This morning, the first thing I’d like to do is connect you to a brand new blog with great potential. Kentucky Renaissance Man covers dibs and dabs of non-farm rural country life…everything from fishing to home remodeling. Check it out if you have the time.
A recent comment on a post sent me searching for information on Kentucky’s farmers which I’d like to share with you. I am most thankful to the writer for spawning my research a little further. According to the USDA, as of 2007 the average farm size in Kentucky is 164 acres and those small farms make up about 55 percent of the total land use in the state. A little more than 20 percent of crop acres is pasture, while of Woodland acres, 26 percent is pasture. I think those figures describe well why when people think of the Bluegrass State, they think of lush acres, rolling hills, and even horses.
There are other glaring figures in the report, however that dispel the horse fancier’s antebellum notions of the State. Fifty-six percent of Kentucky’s farms are less than 100 acres; 94.1 percent are less than 500 acres. The vast majority of farmers, some 76.8 percent own (or mortgage) their own land and have an average age of over FIFTY-SIX! Almost 40 percent of those aging farmers count agriculture as their primary income. Yet, as of the USDA report, 66.5 percent made less than $10,000 in farm sales. In 2009, total net farm income amounted to just over 1.3 million dollars.
Kentucky’s farmers are rich in land, by comparison to city-dwellers. So too, are they rich in spirit and work ethic, but the majority of Kentucky farmers are hurting financially, edging towards retirement age, and with fewer rural job openings and an 11.2 percent rural unemployment rate, are unlikely to find ‘outside’ work. The rural lands, for which Kentucky is most famous, risks being lost through attrition, commercial development, and potentially corporate takeover (as of 2007, only .2 percent of farms were owned by non-family corporations). And the family farm risks loss of its younger members as they seek work in the cities or other states.
So where do we go from here?
Our local newspaper reported somewhat delightedly last week that the county Economic Development council is in the process of establishing a new industrial site to encourage job growth. I believe that is wrong-headed. When we look around the state at the number of industrial development sites and ‘spec’ buildings sitting empty, it is quite clear the plan falters from its inception. The development model, based on an earlier North Carolina model and followed in most farming states, is old hat. A new economic model needs to be developed which does not pit farm against industry for workers and profits, but enlists the cooperation of both, particularly on the local level.The biofuels industry is one example of such cooperation, I am sure there are others. If local farmers find a market for their products within industry and if local grocery chains carried primarily locally produced farm goods, the demise of the small family farm may be thwarted. Tobacco once provided that opportunity and its heavy emphasis on manual labor provided scores of jobs for those willing to participate. Times changed and even the owner of the largest tobacco base in our area no longer plants the scorned ‘weed’. On many farms, cattle now takes its place as farmers scramble for alternative and profitable sources of farm income.
There are many farm-to-industry possibilities. Biodegradable plastics made from starch can be manufactured in close proximity to the farm. Biotechnologies using farm products can lead to new methods and manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and treatments. Foodstuffs, such as cooking oils, flours, canned goods can locate closer to the farm to reduce shipping costs, rather than in centralized urban locations where transportation, wages, and taxes are often higher. And, as mentioned earlier, biofuels technology can be an important component of Kentucky farming resources.
Rather than an industrial map, which places a factory at the center and farms on its periphery, I foresee greater possibilities with the farm at center-stage, and rather than a “If I build it, they will come” mentality, Kentucky sending the message, “We have it. It’s better. It’s cheaper. It’s profitable. Y’all come!”