Tobacco grower converts greenhouses to stay afloat

By Kyle Hamilton
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.

The ‘houses’

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 farms.

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 tobacco program.

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 fit.
“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,” Bigstaff said.

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 grow.

“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 round.”

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 is”

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,” Bigstaff said.

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 options.

For farmers in such situations, Bigstaff said he has no answers: “Shoot, I don’t know what they’ll do.”




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Last Updated: July 29, 2005