Looking for the post-tobacco king of Kentucky agriculture
County councils can re-localize Kentucky's food system by directing tobacco settlement funds to help family farms

By Pernell Plath

A few facts from "Bringing Kentucky's Food and Farm Economy Home"

With 88,000 farms, Kentucky is fourth in the nation in total number of farms and second in number of family farmers per capita.

Kentucky has approximately 85 certified organic producers, growing on around 5000 acres, and at least 100 other farmers who produce organically but have chosen not to become certified.

Kentucky is currently 43rd in the nation for direct sales from farm to table.

Kentucky's certified organic sector has been growing faster than those of all but one neighboring state.

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture has recently published or helped sponsor a Farmers Market Directory, an Organic Producer Directory, a Farm Direct Food Products Directory and a Fruits and Berries Producer Directory.

"Bringing Kentucky's Food and Farm Economy Home" is 2003 publication by the Community Farm Alliance. For full text visit:

Tobacco—and the New Deal quota program that helped support it—has sustained Kentucky farm families for generations. In the past five years, however, tobacco quotas have declined 66 percent, cutting farmers’ personal income in half. In the past, steady tobacco income from their quotas helped farmers survive price fluctuations in other markets, including beef prices. Without tobacco, steadying beef income cycles is vital to the survival of Kentucky’s farms.

Kentucky agriculture is at a crossroads. We now have a tremendous opportunity to create real change for Kentucky’s farm families by developing the necessary infrastructure to keep beef cattle income in farmers’ pockets. The key to this potential lies in the $1.7 billion (distributed over 25 years) of tobacco settlement money that will be applied toward agricultural diversification.

"In the past five years tobacco quotas have declined 66 percent, cutting farmers’ personal income in half."
When state attorneys general and tobacco companies settled tobacco damages lawsuits in 2000, Kentucky farmers argued that some of that settlement money should be made available to help them diversify. "After the tobacco settlement had been announced, farmers knew that the companies would try to make up that money from our income. The farm community in Kentucky began to look at those funds as funds that should help us build a new future," explains Community Farm Alliance member Tribby Vice.

It was this strong feeling among farmers that helped pass Kentucky House Bill 611 in April of 2000. This legislation (HB 611) set up a democratic, people-driven process for spending the first phase of tobacco settlement monies. The money is divided among tobacco producing counties in Kentucky based on their economic dependence on the crop.

The legislation also created 118 County Agricultural Development Councils. Each council consists of eight farmers charged with devising a plan for the county identifying programs and strategies to meet the needs of the local agricultural economy. Each council submits its plan to the Agricultural Development Board (ADB).

Each ADB consists of 15 members, with a voting majority of active farmers. The ADB administers the tobacco settlement funds, with county council plans providing guidance. Criteria for state funds include assistance to tobacco farmers and communities most affected by the loss of tobacco income, compatibility with local agriculture comprehensive plans and promotion of diversification. Thirty-five percent of the total tobacco settlement funds are targeted for funding through the county councils.

Today, CFA’s vision is to reverse the trend of disintegration of rural and urban communities by facilitating locally-defined economic development. CFA calls this vision Local Integrated Food Economy—LIFE. Under this system, most of the food Kentuckians eat would be grown close to home. A locally integrated food economy allows Kentuckians to consume most of their food from local farms, Kentucky farmers to make a living from their farms, and provides opportunity for a new generation of farmers to prosper.

“The tobacco settlement money is getting out to farmers and helping to seed LIFE, a way of growing and buying our food that will support our communities, rather than corporate farms,” said CFA President Bonnie Cecil. “Kentucky has a tremendous opportunity right now to re-create our farm economy.”

Farmers, entrepreneurs, educational institutions and policy-makers will work together and independently to transform the industry. Across the state, farmers are taking initiative and forming flexible beef networks. The challenge ahead is to ensure that Kentucky’s government and educational institutions take active responsibility for laying the groundwork that will nurture our farmers’ efforts.

Pernell Plath is research coordinator of the Community Farm Alliance (CFA), based in Frankfort, Ky. She can be reached at pernellrp@yahoo.com.