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Agriculture remains a bright spot

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By Rick Rand

Although the economy has weathered some of its toughest years since the Great Depression, there has been one bright spot for Kentucky: Agriculture.  The new year, in fact, may just bring a new record with it.

If all goes well, farm receipts could top $5 billion in 2011, or $1 billion more than just several years ago.

As remarkable as this climb has been, what’s even more telling is the way our farmers did it.  With our top two traditional commodities – tobacco and horses – both down, others have risen to take their place.  Poultry now leads the way, and could be followed by corn this year if prices stay high and the growing season is favorable.  If projections hold true, that crop’s value alone will have risen about 70 percent in just two years’ time.

With about half of our farm income already coming from overseas, the international market is poised to be an even bigger player in the years ahead.  Both China and India, for example, are expected to be major markets as more and more of their citizens increase their earnings.

Another telling fact about farming’s success in Kentucky is that the amount of land dedicated to this profession is growing rather than shrinking.  The latest farm census, taken in 2007, showed 50,000 more acres than in 1997.  Overall, there are about 85,000 farms, and they literally cover half of the state.

While there are several reasons for farming’s gains, one that stands out in particular is the master settlement agreement that most states reached with the major tobacco companies in 1998 to avoid potential health-related lawsuits some states were considering.  The General Assembly chose to set aside half of the $3 billion we are slated to receive over a 25-year period to agriculture.  The program that has carried this out officially began a decade ago this month.

Since then, more than $340 million has been dedicated to nearly 3,800 projects.  Many programs have directly benefited farmers looking to do such things as improve their fences or livestock.
Several other farming-related programs have taken off this past decade as well.  That includes Kentucky Proud, which saw retail sales top $200 million in 2010, and agritourism, which now boasts 250 registered farms. Organic farming has also grown like a weed, so to speak; it went from less than 1,000 acres in 2006 to more than 5,000 in 2008.

In the end, it’s agriculture’s diversity that has driven its success as one of the state’s top industries.  We don’t rely on one, two, or even three commodities to succeed; there are 10 that bring in at least $100 million a year, and we’re among the top 20 states in seven of those categories.

It goes without saying that many things have changed over the years, but farming has always remained strong in Kentucky.  And as these trends indicate, there’s every reason to believe that even better days lie ahead.

As you may know, my legislative colleagues and I traveled to the Capitol this week to begin the 2011 Regular Session.  Under the constitutional guidelines for odd-year sessions, we will dedicate this time to electing leaders and establishing committees for the next two years.  After a brief recess, we will return to debate legislation at the start of next month.

If you have any thoughts or concerns about issues affecting state government, please let me know.  My address is Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.
You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181.  For the deaf or hard of hearing, the number is 800-896-0305.

I hope to hear from you soon.