University of Kentucky Rural Journalism class, 2005
Photo by the Mount Sterling Advocate
During working hours, most farmers near Mount
Sterling, Ky., can be found outdoors, working on their farms.
It’s a good chance you won’t find T.J. Bigstaff
outside, though. He’s probably inside, working in one
of the four greenhouses on his farm.
Once built for growing tobacco seedlings, the
greenhouses are now being used for Montgomery County Greenhouses,
a plant and flower business that Bigstaff started. While he
still grows tobacco — he plans to grow 30 acres this
year — Bigstaff started the greenhouse business to create
income from something other than tobacco production.
A tobacco and cattle farmer for nearly all
his adult life, Bigstaff, 50, is just one example of many
Kentucky farmers who are moving away from growing tobacco.
The end of the federal tobacco program, and the government-guaranteed
prices that went with it, have forced many Kentucky growers
to attempt various farming alternatives.
Bigstaff’s alternative was his plant
and flower business. In his greenhouses, annuals such as geraniums
and petunias are now grown. And while tobacco plants can still
be found in two of the houses, vegetables will take their
place next year.
That’s the reality that’s hitting
home for farmers all around the state: there’s not too
much room for tobacco anymore. But there’s always room
for more income, and for Bigstaff, the greenhouse business
has been a viable option.
Located just a short, gravel-road drive off
Paris Pike in Montgomery County, Bigstaff’s four greenhouses
stand out among the barns that can been seen on neighboring
Built for growing tobacco more than 10 years
ago, the 150-by-35-foot greenhouses are put to a different
use now. About four years ago, Bigstaff and his wife, Becky,
were thinking of ways to make up for the decrease in tobacco-income
that they expected would come with the end of the federal
It was then that a family friend, who himself
had once been involved in the greenhouse business, advised
Becky Bigstaff that it might be a good idea for her husband
to make the change from growing tobacco to growing flowers
and plants in his greenhouses.
Whether he liked the idea or not, T. J. Bigstaff
knew they had to do something. “The big thing is when
they started dropping our tobacco bases (quotas) a few years
ago,” Bigstaff said. “They dropped it almost in
half. With the talk of the tobacco buyout going on the last
three years pretty heavy, I figured it was time I did something.”
And what he did was start Montgomery County Greenhouses.
Bigstaff’s banker, Bill Gay of Mount
Sterling National Bank, said the business seemed like a good
investment because Bigstaff already had greenhouses on his
land. “It seemed like a good transition — from
tobacco to flowers and plants,” Gay said.
When his wife told him about the idea, T.J.
Bigstaff said he thought plants and flowers would be a good
“You just got to find a way to utilize what you’ve
got,” he said. And what he’s got now are two of
the front houses filled with annuals and two of the back houses
filled with tobacco.
Bigstaff said that his company mostly focuses
on growing annuals. “It’s probably, I would say
70 percent of everything,” he said.
In addition to annuals such as pansies, cosmos,
geraniums and marigolds, the houses also yield some vegetables
like tomatoes, zucchini and squash.
Bigstaff said that in an effort to make Montgomery
County Greenhouses get even bigger, he plans to clear the
back houses of tobacco.
“Next year, in the back houses, we’re
going to start growing some vegetables and see how that works,”
Now, the greenhouses are only used from about
January through May. The Bigstaff’s say that when they
start to grow more vegetables, they will be able to use the
greenhouses for most of the year.
Becky Bigstaff, a soon-to-be-retired schoolteacher,
plans to take over many of her husband’s duties later
this year. She explained what types of vegetables they will
“We will plant cold vegetables that you
know that can withstand the winter (with the help of a greenhouse),”
she said. “They are the varieties of lettuce and carrots
and beats and broccoli.”
Adding vegetables will be important, she said.
“At least the greenhouses aren’t
going to be empty. Now, we can use them, rotate them around,”
Becky Bigstaff said. “We’re just trying to think
of different ways to use them and keep them occupied all year
A learning experience
Taking care of a greenhouse is hard.
Although he grew tobacco in the houses for
six years before the start of his business, Bigstaff said
running Montgomery County Greenhouses has been something like
going to school.
“There’s just so much that you have to learn while
doing something like this,” Bigstaff said. “If
it wasn’t for some of the help I got, I’d be lost
in the dark out here trying to do things.”
Some of the education that Bigstaff receives
is from classes and educational programs taught by experts
at the University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky University.
Bigstaff said that it has been really helpful
to be able to consult with experts who have experience in
managing greenhouses. “It’s good to have people
that would say, ‘Now listen, these are going to be your
problems: you’re going to have this kind of disease,
you’re going to have this and this, and this is what
you need to do,’” Bigstaff said. “Those
people have already done the trial and error.”
In addition to the help he gets from out-of-town
experts, Bigstaff also gets local help from Ron Catchen, the
Montgomery County extension agent.
