close
close
Skip to main content
Lasque Tiarc

Kentucky loses farms, but can save them. The old model shows how

Vaseline 2 months ago


It is important to say that I am not in favor of the return of tobacco. I speak for the principles of the program. I speak for something between the farmer and the market.

I am grateful to Connor Giffin for the recent Courier Journal story titled Kentucky is losing farmers and farmland at a rapid rate – at what cost? It’s a sad story. Extremely sad because the story is told twenty years after the end of The Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative and fifty years after my father and others first tried to draw attention to what was happening in rural Kentucky. The article drew attention to Henbit as a “harbinger of spring.” What those purple fields are is a sign of poor land use.

It is important to distinguish between the Burley Tobacco Program and the tobacco industry. Before the program started, Kentucky farmers took their chances every year for years when they took their crops away to sell. My grandfather, John Berry Sr., remembered his father coming home from selling his 1906 tobacco crop with nothing to show for a year of work. He never forgot how farmers left the warehouses in tears. Years later he would tell us that he then thought, “If I can do something about this, I will.”

The Burley Tobacco Program has shown the industry the way

After earning a law degree, he came home to Henry County to farm, practice law and devote his life to advocating for small farmers. He was the primary author of the New Deal agricultural legislation dealing with tobacco: the Burley Tobacco Program. It brought stability to thousands of small farmers in Kentucky. The members of the cooperative agreed to limits (allocations) in exchange for a support price based on parity. (Overproduction and the resulting low prices are the special cruelty of industrial agriculture.) The tobacco industry hated the program because it required them to pay farmers fairly.

It is important to say that I am not in favor of the return of tobacco. I speak for the principles of the program. I speak for something between the farmer and the market. I answer Tom Vilsack’s question in Mr. Giffin’s article. β€œIs there a better way?”

Who does he ask after twelve years as Minister of Agriculture?

If he asks me, it’s here: The USDA must give up its cheap food policy, which has always been his idea, along with his idea, as reported in The Courier Journal in 1967, that the nation’s biggest farm problem is a surplus of were farmers. The tragedy reported in this article had such causes.

First, the tornado. Then the invasive plants. How can Cherokee Park thrive again?

It’s a shame to have to quote old news, but to understand where we are today, we need to understand something of what got us here. And there has been no repudiation of this policy. What has happened to rural Kentucky and rural America is destruction by design. It wasn’t inevitable. The system consists of raw materials sold to the corporate economy at the lowest possible price: coal, wood, food, leaving the destruction behind.

Tobacco was the economic safety net for diversified agriculture

Farms were passed down from generation to generation, along with the knowledge of how to farm. This democratic program made it possible for farmers to switch from tenancy to ownership. The living memory of what the program meant to rural Kentucky and the stories I grew up with have shaped my life and the work of The Berry Center. We used the program as a model for Our Home Place Meat, an initiative that ensures young farmers in Henry County receive a fair price for their well-raised livestock.

We ensure that good agriculture pays a fair wage. We make perennial agriculture profitable. We are working to build an economy that supports farmers who have been farming all their lives and gives new farmers an economic foundation on which to start. Building a population of good farmers will be a huge task. But our past gives us the pattern we need.

The divide between city and countryside is perhaps the most ruinous in our country. For more than 30 years, much work has gone into an effort to connect Louisville to the surrounding farmlands. What we need to show for that work are farmers markets and CSAs. We need support from entrepreneurial efforts, but this type of agriculture does not create a sufficient market for farmers statewide and requires access to urban markets.

We need a local food system. We need to reconnect with what should never have been disconnected. We must ensure that the safest food supply for Louisville comes from the nearest rural area, and to be reliable there must be the infrastructure to support this.

We, along with our distributors What Chefs Want and processors, Trackside Butcher Shoppe, have done this with Our Home Place Meat.

Mary Berry is an 8e generation rural Kentuckian, farmer and executive director of The Berry Center in New Castle, KY.