Service faces challenges helping tobacco growers, their communities
By Lindsey O’Donnell
UK Rural Journalism Class
SHELBYVILLE, Ky. -- After more than 65 years of willing participation
in the federal government's efforts to control and support tobacco
prices in the United States, Kentucky’s quota owners and growers
are walking into a new era of uncertainty, with questions that are
in need of educated answers.
When the federal tobacco buyout became a reality, tobacco growers
started to consider their options and started asking extension agents
around the state for educated advice and answers.
Kentucky’s tobacco growers are making pertinent decisions
that will ultimately affect the state’s economy. The future
of local economies of tobacco-dependent communities may depend on
how the farmers choose to spend their buyout funds. Will they choose
to invest the money into their local economies, to enable long-term
benefits? Or will they splurge and purchase that brand new Dodge
Ram they’ve been admiring from afar? But where do these people
go to get the advice and information necessary to make a short term
or long term investment?
Brittany Edelson, an extension agent from Shelby County, is concerned
with how the farmers will choose to spend the money they receive
from the buyout: “You can lead a horse to water and that’s
what we’ll try and do through education, but people will make
their own decisions in the end.”
Edelson said she does not try to tell former quota owners how to
spend their money, but provides them options and opportunities.
“We can preach all we want,” she said, “but the
people will ultimately invest their money however they please.”
The national Cooperative Extension Service network consists of
thousands of people who work to serve the daily needs of millions
across the country. Kentucky is home to 80,000 farms and approximately
400 extension agents who work in agriculture, horticulture, and
design and operate programs focusing on family and youth. The service
was created in the early 1900s, at a time when the American economy
was chiefly agriculture, to develop practical applications of research
knowledge and offer instruction to people seeking educated guidance.
It was a plan to bring the university to the people, and today the
educational service has professionals in every state. The effort
was financially supported by federal, state and local governments,
so the service is called cooperative.
The country has gone through a complete makeover since the establishment
of the service, and extension leaders at the University of Kentucky
say they try to fulfill the service's mission and remain effective
by adapting to fast-paced changes and emerging challenges. Agriculture
is no longer the most widely practiced occupation, but it remains
important to Kentuckians.
“Kentuckians have a unique desire to stay on the land,”
said Larry Turner, UK’s associate dean for extension. “We
need to help those folks who want to maintain an agricultural lifestyle.”
Will Snell, UK's extension economist for tobacco, said the biggest
issue currently facing the university's extension service is the
tobacco buyout. Snell has spent the last seven years preparing for
the buyout, which involves America’s tobacco growers and quota
holders, the federal government, state governments, big tobacco
companies, financial institutions and cooperative extension agents.
Snell said the buyout is probably the most significant and far-reaching
piece of agricultural policy legislation for Kentucky farmers and
rural communities since the development of the federal tobacco program
in the 1930s.
The issue remains on the front burner with Kentucky’s extension
service because so many people and so many communities are tobacco-dependent
and therefore dramatically affected by the recent events. For many
people, it’s all they know. But Turner expressed his confidence
in Kentuckians, saying, “People are very tied to the state
of Kentucky and have an allegiance to the state, and are very capable
In Kentucky, 160,000 growers and quota holders will receive $2.5
billion from the buyout in the next decade. Some will receive payments
exceeding $1 million while some small farmers will receive less
than $2,000. Many feel that the buyout amount is less than desirable,
and that the loss of direct "Phase II" payments from tobacco
companies to growers is inexcusable.
The extinction of the federal program may cause great insecurity
among growers who have never had to maintain detailed financial
records that document the cost of their farming operations. For
many tobacco farmers, it’s a new world that offers few guarantees.
The UK service has started an Innovative Tobacco Growers Program
in Russell, Hardin and Fayette counties to help growers remain competitive.
The extension service also worries about how people will choose
to spend the money they receive from the buyout. They encourage
the idea of investing the money into the local economy, especially
in tobacco-dependent regions. Various extension leaders have expressed
concerns about farmers splurging on news trucks or tropical vacations.
Turner wants the service to provide alternatives to people and
make them take the long view. “I don’t think we’ve
got the right to tell them what to do,” he said. “That’s
one of the strengths of extension-our unbiased nature and the credibility
we have through that.”
David Beck, executive vice president of the Kentucky Farm Bureau,
agrees that Kentucky is going through a transition but is less worried
about how farmers choose to spend their buyout money. “Some
people are underestimating the tobacco farmer and it’s almost
disrespectful,” Beck said. “They are good business people.
They are survivors.” Beck said the driving force in farmers'
decision making will be the future of their families and farms.
“If they do choose to purchase that new F-150,” he said,
“that will also have an impact on the economy.”
UK’s extension service works to answer a multitude of questions
from its clients, but various barriers sometimes prevent the service
from getting necessary information. Turner was surprised at how
fast the buyout occurred. This spring, when the service and growers
were still waiting for the federal government to issue regulations
on how the buyout would be handled, Turner said, “We don’t
have all the answers. At times it’s difficult for us to get
the information needed.” When the buyout passed last fall,
agents worked to figure out its parameters, including the effects
it would have on the players involved in tobacco production.
“People wanted to know how they would be affected and agents
had to scramble to try and understand the production contracts being
offered by tobacco companies and to help their clients put the pencil
to the paper as to whether the price offered would be profitable
or not and under what conditions”, explained Lori Garkovich,
a professor in the Department of Community and Leadership Development
in UK’s College of Agriculture. “They want simple, authoritative
answers that are not always available.”
Snell is the recognized expert on tobacco marketing in Kentucky,
and many high-stressed farmers come to him for answers. He said,
“It’s not our role to tell farmers how to spend their
buyout money. My main concern is that the tobacco program over the
years has provided a means to provide a steady stream of income
to many individuals and to lots of relatively poor, lower educated
communities. My hope is that individuals will invest this money
in a manner that will maximize their benefits over a long time frame.
