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This story appeared the June 2, 2005, Bath County News-Outlook, as the first in a series produced by students in the Rural Journalism class in the spring semester at the University of Kentucky.

By Allison King
UK Rural Journalism class

OWINGSVILLE, Ky. -- In the quiet towns of Bath County, Kentucky, locals gather to talk about the many changes that are taking place.

Some share stories of their successes in tobacco and tell how they still think it will be a profitable industry, but others share their concerns of what is to come – not just for tobacco, but for this tobacco-dependent county.

Charlie Kissick and his family, like many in Bath County, have been involved in the tobacco industry since the beginning of the 20th Century. But changes in the tobacco industry mean that Kissick’s family will not be participating in any aspect of it for the first time in more than 100 years.

Charlie Kissick of Owingsville, Ky., looks at his family farm, where no tobacco is being grown for the first time in more than 100 years. (Photo by Keith Smiley, University of Kentucky)

“It feels unusual knowing that nothing is happening on the farm,” said Kissick, vice president and chief lending officer of Owingsville Banking Co., who made decisions about the family tobacco crop.

Others in Bath County have noticed that things are changing, due to the end of the 65-year-old tobacco program, which set quotas to limit the amount of tobacco farmers could grow but supported prices for the crop.

Even before the end of the program, some farmers had found it hard to depend on tobacco for their livelihood because of cuts in quotas that followed the 1998 settlement of states’ lawsuits against cigarette companies.

John Rogers of White Oak said he is full-time tobacco farmer, and has been raising tobacco since he was big enough to walk. He said that the decline of quotas has hurt his family, but he still plans on growing tobacco.

“I would raise other crops but I don’t have enough of a profit to, or the land to grow it on,” Rogers said.
He said that also keeps him from expanding his tobacco crop on their hillside farm, because no one else is willing to lease them additional land for the amount they are willing to pay.

Rogers also worries about the demise of auctions, now replaced by contracts between growers and tobacco companies. “With a contract with a company,” he said, “you never know what is going to happen.”

Former Circuit Judge Jimmy Richardson of Owingsville has a positive outlook on the future of tobacco farming in Bath County, but not for small farmers like Rogers.

“Things will be tragic for about three years, but in four years tobacco will be back. The tobacco companies need the burley to get the taste of the tobacco they want,” said Richardson. Burley is a light tobacco that is essential for the blending of American cigarettes.

Richardson said farmers will have larger contracts with the tobacco companies, but there will be fewer farms. This will hurt the small farms, which have been the backbone of the county, he said.

Bath County’s location and topography make it a great spot for tobacco farming. It has been a community centered around agriculture in general and tobacco in particular.

J. Morrow Richards, president of the Owingsville Banking Co., said that over the past 50 years, the heyday of the federal tobacco program, small farming became a comfortable way of living for many residents of Bath County.

The heritage of tobacco runs deep in the county, where the hills of the Outer Bluegrass Region join the Daniel Boone National Forest. According to the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center, it is one of the counties most dependent on tobacco production.

When Charlie Kissick’s grandfather was living, Bath County was even more dependent on tobacco. Kissick said his grandfather was an active tobacco farmer until he died at the age of 97 about a year ago, and found the changes difficult to accept.

Kissick said it wasn’t easy for him to decide not to take part in growing tobacco because it had been such a big part of his family history, but he foresaw the changes coming as far back as the Clinton administration, which tried to regulate nicotine as a drug, and knew that his family could no longer continue in the industry.

Kissick said the main reason he does not plan on raising tobacco any more is the drastic decrease in profits from the crop. In the past 10 to 15 years, Kissick said his profits dropped more than 50 percent. He blamed this on the decreases in quotas after the 1998 settlement. For him, the tobacco industry, which was once considered to be a dependable source of income, had become a questionable industry.

Kissick said most people in tobacco foresaw the possible changes within the industry. He also said younger people are less interested in farming and do not want stay at home to help on the farm, which forces farming families to look for other sources of help. The extra money spent for hired help can be too significant for some to handle, therefore causing them to look for other sources of income, he said.

Even before the tobacco industry ran into trouble, many local residents began working in surrounding counties. Recent surveys show 28 percent of Bath County residents work outside the county.

In recent years, most tobacco farmers in the county of 11,000 have held full-time jobs away from the farm and used tobacco as a supplemental source of income rather than a primary one.

Many have recognized that with the uncertainty of the tobacco industry they need a more reliable source of income, as well as one that offers health-insurance benefits, said Gary Hamilton, Bath County extension agent for agriculture.

With the lack of available industrial jobs in Bath County, residents look to surrounding counties for employment opportunities. Montgomery County, the home of Cooper Tires and other industries, employs a large number of Bath County residents.

“Cooper Tires pays their employees well and they also have great benefits,” said Kissick. A high school diploma is all that is required for employment, so to many Bath County residents this is one of the best jobs they could possibly find. About 60 percent of local adults have high-school educations.

Currently, the two largest employers in Bath County are the county school board, which is the largest employer, and Custom Foods, which employs around 100 people.

Conditions of the water and sewage treatment plants in the county seat of Owingsville have left the county unable to support larger industries or an expansion of Custom Foods.

The city is working to upgrade both of these plants, but some in the county, such as Paula Wyatt, former president of the Owingsville-Bath County Chamber of Commerce, say these changes should have occurred a long time ago.

Wyatt says Bath County is no longer a farming community. “People have come to realize that tobacco is over,” said Wyatt.

Not only have the farmers struggled due to the decline of the tobacco industry, Wyatt said, but so has the community as a whole. Many small-town businesses were dependent upon the money that came their way after tobacco sold. Without this money being brought into the town, these small businesses have been forced to close.

