The business of growing . .County Farm Bureaus in the mix with ag development initiative

Posted on Mar 20, 2013
County Agricultural Development Councils have been on a hot seat ever since the state’s historic agricultural development initiative got underway in 2001. The county councils, which include dozens of Farm Bureau leaders throughout the state, are charged with the responsibility of submitting project proposals to the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board (KADB). In effect, they determine who gets what.

While the implementation of county-specific projects has fallen under the oversight of these councils, several county Farm Bureaus have also played a vital role by agreeing to oversee the funding process. The Farm Bureau connection ranges from the Appalachian county of Lawrence on the West Virginia border to metropolitan Jefferson County and former tobacco production hotbeds like Owen and Mercer counties.

Along with the remainder of the state’s farm community, those county Farm Bureaus have witnessed remarkable progress transforming the farm economy in the wake of burley tobacco’s downturn.

Lawrence County is utilizing funds from the County Agricultural Investment Program to combine what were originally known as county model cost-share program. This is designed to provide farmers with incentives to improve and diversify their current operations.

Lawrence County Extension Agent Julia Rollins said she has thoroughly enjoyed working with Farm Bureau to improve agriculture there.

“Farm Bureau plays a vital role in the agricultural community here,” said Rollins. “They have been administering tobacco settlement funds in cooperation with the County Agriculture Development Council for the past few years, and it is my understanding that the local Farm Bureau board agreed to accept this responsibility because of the immense opportunity they recognized to improve the quality of agriculture.”

Lawrence County Farm Bureau offers producers the opportunity to participate in CAIP, which allows them to benefit from cost-sharing.

“We have seen some real success stories in Lawrence County due to the cost-share program,” noted Rollins.  “Cattle genetics and handling facilities come to mind immediately.  We have seen several improvements in the quality of our cattle as a result of this program.  In order to secure cost-share funds farmers have to meet certain standards, so we have seen a lot of improvements in safety.”

Lawrence County has enjoyed a substantial increase in agritourism. Several area farms have made good use of the cost-share program by partnering to develop a fall driving tour.

“The Heritage Harvest Tour has grown by leaps and bounds since it began three years ago,” said Rollins.  “It is a one-day tour held in the fall, and offers visitors a chance to visit local corn mazes, buy locally-made soaps and honeys, and enjoy hayrides. This past year we accounted for over $20,000 being spent in our county on the day of the tour. We have seen a lot of positive growth here as a result of the funding we have received, and we hope that will continue.”

Lawrence County has used funds for a fall festival promoting its agriculture businesses.
Lawrence County has used funds for a fall festival promoting its agriculture businesses.

Owen County can also boast of a revitalized agritourism sector. Since 2001, Gayla Lewis has served as administrator for the CAIP program in Owen County.  Working closely with Owen County FB and the Owen County Ag Development Board, Lewis enjoys seeing the impact funding has on local farmers.

“Last year, we applied for funds to build a permanent structure for the Owen County Farmer’s Market,” said Lewis.  “They really needed a new location, since in the past it was held in the courthouse square and farmers had to display their products under tents.  This exposed both the vendors and customers to inclement weather, and there was not a lot of parking space.”

With the ag development funds received, a permanent structure was built behind the Farm Bureau office.

“We have seen a notable increase in sales as a result, and all vendors agreed that there were more customers,” noted Lewis.  “We also noticed that people tended to sit and socialize more, and our vendor who sells hot lunches reported a 3 to 5% increase in sales.  This is a very positive development for our farmer’s market.”

In 2012, Owen County received $20,000 for a cost-share program to assist youth participating in a 4-H livestock project, as well as funding for CAIP.

“Owen County was one of the top three counties in terms of the dollar amounts distributed at one point,” said Lewis.  “We have received a lot of ag development money over the years, and every penny has gone to our farmers.  You can drive through the county and see the far-reaching impact those funds have had on Owen County, from new hay sheds and new fences to new cattle-handling facilities.  It is very obvious that the money has helped our farmers, and has provided them with the funds needed to diversify their operations.”

Larger counties in the state have fared just as well as the smaller ones.  Jefferson County FB has played a unique role in the distribution of ag development funds, insuring that the very valuable CAIP continues to impact local farmers.  In 2012, three CAIPs were approved for $380,000 in Breckinridge, Bullitt, and Jefferson counties.

“Jefferson County Farm Bureau assumed responsibility for handling funds to help keep the program going,” stated Matt Michaud, Executive Director.  “I serve as an authorized representative to work with extension agents and the local ag development council.  We all see the tremendous potential these funds have to impact agriculture in Jefferson County, and we are dedicated to making sure that happens.”