Investment could be into future tobacco production, alternative
agricultural enterprises, non farm enterprises, stock market, retirement,
Many people are seeking advice from extension agents because most
tobacco farms in Kentucky were small operations that stayed in business
with the support of the tobacco program. Now that the program is
non-existent, people want to know what the future of tobacco farming
holds and many are curious about possible alternatives to tobacco.
“It is challenging to meet the needs of everyone, but we do
what we can to answer everyone’s questions,” explained
Turner. “It is our job to take the University to the people
and serve them hopefully improving their quality of life. It’s
our obligation to help people understand the opportunities and consequences.”
UK’s cooperative extension service has long been a popular
resource of information for Kentuckians. Beck said he thinks UK
has always been well connected with the people. “Over the
last 30 years I have interacted with many members of extension,”
he said. “They have always been involved in tobacco production
benefits by researching tobacco varieties and disease control methods.”
He said UK has continuously introduced new techniques to tobacco
farmers. “Extension has a strong relationship with the farmers
because they listen to the farmers,” he said.“They look
into the future of tobacco farming.”
Extension has earned credibility by providing the people with unbiased
information, Turner said. “We aren’t selling a product.
We’re providing options for those in need.”
So how will the service measure success when dealing with an issue
as big as the tobacco buyout? Jimmy Henning, assistant director
of extension for agriculture and natural resources, said the measure
of success in 2005 will be determined by the number of people who
decide to diversify their agricultural operations.
Snell and Steve Isaacs, an agricultural economist from UK, have
contributed to the decision-making by holding dozens meetings around
the state, at which they evenhandedly discussed the future of tobacco
farming with groups of concerned and frustrated farmers.
At a gathering of nearly 200 tobacco farmers in Shelby County
in February, Isaacs opened the floor to questions and one farmer
said, “Maybe our best alternative is to invest in a lot of
rolling papers and then just smoking our own tobacco.” Isaacs
responded calmly by saying, “ We have been dealt a deck of
cards and it’s up to us to decide how we play them.”
Snell grew up raising tobacco on his family farm and realizes
the economic impact that the golden-leafed crop has always had on
Kentucky. He helped the farmers understand that cigarette companies'
purchase of foreign tobacco is responsible for the decline of U.S.
tobacco. Foreign tobacco has improved dramatically with the introduction
of technological advancements and time. He told his Shelbyville
audience, “Quality is something we have always had over these
countries. Now they are catching up to speed and selling their product
at costs more appealing to the tobacco companies.”
Isaacs explained essential bookkeeping practices that growers
will have to learn if they are to remain in the business. Since
the late 1930s, the federal government was responsible for determining
growers' costs of production in order to set the level of federal
price supports. The federal government made the life of a tobacco
farmer more comfortable and reassuring. But with the buyout, the
federal government shed itself of all financial responsibility,
other than delivering checks to compensate farmers for their lost
Keeping detailed records appears to be new for most tobacco farmers.
When Isaacs asked his Shelbyville audience how many could go home
and retrieve a document giving their cost of production last year,
only five or six people out of the 200 attending raised their hands.
Results were similar at other meetings attended by students in the
UK Rural Journalism class.
Isaacs introduced farmers to the bookkeeping skills needed to maintain
an organized tobacco operation, but such instruction can go only
so far. “It’s very individualized because everyone’s
financial situation is different,” Edelson said. “We
will spend the next year making sure that the people are aware of
all their costs.” She said she will focus her efforts towards
helping people “to understand things like labor costs versus
Henning, who has been with UK’s extension program for 14
years, said he stays loyal to the profession because he enjoys getting
the chance to help people. “It’s the concept of taking
the University to the people. It really, really works, and that’s
the exciting part! When livelihoods are on the line, people come
Henning said one of the biggest challenges has been to cater to
the needs of highly tobacco dependent counties, especially in northeastern
Kentucky. Counties like Mason, Fleming and Lewis have been forced
to think about alternatives. Extension leaders designed new programs
like an entrepreneurial coaches' program for the 19-county area,
funded by money from the national tobacco settlement; a youth entrepreneurship
program; and the New Crop Opportunity Center, to encourage alternatives
The youth entrepreneur program was established with to encourage
youth, like those in the 4-H program, to stay in their hometowns
after high school and college while increasing their economic opportunity.
The program teaches youth certain skills, tools and knowledge that
are necessary to become successful in both business and life. Today’s
youth leave school without having learned important life skills
and the entrepreneur program teaches such skills and encourages
the youth to consider making a promising life for themselves in
The New Crop Opportunities Center was made possible by a special
grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The entrepreneurial
coaches' program was funded by the Kentucky Agricultural Development
Fund, which the 2000 General Assembly created to funnel half of
the state's monies from the 1998 national tobacco settlement. The
state Agricultural Development Board invests the money in promising,
innovative proposals that it thinks will increase net farm income
and help tobacco farmers, tobacco-dependent communities and agriculture
around the state. It also works to stimulate existing markets by
adding value to Kentucky agricultural products.
While Turner aims his concern towards alternatives for tobacco-dependent
counties, Snell focuses on helping those who want to stay in tobacco.
“I concentrate my attention on working with policy makers
and farm groups, trying to develop safety net provisions for future
tobacco growers,” he said.
For the first time in their lives, thousands of tobacco farmers
have to face the new reality of making their own choices that will
ultimately determine their financial futures. Lori Garkovich has
faith in extension’s efforts. “In a period of multiple
uncertainties, stress increases,” she said.“But so does
creativity and innovation. The challenge is balancing these two