“As the extension agent, I provide educational
programs for farmers and I consult with them about insect
and disease control,” Catchen said.
While Bigstaff notes that people like Catchen
have taught him a lot about the business, he said one of the
main things he’s had to learn for himself is that greenhouse
work isn’t physically easy.
While Bigstaff is no stranger to hard work
— he’s worked on the farm all his life —
he says that working in greenhouses can wear on him.
“You know, being a farmer, you get used
to being outside,” Bigstaff said. “Working in
the greenhouses is kind of like factory work in that you’re
in a confined space a lot.”
Bigstaff’s wife, Becky, knows how much
time and effort the greenhouses require. An elementary school
teacher, she works in the houses when she can.
“I work on it during most of my free
time, seven days a week,” she said. “It’s
a full-time job.”
“A lot of marketing”
The biggest change that has come with running
his own business, Bigstaff says, has been adjusting to the
market forces that affect most businessmen.
In Kentucky, where the economic effects from
the quota cuts and the end of the tobacco program have begun
to take effect, the buyout has led to a rise of many entrepreneurial
farmers such as Bigstaff.
“It’s a lot different in that now
I’m fooling with the public, where before I never fooled
with the public.” Bigstaff said. “Before, you
just took your tobacco to the market and went through the
auction and that was it. Now, it’s a lot of marketing.
Marketing is a big deal.”
Bigstaff markets mainly to individual customers
from Mount Sterling. “They all drive out here and buy
it, I’d say 90 percent,” Bigstaff said. “Very
few businesses have bought from us.”
But just because the businesses haven’t
been buying, that doesn’t mean Montgomery County Greenhouses
isn’t doing well. While he wouldn’t say just how
well his new business has been doing, Bigstaff indicated that
recent revenues have been sufficient.
“Shoot, we’re not getting rich
by any means, but we’re doing okay,” Bigstaff
said. “(The business) is making some money and it kind
of takes the place of the tobacco plants we used to grow.”
Becky Bigstaff echoed that sentiment. “We
can’t really predict how well it’s going to do,
but it just seems like from year to year the people just keep
coming back,” she said.
Bigstaff’s banker, when asked how good
of an investment the greenhouse business was, said he’s
not quite sure. “Only time will tell,” Gay said.
“That’s just the way it
Growing up in Mount Sterling, T.J. Bigstaff
was born to become a farmer. His family owning the farm he
lives on for nearly 130 years, Bigstaff seemed destined to
grow tobacco, just like his family always did.
“My great-grandfather had about 3,000
acres (of land) in different counties,” Bigstaff said,
“and through tenants, he probably grew about 150 (acres).
This year, I’ll have about 650 acres in different counties
and I’ll only grow 30 here (on the farm).”
That decrease in numbers signifies what is
happening all around Kentucky. Many farmers around the state
are decreasing their production, which is expected to be down
about 30 percent from last year, if growing conditions are
comparable. About half of last year’s tobacco growers
have hinted at growers’ meetings held around the state
that they would not continue to grow this year.
It may seem that tobacco growing in Kentucky
is dying a slow death, but Bigstaff displays no sadness at
that. “That’s just the way it is,” Bigstaff
said. “Everyone knows it’s real bad for tobacco,
but it is what it is. I figured a while ago that for tobacco,
it’s about over with.”
Bigstaff said that because the government doesn’t
guarantee prices anymore, he doesn’t see much reason
to grow a lot of tobacco.
“The agreements the tobacco companies
have now (with growers) are worth about as much as the piece
of paper they’re written on,” he said.
As long as cattle prices stay high, Bigstaff
said he won’t have to worry about growing tobacco. He
hopes to just be able to focus on greenhouses and cattle,
an increasingly popular source of income for farmers looking
for alternatives to tobacco.
Bigstaff knows that with tobacco growing declining,
he is somewhat lucky to have greenhouses and cattle considering
that to the east, in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, farmers
have few options.
“At least here (in Montgomery County)
we still have cattle. Those farmers up there in far Eastern
Kentucky don’t have a lot of flat land for grazing,”
Many farmers in Montgomery County are a lot
like Bigstaff in that they are cattle farmers. The topography
of the region in which Montgomery County is located is a slightly
rolling terrain that allows for good grazing. He noted that
some cattle farmers, who have long been tobacco growers, are
making some good money because of great cattle prices that
exist right now.
“Oh man, cattle prices are so high right
now,” Bigstaff said. “As long as (cattle prices)
stay high, it’ll be okay.”
For T.J. Bigstaff, high cattle prices will
keep him okay. But for many other growers of the leaf, cattle
prices may mean nothing. The fact is that for some growers,
especially ones have no farming alternatives or local industrial
employment, the end of tobacco may leave them with no financial
For farmers in such situations, Bigstaff said
he has no answers: “Shoot, I don’t know what they’ll