By Philip Stith
UK Rural Journalism class
HARDINSBURG, Ky. -- With the end of the federal
tobacco program, farmers are expected to grow 25 to 30 percent
less burley tobacco than last year, but some Kentucky counties
will grow more – signaling a westward shift in the state’s
Burley acreage in Kentucky is expected to fall
from 114,800 acres last year to 82,200 acres in 2005, according
to United States Department of Agriculture estimates. But
in Breckinridge County, agriculture officials predict the
county’s 2005 tobacco production will surpass pre-buyout
levels, and there are signs elsewhere in near Western Kentucky
of higher tobacco production.
To the southwest, in Logan County, the end
of the quota and price-support system has opened the door
for many large-scale farmers to increase their tobacco production
substantially. Among them is Page Barker.
Barker plans to increase his production to
100,000 pounds in 2005, from 72,000 last year. These figures
place him in the top 10 percent of Kentucky tobacco farmers
in pounds grown.
While the amount of tobacco Barker grows is
impressive, the amount of federal quota he had is not. He
owned only 1,200 pounds of quota, which meant he rented the
right to grow and sell 70,800 pounds. At 70 cents per pound,
the going rate in Logan County last year, that’s not
But with quotas abolished and his land available,
Barker will not have to spend a penny for the right to grow
tobacco in 2005. The result could be a huge increase in profits
for Barker and other growers who were forced to rent the majority
of their quota.
“I’m much better off,” said
Barker, 40, who raised his first crop of tobacco when he was
16. “I’m $80,000 ahead before I start because
I don’t have to borrow the money to rent the quota.”
What allows Barker and other Western Kentucky
farmers to increase production so substantially is the landscape
where they live. Unlike Eastern Kentucky and the adjoining
part of Southern Kentucky, which are hilly and tillable mainly
in small tracts, Logan County is 90 percent tillable, Barker
It is for such reasons that some observers
expect the production of tobacco in the Bluegrass State to
shift westward, to areas where larger tracts of land are available
and -- unlike in much of Central Kentucky -- relatively cheap.
In 2004, tobacco was grown in 119 of Kentucky’s
120 counties. As recently as 1997, tobacco was grown on 67
percent of all Kentucky farms. That kind of widespread tobacco
production will not continue in coming years, but appears
likely to become concentrated in counties like Logan and Breckinridge.
Logan County, west of Bowling Green, has long
been a major agricultural county. It lies on the Pennyroyal
Plain and the somewhat hilly Clifty Area, a transitional zone
that forms the outer rim of the West Kentucky Coal Field (but
has no coal).
Breckinridge County, bounded by the Ohio and
Rough rivers between Louisville and Owensboro, is similarly
situated. It is less industrialized than Logan and is one
of the Kentucky counties most dependent on agriculture.
Ricky Miller, a Kentucky State University small-farm
assistant assigned to work with farmers in Breckinridge County,
said he believes its significant increase in tobacco production
is directly related to the available agricultural land in
the county and the average lease price in recent years.
“A large portion of tobacco in Breckinridge
County leased for 80 cents [per pound] last year,” said
Miller. “Some tobacco leased for as much as a dollar
In 2004, Breckinridge County was the 12th largest
burley producing county in Kentucky. Breckinridge County farmers
raised 3.6 million pounds or approximately 1,800 acres of
tobacco last year.
Breckinridge County Agriculture Extension Agent
Carol Hinton estimates that the county will be one of the
five largest tobacco producing counties in Kentucky next year
at 4.2 million pounds and 2,100 acres.
In fact, Hinton anticipates 2005 will be the
first of several years of consistent increases in tobacco
production. “We are hoping to double tobacco production
in Breckinridge County within the next few years,” she
Hinton expects a relatively small percentage
of growers to stop production in 2005. “Nearly all of
the farmers who aren’t going to continue growing tobacco
are older or had sharecropped their 2004 crop,” said
Hinton. “Almost everyone left will grow more tobacco
in 2005, whether it is 1,000 pounds more or 50,000 pounds
Without the added cost of leasing quota, it
is much easier for some farmers to grow more tobacco, perhaps
more profitably, but small farmers aren’t ready to jump
on the bandwagon just yet, if at all.
Some say that small farmers, who have relied on tobacco as
a reliable source of income, will become a smaller part of
Earl O’Reilly, who lives near Hardinsburg,
is reducing, not increasing his production this year –
to 5,000 pounds from a relatively modest 8,000. While he believes
tobacco will flourish in Breckinridge County in coming years,
he doesn’t think farmers of his size will be a part
“Eventually it will become concentrated
in the hands of a few large growers,” said O’Reilly.
“A perfect example is hog farming; when I was a kid
there were hogs on every farm on this road, now there are
only six or eight hog farmers left in Breckinridge County.”
As tobacco growers increase production, they
must become more efficient, Hinton cautions.
With companies paying about 25 percent less under this year’s
contracts than last year’s price-supported auctions
or contracts, Hinton advocates smarter farming and close attention
on the part of growers to achieve efficiency and maximize
“Farmers will be able to double production
without doubling acreage by becoming more efficient,”
said Hinton. “In the old system people used the same
amount of fertilizer every year; now, farmers will have to
lower their expenses to make money at a lower price, so they
will watch things more closely.”
Hinton said Breckinridge County farmers likely
used enough fertilizer on 3.6 million pounds of tobacco last
year to raise five million pounds, which is not very efficient.
Kelly Shultz isn’t concerned that increased
efficiency by farmers will hurt his seed, plant and fertilizer
business. Shultz, manager of Breckinridge Southern States
Cooperative in Hardinsburg, reports a 15 percent increase
in sales of tobacco seed, starter soil and Styrofoam float-tray
sales this year. He is optimistic those figures will translate
to increased profits throughout the growing season.
“We have a lot of good growers that are
going to continue to produce a quality product, and [in Breckinridge
County] they have a good situation,” said Shultz. “These
farmers know how to grow tobacco and they have the infrastructure
to expand,” including barn space to air-cure harvested
Shultz hopes these expanding growers will result
in increased chemical sales, sprayer rentals and harvesting
supplies this year.
While these expectations are still largely
speculative, what is certain is that increased production
next year is going to mean more plants going in the ground
next month, and that is music to the ears of Joey Graham.
For the past eight years, Graham, who lives
near Custer, has sold plants to tobacco growers all over Breckinridge
County and beyond. Last year Graham raised enough plants in
water filled float-beds to set 285 acres of tobacco.
If tobacco is on the way out in Breckinridge
County, nobody told Graham. This year he expanded his capacity
and is raising enough plants to set 365 acres of tobacco,
and still has to turn away customers. During a two-week period
this spring when orders were flooding in, Graham added capacity
each day just to keep up.
“All 52 float-beds are spoken for already,
and I could sell another 20 acres if I had it,” he said.
Graham is not unique among producers of tobacco plants. Steven
Hinton, who lives near McQuady in the southern part of the
county, said he has also noticed higher-than-usual demand
Unlike Graham, Hinton raises his plants in
large hothouses and transfers them to float beds when they
are large enough. This year, business is good; all his plants
were sold by the first week of February. In fact, he said
he was forced to turn away returning customers due to a significant
number of his regular customers increasing their acreage.
Tobacco-growing statistics are available
from the National Agricultural Statistical Service at this
Web site: http://www.nass.usda.gov:81/ipedbcnty/report2.htm.
For a version of this article, published
as the lead story in the News-Democrat and Leader of Russellville,