension Agent Mark Reese.

"There are individual success stories out there, and there are opportunities," Reese said. "But we're dealing with a very big marketplace that extends way beyond Kentucky, and that makes major accomplishments difficult. A lot of these new markets are volatile. They can be good one year, not so good the next."

But that isn't discouraging forward-looking farmers. And, so far at least, produce farmers like Kevan Evans seem to be having the most success, said James Mansfield, of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. There are several reasons for that.

Vegetables produce quickly, becoming available for sale soon after they are planted, unlike some other crops, such as grapes and mushrooms, that require years to start producing. In addition, Kentucky has ample land available for vegetable production, and the state has provided money to help farmers develop the crops.

As a result, four large farm-produce cooperatives scattered around Kentucky sold $6.1 million worth of peppers, sweet corn, cucumbers and other vegetables last year. They expect to do better this year. The co-ops -- some which didn't even exist just a few years ago -- have more than 340 member farmers, and they raised almost 2,900 acres of produce last year.

Indeed, Kentucky produce farmers say they can make more money per acre producing green bell peppers than they can make raising burley tobacco -- at least when the weather is good and the market is strong.

Better than tobacco

"Most years you're going to make money, and some years you can make money that puts tobacco to shame," said Daryl Fryman, manager of the Georgetown-based Central Kentucky Growers Association, a co-op of about 30 member farmers that sells peppers, cucumbers, pumpkins and other crops on the wholesale market.

Farmers generally can expect to net $1,500 to $2,000 from an acre of tobacco, according to the University of Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

But Fryman said if the weather holds this year, one of his member farmers is on track to harvest 10,000 bushels of green bell peppers, or roughly 2,000 bushels from each of the five acres he is farming. The producer stands to get $9 a bushel, which would translate into a net profit of around $10,000 per acre, Fryman said.

But that's if the market and the weather stay strong. Fryman said bell pepper prices were weak and the weather in Central Kentucky was poor in 2001. Result? Fryman said another farmer he knows lost $12,000 on 5 acres of peppers.

"Raising an acre of tomatoes is probably more labor intensive than raising an acre of tobacco, and that surprises some people," said Ann Bell Stone, whose family raises vegetables in Central Kentucky. Indeed, Fryman said that farmers who tend vegetables the same way they tended tobacco are likely to end up with light paychecks.

"Vegetables demand more care, more spraying and irrigation, just a lot more attention than tobacco," he said. "You've got to watch them every day, and if a problem turns up, you've got to handle it quickly. If tobacco is dry and you can't get to it for a few days, you can still water it and it will come right back. But vegetables, they'll be gone."

That's just one reason why Reese, the Scott County agent, is cautious about the future. "Some people who are doing well with commercial crops like peppers and cucumbers," he said. "But are a lot of farmers rushing to embrace these new crops? No."

Evans did embrace them and found success. But it took years. He began planting a few vegetables, which he sold at the Lexington Farmer's Market, in the early 1990s. He added apples next, then began making cider.

"We took a gamble," Evans said. "Our goal was to get out of tobacco in 2000, and we actually got out in 1999. There's a real learning curve. Marketing is everything. With tobacco, you never had to consider marketing."

Herald-Leader Researcher Linda Niemi contributed to this story

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