ByAlan J. Stamborski
Steve Sauder, manager of the Fairview Produce Auction, asks for bids from the crowd.
Bruce Cline at his tobacco farm.
If you ask Wayne Hunt what makes the farming community around Hopkinsville, Ky., stand out, he's quick to tick off reasons: business-minded, involved, politically savvy.
Hunt is the unofficial farm leader in Christian County, where the land yields tens of millions of bushels of corn every year, along with soybeans, winter wheat and tobacco. A fair amount of cattle also can be seen grazing beyond the white rail fences.
The farmers here feel blessed, despite today's low prices. The mild weather of their central location allows them to squeeze three crops into two years.
"We're like the zipper between the North and South," Hunt says.
That same central location means a quick path to most markets in the country, thanks to the proximity of interstates, main rail lines and major rivers. Many customers, in fact, have come to them. Mills and commercial bakeries have sprung up practically in the farmers' back yards.
Hunt once worked in the chemical, gas and oil industries. So, he knows big business. And farming here is all that. The average farm of a full-time farmer is estimated at 2,000 acres—10 times larger than 30 years ago. Hunt himself farms 5,000 acres and owns half of two agribusinesses.
In the conference room at his Agri-Chem Inc., farmers gather not to complain but to come up with solutions, Hunt says. U.S. senators have been known to come to the boardroom to solicit input. When the politicians can't come to Hopkinsville, the farmers fly to Washington.
Hunt pushes the farmers to be active at the grass-roots level, too. They take their turns serving on school boards, chamber committees and zoning panels. They open their gates for public tours and place ads in the newspaper to detail the contribution of agriculture to the local economy.
Such involvement keeps the growing urban population aware of the importance of agriculture and the needs of farmers. That connection can pay off, for example, when home developers set their sights on prime farmland or when textbooks don't give the farmers' side of the story on the pros and cons of herbicides.
The schools are a special focus of the farmers. In need of qualified workers, the farmers helped set up an Ag Academy within one of the high schools and helped pay for the development of a special ag curriculum at the community college.
Like Hunt's boardroom, the Hopkinsville Elevator Co. is a focal point of the ag community—even literally, with its checkerboard-painted silos towering over town. The grain co-op was started in 1968 by 180 farmers. Today, it's one of the largest in the country, with 2,300 members and storage capacity of 7.6 million bushels.
Like other big businesses, the co-op has taken big steps. It has acquired other elevators, built a barge terminal on the Cumberland River and bought half of Hunt's Agri-Chem. On the drawing board is probably the co-op's most ambitious project: a $32 million ethanol plant.
The project is part of the "value-added" movement. Tired of seeing others make more money off their crops than they do, farmers are donning the hats of various kinds of middlemen. In the Dakotas, for example, wheat farmers have started their own pasta plants.
In Hopkinsville, about half of the corn that normally goes through the co-op will be used to make ethanol—21 million gallons a year to start. The plant's profit is expected to top $1 million annually by the fourth year, says Jimmy Doss, the co-op's general manager.
Even farmers who don't belong to the co-op should benefit from the plant. Because less corn will be available for the usual buyers, demand should drive up prices 5 to 10 percent, Doss says.
Any project that will increase corn demand is welcomed by farmers here. If not for government subsidies, growing corn would be a break-even operation, they say.
"We couldn't survive without the federal government," says Phil Garnett, whose extended family farms15,000 acres, more than anyone else in the county. About 20 percent of the farm's gross income is derived from various government programs, says Don Clampet, a retired banker hired by the Garnetts to take care of the farm's finances.
Clampet says the farm was fairly small at one time—just 540 acres in 1977. The Garnetts outlasted the farm crisis of the 1980s, when high interest rates and low crop prices wiped out many small and weak operations. The family became a consolidator, as did other successful farmers.
"We're dealing with survivors now," Clampet says.
Despite their massive size, the Garnetts remember their roots. As is the case with just about every other farmer in Kentucky, they started out with tobacco. They still raise 80 acres of it.
"Tobacco made us farmers," Garnett says.
Over and over, farmers say tobacco bought their first tractor. Tobacco sent the kids to college. Tobacco paid for Christmas presents and the new washer and dryer. A few acres were often enough, given that the net profit on an acre of tobacco can be 10 or 20 times that on an acre of corn.
Despite campaigns against the smoking and chewing of tobacco, the crop still plays an important role in the economy here. It will continue to do so, if growers like Bruce Cline have their way.
Cline farms 150 acres of tobacco—a huge amount, given that all work must be done by hand. Cline, a fitness-conscious man who doesn't smoke, speaks almost reverently about tobacco.
"It's our heritage," he says, eager to share the history of how tobacco saved the lives of struggling colonists and elevated the lives of many a poor Kentuckian.
To those who would shut down production of tobacco in this country, Cline points out that almost 90 percent of the world's crop is already grown abroad. Growers in Zimbabwe, Brazil and China are ready to take over the rest. But he doubts that U.S. smokers really want to get any more of their tobacco from countries where far fewer precautions are taken with such things as herbicides and fertilizers.
Cline says the U.S. tobacco industry is in a dismal state, but not just because of the attacks over health concerns.
"We've priced ourselves out of the world marketplace," he says. He blames the decades-old quota system, under which the government and tobacco companies decide how much tobacco is needed each season. Cline is hoping that the system will be restructured to put more power—and eventually profit—into the hands of the growers. That should make them more competitive with foreign growers, he said.
Cline scoffs at suggestions that U.S. tobacco farmers look for alternative crops. Corn and other major crops are already being overproduced, he said. Besides, tobacco is still legal and in demand. Alternative uses—even medicinal ones—are being developed, he added.
A few small farmers in the county have successfully switched from tobacco to other crops, says Harold Eli of the county's extension service. Cantaloupes, for example, have proved to be as profitable and require less time, he says.
Eli refers doubters to the nearby Fairview Produce Auction. The auction was started five years ago, largely by the Amish and Mennonites. Several times a week, they bring wagonloads of produce to the auction, their arrival signaled by the clip-clop of the mules' hooves and the grinding of the metal-rimmed wheels in the gravel. The other farmers—whom the Amish and Mennonites call "the English"—bring their corn, melons and peppers in pickups. Buyers, for the most part, are owners of farmers markets.
At one recent auction, J.A. Howell successfully bid 55 cents for each of 800 cantaloupes. He planned to sell them at his stand in Nashville for $1 to $1.50 each.
"You can't buy no better 'loupes than here," he declared.
Sales at the auction are expected to hit $700,000 this year, up from $100,000 the first year. In the first eight months of this year, 1,000 different sellers and buyers had done business there. Yet Howell doubts that the market's success could be repeated in many other places.
Other farmers "won't stick together like these people," he said. While the Amish and Mennonites were accepting just 35 cents for a dozen ears of corn at one time this summer, "English" farmers wouldn't even bother picking it for that, he says. Because of their simple lifestyle, the Amish and Mennonites can survive on such prices. With their large families, they also have the benefit of lots of free labor.
No matter what the future brings, the farmers here can take comfort in knowing that they have a record for leadership and innovation. They point with pride down the road where Harry Young Jr. popularized no-till farming. In the other direction, Howard Martin invented the row cleaner and many other invaluable farm tools. Meanwhile, at the community college in town, the next generation is learning to use cutting-edge technology, such as the Global Positioning System for "seeing" where a field may need more fertilizer.
"We've got a lot of progressive operations here," says the co-op's Doss. "We're better off than we were five years ago."
|Labor Force (County)||
|Unemployment Rate (County)||
|How County Compares to Others in State in Crop Production|
Total crop production
|No. 27||Burley tobacco|