Eclectic panelists discuss ways to improve rural Kentucky life

People from very different walks of life shared ideas on rural communities and economies March 4 and 5 at “Growing Kentucky: New Directions for Our Culture of Land and Food.” The symposium, sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture and Gaines Center for the Humanities, with assistance from Partners for Family Farms.

“Nowhere else can you find such interesting viewpoints to discuss rural life,” said Cindi Sullivan of Louisville’s WHAS Radio and WAVE-TV, who moderated the panel on rural communities.

The symposium was occasioned in part by the end of the federal program of tobacco quotas and price supports, which panelists agreed would be the largest change in Kentucky agriculture since the program was established more than 65 years ago. Some speakers said the end of the program, and the money that growers will be paid for their quotas, create the best opportunity yet to make realities of their dreams of a diversified agricultural economy that supports local communities – some of which have been very dependent on tobacco, a crop that kept many small farms in business.

"If we want to have diversified agricultire, we must have diversified ideas," LaJuana Wilcher, secretary of the state Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet, told the crowd at the opening session.

Some speakers expressed frustration that more has not been done in the last decade, despite warnings about the decline of tobacco and rural communities. The “right groups” get together and talk but haven’t gotten much accomplished because they want to protect their turf, said rural-economies panelist Lois Mateus, senior vice president of Brown-Forman Corp., major co-sponsor of the symposium. “Everyone seems to have their own noble idea,” Mateus said. She added that UK is best suited to lead change because it has “troops in the field,” primarily the Cooperative Extension Service, which has agents who work on community development as well as agriculture, 4-H and family and consumer topics.

Mateus and Michael Childress, director of the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center, said the key to rural economic development is a regional approach, in which groups of counties use their existing strengths to build an economic niche. One example of that is the houseboat industry that has developed along Lake Cumberland, in the towns of Somerset, Monticello and Albany, said Al Cross, interim director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, who has lived and worked in the towns.

Cross noted that the industry developed without much government help, and Childress said regional cooperation faces obstacles because Kentucky has many counties where judge-executives and mayors fail to coordinate. He and others said a key to rural economic development is local leadership. Mateus called for “more imaginative action in Frankfort and Washington.”

Childress said the urgency for rural development is increasing, noting that Kentucky’s 58 most rural counties have become more dependent on transfer payments, which include all forms of government benefits. Such payments accounted for 25 percent of the counties; income in 1990, and rose to 30 percent by 2002, he said. That trend was a corollary to another troubling trend in rural Kentucky, a widening wage gap with urban areas. Childress said that trend continues to make rural people migrate to urban areas.

Cross urged those at the economies session to seek coverage and commentary from their local newspapers and broadcast stations of the issues discussed at the conference, making them relevant to local concerns. He and other speakers voiced concern that the decline of rural economies is leading to a decline in the sense of community in rural areas, as residents travel to larger towns and regional centers for shopping and services.

Kentucky's internationally reknowned poet, essayist and farmer, Wendell Berry attended both panels, which began in the morning and were repeated in the afternoon. During discussion in the afternoon panel on communities, he mentioned the importance of keeping the wealth of the country in the country. “We need to teach the country person how they can take back their wealth,” said Berry. (He and Kentucky authors Davis McCombs and Barbara Kingsolver read from their works at a Friday evening session.)

Cross said in concluding the economies panel that he hoped some of the tobacco growers who will be getting large checks for their quotas will invest their money in their own communities.

David Wagoner, a farmer from Nicholas County on the economies panel, said individuals hold they key to small-town economies. Samuel Stokes of the National Park Service said likewise during the communities panel, reminding attendees that agricultural community is more than just land. “It’s everything together that makes the rural community so special. But especially, it’s the people in the community that make it what it is,” said Stokes, who is chief of the park service's Rivers, Trails and Conservation Program.

Wagoner is trying “community supported agriculture,” in which community members sign pledges before the growing season to buy certain shares of a local farm’s production, and wants his farm to be both economically and ecologically sustainable. “We do well to be economically sustainable,” he said.

Jess Miller, a UK student and Gaines Fellow on the communities panel, said she is a member of Community Farm Alliance and is committed to eating locally grown food.

Environmental lawyer Hank Graddy, of the Cumberland Chapter of the Sierra Club, called for conservation and preservation during the communities panel. “Growth is both good and bad and it’s our job to determine the difference,” he said. “We need growth that enhances the quality of life.”

Several attendees said the College of Agriculture, which in the past has often been indetified with large farming interests, broke new ground by co-sponsoring the symposium. Mike Mullen, the college’s associate dean for academics, said during the economies panel that the college is considering a sustainable-agriculture curriculum and is moving 11 acres on its farm to “organic and sustainable production.” College Dean Scott Smith said in opening the conference that it was "critical to our planning and our ability to serve the future of the commonwealth."

Other speakers included Michael Pollan, author, environmentalist, and Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley; restaurateur and chef Alice Waters, whose foundation supports efforts to educate children about sustainable agriculture; and Jon Carloftis – writer, Kentucky native, environmental activist andgarden designer to the stars.

The symposium concluded with the annual Phyllis Pray Bober Memorial Feast, created by the undergraduate fellows of the Gaines Center and presented by local chef Ouita Michael, a former Gaines Fellow and James Beard Honoree, and the staff of the Holly Hill Inn. Mike Seager, a prominent expert on Appalachian music, will perform with music professor Ron Pen, director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music, and The Reel World String Band.

For further information, contact Dan Rowland of the Gaines Center for the Humanities at 859-257-1537 or hisdan@uky.edu; Bonnie Tanner of the College of Agriculture at 859-257-3887 or bonniet@uky.edu; or Sue Weant of Partners for Family Farms at 233-3056 or msdweant@aol.com.

Brittany Johnson of the Rural Journalism class at UK contributed to this report.


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
College of Communications & Information Studies

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

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

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

Last Updated: March 7, 2004