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
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
“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,”
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
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
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
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
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,”
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
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
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
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