Lexington Herald-Leader | 07/29/2002 | FARMERS KICKING TOBACCO HABIT
Posted on Mon, Jul. 29, 2002
FARMERS KICKING TOBACCO HABIT
Success of alternative crops eases burley's hold on region
By Jim Warren
HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITER
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.
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
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
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
Herald-Leader Researcher Linda Niemi contributed to this story