Michaud said some of the money received was used to fund an up-and-coming vineyard in Jefferson County.  Two other projects that have enjoyed success are a cattle-handling facility owned by local farmer Kevin Underwood and a roadside market owned by Jefferson County FB President Tommee Clark.

“The great thing about these funds is that they allow farmers to improve their operations and help their neighbors at the same time,” Michaud remarked.  “They sell their own products in their stores, and also other Kentucky Proud products.  Kevin’s operation allows local farmers to sell their beef at a premium price, and it helps his business at the same time; it’s a win-win situation.”

Michaud continued, “The true intention of ag development dollars is to improve a farmer’s business, but it also gives them a chance to help others in return.”

Kevin Underwood’s new facility has given him the capability to handle more cattle and to give a fair price to local farmers.

“Before we had this facility, we had to ship some of our cattle out of state during drought times,” said Underwood.  “This money gave us the opportunity to build a new holding facility, put up new fencing, add automatic water systems, and the ability to ship cattle.  Now we can help our neighbors during tough times by giving them a fair price.  Someone may have just five or six calves, and it is not economical to haul them long distances.  We group them together and find a buyer, and then we get market price.  It’s good for everybody.”

Tommee Clark has also boosted her business with help from ag development funding.  She runs a roadside market where she sells beef, pork, and eggs produced on her farm, as well as products from other area farmers.

“We sell locally-made honey, rooibee red tea (a naturally-decaffeinated tea), jams, jellies, and breads in the summer,” said Clark.  “We also host a lot of school field trips and festivals throughout the year, with hayrides and corn mazes in the fall.”

Clark said the funding she received during her first year in business helped her construct a new building; additional funding was used to purchase a new freezer to display products and a prep table for demonstrations.

“We are now working toward a certified kitchen, but we have not been able to do that yet,” Clark commented.  “This funding has really helped get our new venture off the ground and is offering a nice agritourism venue for our community.”

Mercer County is yet another example of the positive impact ag development funding has made on the community.  Doris Hamilton, Mercer County FB Federation Program Administrator, has administered ag development funds for nine years and is thrilled with the results she has seen.

“We have funded 45 to 50 producers per year,” said Hamilton.  “And each one has their own unique story.  CAIP began as seven or eight different segmented programs being administered by different agencies.  I administered these programs out of my home for years; at that time, the responsibilities were split among different entities. When CAIP was formed, it became a job one person could do.”

Mercer County farmers Myron Ellis and Danny Brock have enjoyed new levels of success in their operations, due to funding received.

“I was able to buy a hay accumulator system and start a hay business,” said Ellis.  “I was also able to build a storage barn under the same program.  We were a cattle operation before, and dependent on tobacco like everyone else in this area.  This new hay business has allowed us to get completely out of tobacco and we are able to pay our bills.”

Ellis has been pleased with the level of professionalism he has experienced in his dealings with Farm Bureau.

“Doris really does a good job,” Ellis remarked.  “This program has been really good for our farmers, and we are fortunate that it is available.  Sometimes government programs don’t work the way they should, but this one has done exactly what it is supposed to do.  It helped all of us who were dependent on tobacco diversify our operations and stay profitable.”

Danny Brock used funding he received to make a transition from dairy farming to raising beef cattle.  When making this transition, Brock had no handling facility.

“The cattle would get here at different times and I could work them myself when I had to, but it was a challenge,” said Brock.  “It wasn’t very safe.   Now with this new facility the whole process is safer, and it puts a lot less stress on the cattle.”

Danny Brock also has a lot of praise for Farm Bureau’s role in administering funding.

“I have been working with Farm Bureau for years, and they have always treated me well,” said Brock.  “They have worked well with farmers to try and help them improve their profitability and have done an excellent job seeing that the needs of the farmers have been met in our community.”

“The program fits with everything Farm Bureau stands for,” said Hamilton.

More than $400 million of the tobacco settlement money has been distributed for more than 4,500 projects. Add in matching grant and other local contributions and the initiative amounts to well over a half-billion dollars.

Tagged Post Topics Include: 4-H, Breckinridge County, Bullitt County, CAIP, County Agricultural Investment Program, Danny Brock, Doris Hamilton, Extension, Gayla Lewis, Heritage Harvest Tour, Jefferson County, Julia Rollins, Kentucky Ag Development Board, Kentucky Proud, Kevin Underwood, KFB, Lawrence County, Matt Michaud, Mercer County, Myron Ellis, Owen County, Owen County Farmer's Market, Roadside Market, Tommee Clark