Wyatt said that she could remember when the town once had four grocery stores, three clothing stores, and most families farmed full time, but things have changed.

This is partly due to the locations of larger businesses, such as Wal-Marts, in the surrounding towns of Morehead, Flemingsburg, and Mount Sterling. With these large businesses, trade has been drawn away from Bath County.

Owingsville is seen as a satellite of Mount Sterling, she said, and more stores in Bath County close on Saturdays around noon because residents tend to travel outside the county to do their shopping. “We’ve grown kind of pessimistic because we’ve lost so many types of businesses,” said Wyatt.

Considering all the changes that have affected them, Bath County residents have been resourceful and will be able to handle the loss of the tobacco program, said Kissick.

Some residents have looked for opportunities in farming outside tobacco. The main form of agricultural diversification has been cattle.

The beef cattle industry has boomed over the past few years and became the leading source of agricultural income for Bath County in 2000, when cattle prices rose and helped make up for lower tobacco prices, Hamilton said.

“About 90 percent of farmers in Bath County who grew tobacco now raise cattle,” Hamilton said.
Roger Stephens, manager of Southern States Cooperative in Owingsville said he keeps selling more cattle feed. “Everyone puts on as many cattle as possible,” he said.

Though many have high hopes that cattle could be the answer to the decline in the tobacco industry, others have a pessimistic outlook on the subject. Richards says that he does not think that high cattle prices will last much longer.

Though diversification has helped some farmers, others have doubts that anything will be able to replace the once-dominant tobacco crop. Tobacco growers wonder if the crop will ever be as profitable crop again, or whether it is worth it to put the extra time and money into growing a new crop.

These are just a few of the questions running through the minds of Bath County tobacco farmers. Some feel that it is time to say goodbye to their farming days, while others continue to hold on to tobacco.

Tobacco is, for the most part, an easy crop to grow, said Kissick. It takes a lot of work at certain stages of the growing process, but once those are completed there is not much else to maintain. With other crops there is much more to maintain and more workers are needed.

“There is nothing else you can work for in this short of time,” and make a decent profit, said Kissick.
County Judge-Executive Walter Shrout, who raises tobacco, said diversification is not a viable alternative for many farmers. He said tobacco will continue to be raised in Bath County, but at a smaller level.

Some county farmers are looking for alternative means of income other than cattle and tobacco. Some have turned to vegetables such as corn, peppers, and mushrooms, while others are taking new ventures into aquaculture, such as raising shrimp, and have found a little success.

Kissick and his cousin took a venture into growing grapes, but it has not been as successful as they had hoped. “We set out two acres, or 1,000 grape vines, but it was very labor intensive,” said Kissick.

The grapes took constant care and upkeep, the chemicals used on the grapes were very expensive, and there was a lack of workers who knew how to work with grapes, he said. Another drawback is a delayed return on investment.

He said it takes three years to get only a half a crop of grapes and it is recommended that you wait until the fourth year to actually sell a crop. By the fourth year, Kissick had earned around half of the profit he first expected. “This had me on the ropes until my cousin bailed me out,” he said.

With the help of his cousin, Kissick plans to continue growing grapes. He is now in his fifth year growing and says the enterprise looks more promising.

Bath County’s Chamber of Commerce, composed of 55 volunteer business professionals, is trying to encourage local citizens to look for means of income outside of tobacco. “The chamber is trying to encourage people to do different things,” said Wyatt, a volunteer for the organization.

Carole Risen, a Bath County extension agent for 29 years, said residents of the county are coming together to build a new agriculture center. The Bath County Agricultural Educational and Marketing Center will include a farmers’ market, a processing kitchen, a meeting facility, and possibly a retail center.

This new center, which was a local concept, has been in the works for six years and will be largely completed this year. The processing kitchen, which can serve as a incubator for commercialization of agriculture projects, is expected to be completed by September.

The center has been funded by a variety of sources, such as the state Transportation Cabinet, the Rural Development program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the local extension boards, and the $1.5 million in state agricultural diversification funds from the national tobacco settlement.

Bath County has had a farmers’ market for 20 years, but the center will allow it to expand. It is located on Interstate 64, which should draw traffic. Risen is hoping that many residents and non-residents will take advantage of the center. Risen said she expects the center to be successful, but she fears local producers will not have the supply to meet the demand.

Before breaking ground for the new center, residents of the county looked around the country at other farmers’ markets. They found a market in Ohio that has brought in several million dollars to its community; this is what the Bath County residents are hoping their new center will do for community, Risen said.

Moving away from the tobacco market is something farmers are having problems with because it was such a successful and dependable market. “No one thing will replace the tobacco market,” said Hamilton, who also stated, “the more marketing opportunities the better.” For Bath County there will be two new marketing opportunities within the year, the farmer’s auction and the produce market.

Things are changing in Bath County, but sometimes change can be good. Folks such as Risen have hopeful spirits about what the future holds for their community. Though it has been difficult for some to say goodbye to the tobacco industry, many are looking ahead to the changes.

“The Bath County Agricultural Educational and Marketing Center will have a big impact on the economy of Bath County,” she said. “The potential is great and it is our choice for what we do with that potential.”

See the Bath County Extension Web site for updates on the new center and other events to come for Bath County.

UK Rural Journalism student Sarah Lutz contributed to this story. It was edited by Al Cross, class instructor and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

 


 

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
School of Journalism and Telecommunications

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879


Al Cross, director, al.cross@uky.edu


Last Updated: May 20, 2005