March 17, 2000 | By: Mark Eclov

Looking for ways to bolster sagging farm income is not a new assignment for most agents and farm management specialists of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. The big difference this time around is the size of the problem.

Extension service agents are urging burley tobacco producers to start planning alternative crops as well as management and marketing strategies that will supplement the loss of Kentucky's most lucrative farm product.

Agricultural economists from the UK College of Agriculture are predicting the new quotas for burley tobacco will probably drag sales from the state's top farm product below both Kentucky's beef and equine sales. The loss of farm income from less burley tobacco may reach over $400 million.

"I compare this situation to a large factory closing, but with some additional problems," said Mark Reese, UK county Extension agent for agriculture in Scott County. "In a factory closings, most of those people who are about to lose their jobs get a pink slip. Here everyone is looking at each other and wondering who goes next."

The Kentucky Cooperative Extension service can't provide severance pay or relocation help, but its agents and state specialists have a pool of information that can help producers take a realistic look at the future of their particular farm operation.

The options and needs will vary with every county and farm in the state, but there are some standard themes in addressing the changes brought about by lower tobacco quotas.

"Everybody is looking at everything and anything with an eye to profitability," said Gary Tilghman, Barren County Extension agent for Agriculture. "I think we are going to see more producers with better records so that they know what the bottom line is regarding new options or things they are already raising."

Tilghman's best guess is growers in his county that survive the first big cuts will be looking at farming options such as alfalfa, poultry, horticultural crops, and other niche markets.

"What will be chosen to replace lost income will depend on factors such as a producer's age, his current financial situation and the cost of expanding or adding farm enterprises," added Tilghman.

What is working in Lincoln county could work for certain producers in two-thirds of the state, according to Danny Grigson, Lincoln County Extension agent for agriculture.

"We have the right kind of land and market opportunities to either expand or add beef and dairy operations to the farm mix," said Grigson. "We can replace the profits from an acre of tobacco with six or seven beef cows, but it will take pasture, hay field improvement and better management of how those fields are used. Dairy also has a place on some farms, but there is a tough labor market so you have to like the long hours."

Grigson says staying afloat will require producers learn to manage their time well and grasp a long term view of their operation.

In Woodford County, the reality is there may be as much as a $14 million in lost income to the county from tobacco quota cuts.

"We are already dealing with a lot of emotional issues. Lots of our producers are just going to quit farming. It's taking a toll on our families," said Mike Duckworth, Woodford County Extension agent for agriculture.

Duckworth is taking "a boatload" of producers to an aquaculture farm demonstration. Vegetable production has been started and a wholesale marketing location has been set up.

He also is preaching that producers need to try to do a better job with their existing operations before they try something new. "Tobacco spoiled us," noted Duckworth. "It was very profitable crop and our producers had a solid market which allowed them to focus on being good growers. Now learning how to identify and market other successful crops will be the biggest challenge."

Scott county Extension agent Mark Reese says his biggest worry is that not enough people in his county are coming to grips with reality. "It's not a pleasant situation. It is one of those deals where you try to find a silver lining and it isn't there," said Reese. "There is just a lot of uncertainty."

Scott county producers have built up a solid commercial vegetable business. The local Cooperative is to the point where they need an building for all the additional produce.

"We have a market, but we can't always guarantee the price... many of our people have done well," said Reece. "I'm not sure we could readily meet everyone's needs if we were to double our acreage in the next year."

Reese's approach to evaluating a producer's needs is used by many other Extension agents and state specialists. "We can sit down and look at what can be done and try to determine what a particular individual is actually capable of doing with their current operation. We always try to encourage our producers, provide them with information and then let them make the ultimate choices," said Reese.


Lynn Robbins 606-257-5762