By Doug Graves
GREENSBURG, Ky. – Tobacco has historically been a very important part of the Kentucky agricultural economy and culture. However, tobacco farming in the state has been shrinking for years.
The value of tobacco production in Kentucky averaged more than $800 million during the decade of the 1990s. Times have changed all that. In 2005, the $10 billion buyout of tobacco farmers and quota holders as part of the termination of the federal tobacco price support program sharply accelerated these trends. Smaller family tobacco farms are no longer the rule, but the exception as larger agribusinesses have taken their place.
There are just 2,618 tobacco farms in the state, compared to 8,113 tobacco farms 10 years ago.
The trends in the amount of tobacco harvested in Kentucky reflects the declines in tobacco farms. In the past 20 years, tobacco production in the state has declined 56.7 percent, to 96.6 million pounds harvested in 2022.
According to data from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, North Carolina is the leading producer of tobacco at 250 million pounds. Kentucky is second at 100 million pounds while Tennessee is a distant third at 30 million pounds. Rounding out the top seven are Virginia, Pennsylvania, Georgia and South Carolina.
While tobacco has relinquished the lead in total crop production, it still has a place on many Kentucky farms.
Last year, Larry Clark, of Green County, put out 160 acres of burley and 6-7 acres of cigar tobacco.
“Regardless of what kind of tobacco you grow, it’s as much about tradition and you’ve got to have it in your blood or you’re not going to do it,” Clark said.
Clark said tobacco companies have increased prices some but not enough to cover extra fertilizer and chemical costs, as well as increases for labor. He grows his own plants which helps in keeping inputs as low as possible and he still plans to raise tobacco in the future.
In addition to tobacco, Clark also raises corn, soybeans and wheat to go along with his cattle operation.
“I know there are several growers who aren’t sure if they are going to keep raising a tobacco crop, but I intend to do it as long as we can,” he said. “I’ve been raising a crop for most of my life and it’s important to me that the next generation takes over, but they are going to have to see a profit if we expect them to continue this tradition.”
As with most tobacco producers, Clark depends on the H-2A program for labor throughout the growing season. His guest workers have been coming back to his farm for many years.
The H-2A temporary agricultural program allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature.
Competition from other countries, the shift to vaping products and the health concerns surrounding cigarettes are just a few of the factors that have driven farmers out of the tobacco game.
“Tobacco producers have been hit by a lot of issues the last few decades,” said Will Snell, an agriculture economist with the University of Kentucky.
Snell said that while most farmers are investing more in other crops, there’s still tobacco farmers out there raising 50-100 acres of tobacco as well. Snell was raised on a beef and tobacco farm in central Kentucky.
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles weighed in, adding that “tobacco products are still legal in America and many farm families rely on tobacco to help pay their bills.”
According to NASS, Breckinridge County is the leading burley tobacco producing county in Kentucky with 5.12 million pounds, harvested from 2,450 acres. Just behind are the counties of Green, Shelby, Harrison and Christian.
Logan County is the leading dark-air-cured tobacco producing county with production totaling 3.8 million pounds harvested from 1,450 acres while Christian County is the leading dark fire-cured tobacco producer with 8.8 million pounds harvested from 2,880 acres.