Tracking the trends... UK's Will Snell is widely respected for steering growers straight during tobacco's twists and turns

Posted on Feb 5, 2012
By Walt Reichert

When tobacco auction warehouses made way for contract buying stations, he was there, offering growers numbers, information and perspective. When the decades-old tobacco program was sinking and farmers were fighting for a quota buyout, he was there to help guide them through a tenuous time.

Through billion-dollar sales seasons, poor crop years, volatile market conditions and political challenges, Will Snell was at the forefront of the tobacco scene, serving as the numbers guru, economic go-to guy and media superstar.

The mild-mannered University of Kentucky Agricultural Economist emerged as one of the best-known and most-respected officials in Kentucky agriculture after working through the highs and lows in the state’s tobacco economy that has seen as much change in the last 15 years as the previous 200 years combined.

When the state’s large and community newspapers wrote any story on tobacco, Snell was the man to track down for a quote. When tobacco farmers needed information about manufacturers’ plans during the move to contracting, Snell fanned out across the state for county and regional tobacco meetings where he offered farmers objective information about markets and company intentions. When growers wondered how the tobacco buyout would affect them, Snell was the man they looked to for answers.

And year after year, growers have looked to Snell to assess market conditions and outlooks. And they listen reverently.

Snell, who grew up on a typical tobacco and beef cattle farm near Paris, never intended to study tobacco policy and markets when he entered the University of Kentucky in 1979. But his work with noted tobacco economist and ag economics professor Milt Shuffett moved him to study tobacco economics and earn all three of his degrees from UK. He started his teaching and extension work in 1989, just as the world of the tobacco farmers was changing politically, economically and socially. That put Snell, with his objective numbers and ability to communicate with growers, company officials and politicians alike, at the center of the whirlwind.

“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Snell said.

Shelby County tobacco farmer and state Senator Paul Hornback said Snell’s assistance to growers was invaluable during those tumultuous times. “You can’t measure the contribution he gave to farmers, especially during the buyout,” Hornback said. “If we wanted to know anything about the worldwide markets, Will was the one to go to for the true numbers.”

Roger Thomas, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy, also praised Snell’s efforts on behalf of Kentucky tobacco growers during the uncertain days surrounding the tobacco buyout.

“Dr. Snell has been instrumental in working with policy makers, tobacco farmers and agricultural leaders to provide them with the most up-to-date information as it relates to tobacco economics across the state,” Thomas said. “He was a true leader in the policy analysis of the tobacco buyout legislation.”

Changing focus

Snell still lives in Bourbon County with his wife, Amy. They have two daughters, Lucy Ann and Caroline. While Snell’s knowledge of tobacco policy and markets, domestic and international, put him in the spotlight for almost a decade – from the late 90s to the mid-2000s – that period also marked the beginning of the end of tobacco’s domination of the state’s agricultural economy. In 1997, tobacco peaked in value, accounting for $900 million in receipts and garnering 25 percent of the state’s ag revenue. In the 1990s, 60,000 farm families in Kentucky grew tobacco. During the post-buyout years 2005-2010, tobacco receipts averaged $340 million per year, and Snell predicts tobacco may struggle to hit $300 million in receipts in the next several years. Once king of ag commodities, tobacco likely ended 2011 in sixth place, behind poultry, horses, corn, soybeans, and beef cattle, according to UK estimates. And the next ag census will probably reveal that the state is down to about 5,000 tobacco farmers, Snell said. Snell said he foresaw the decline in tobacco revenue but didn’t expect the other commodities to grow as rapidly. “I don’t think anybody can say they saw $6 corn and $13 soybeans, and those prices won’t likely last,” Snell said. “But what we didn’t see is that the size of the pie would get bigger.” But he said tobacco will likely continue to have a place in the state’s agricultural lineup and predicts that, in the short-term at least, growers may enjoy higher prices as companies may struggle to ensure supply security. “The big questions will be what will happen with FDA oversight and the labor problems,” Snell said. “Those are two issues we don’t have a lot of control over. But it’s still a viable and sustainable industry.” Snell also predicts that while fewer tobacco farmers will grow larger crops, there will still be room for the smaller growers. “Small to medium-sized farms may show better yields and the quality that the companies want,” Snell said. For Snell, the change in tobacco’s share of the state’s agriculture pie has also meant a change in job focus; tobacco no longer consumes his agenda. He said tobacco now accounts for about 20 percent of his work for UK. Teaching a class in food and agricultural marketing takes up another 20 percent, as does studying and reporting on macro economics. But the lion’s share of Snell’s time now is devoted to his co-directorship of the Kentucky Agricultural Leadership Program (KALP). Formerly known as the Philip Morris Agricultural Leadership Development Program, KALP participants meet three days every month for two years where they discuss agriculture trade, finance, markets, legislation and other issues. The group takes two tours, one in the U. S. and one abroad. The 2010 class took a trip to study agriculture in New Zealand. The ag leadership program has graduated nearly 250 members and Snell currently is at work on setting the program for the next class. “I think I am most proud of my work with the leadership program,” Snell said. “But I enjoy the mix of my work now. I grew up on the UK campus, never left and never intend to leave. I love my job.”

Tagged Post Topics Include: Commodity, KYFB, Tobacco, University of Kentucky, Will Snell