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Kentucky Farm Family Diversifies

posted on December 21, 2001

Despite the fact much of the nation's agri-economy is addicted to government subsidies, there are efforts in Rural America to develop enterprises that are independent and sustainable.

As Market o Market has reported, many of these ventures are off-farm, but designed to add value to locally grown commodities. The enterprises capture more of the value of a community's farm output and by so doing can grow the local economy.

But efforts that capture more value are not confined to off-farm ventures. More than a few farmers are attempting to identify on-farm opportunities and develop them into profitable sectors of the farm enterprise. Last fall, David Miller found such an effort under way in the Blue Grass state.


Kentucky Farm Family Diversifies

Chuck Smith is part of a Kentucky farming tradition that stretches back eight generations. Just outside the town of New Castle, Kentucky, Chuck works with his wife Mary, and his daughters Katie, Virginia and Tanya. If everything goes according to plan, Chuck and Mary will be able to continue to live on their farm, pass it on to their children and encourage other producers to stay on the land.

Chuck Smith, Smith Farm: "I think we can make it, we'll do different things and we'll make it here but our goal and our thoughts are we would like for other people to make it."

In 1981, the Smith's purchased 180-acres in rural Henry County. Like many farm couples, their dedication and desire to stay on the land has driven them to implement a variety of business plans. Over the past 19-years, each new venture was designed to be profitable both monetarily and emotionally. They've tried everything from milking a dairy herd to growing organic vegetables. Their current product mix includes burley tobacco and a combination of direct sales of chicken, turkey and beef.

To further supplement their income the Smith's took off-farm jobs. Mary began tutoring a few students each week in their home and Chuck got his realtor's license. Mary continues to tutor but Chuck no longer sells real estate.

Mary Berry Smith, Smith Farm: "I know that the work is good work and we feel good about it. We feel like it's good for our children. What...I kind of think what are we created for but good work?"

The customer list for Smith Farm free-range chicken's numbers around 100. Every two weeks, about 40 people from that list stop by the farm to purchase a few of the 200 freshly processed birds.

As the word has spread, the number of people interested in the product has increased; the waiting list now has 75 people on it. And customers like Susan Harkins are willing to drive over an hour to purchase the Smith's chicken.

Susan Harkins, Lexington, Kentucky: "...these are really good chickens, these are my friends and I wanna' know where my food's coming from. That's basically why I drive all the way over here."

Each of the 3-thousand birds sold every year retails for $1.75 per pound netting the Smith's about $12-thousand each year. Around thanksgiving some of the same customers will return to purchase one of the 100 farm raised turkeys.

The farm also supports 43 cows and 38 calves. The herd annually yields $4-thousand from directly marketed beef and an additional $15-thousand from animals sold to area feed lots.

All Smith Farm livestock are raised using the principles of management intensive grazing and are not given antibiotics or hormones.

Over the past few years, the Smith's have been faced with adjusting to changes to their mainstay crop: Burley tobacco. From the beginning, the golden-leaf has always made up any shortfall. Since 1997, the Smith's tobacco allotment has been cut by 50% from 12 acres to 6. Their commitment to staying on the land is so strong that even the loss of more than $17-thousand to their bottom line was not enough to convince them to give up.

With the handwriting on the wall, they started investigating crops that might replace the Burley. Their research revealed that soil and weather patterns on their north-central Kentucky farm closely matched those found in wine growing regions of France. Further calculations revealed an acre of grapes would pay as much, if not more, than an acre of tobacco.

Chuck Smith: "It's a hand crop, which is a lot like tobacco, and we think that it's a good alternative here in Kentucky to replace tobacco."

After putting together a business plan they received a loan of 117-thousand dollars. In April of 2000, the Smith-Berry Vineyard and Winery was opened with the planting of four acres of grapevines. Eventually the buildings that once housed dairy cows and tobacco will be converted into tasting rooms and wine cellars.

But the winery is being built for more than just a way to stay on the land in a changing economy. During their investigation, the Smith's discovered Midwestern towns near wineries were thriving while towns near traditional agricultural ventures were in decline. The Smith's hope that their winery will have the same positive economic effect on New Castle.

Mary Berry Smith: "...the town has little shops in it and little restaurants in it and it can not survive...those businesses can't survive on just local trade, I mean, it's just not possible so we certainly hope that people who come out here will stop in the town."

Even though wine quality grapes from the vineyard won't be available until late next year, they will use juice from another winery to roll out the first bottles of Smith-Berry private label in late December of this year. Each bottle is expected to have an average retail price of $9.50.

Recently the Smith's applied for state and federal grants to offset some of their costs. The state grants are drawn from a pool of money given to the State of Kentucky as part of the settlement from the federal tobacco lawsuit. The Federal grants come from the USDA and are given to farmers who add value to their crops.

And all the work to convince the next generation to stay on the land seems to be paying off. After their oldest daughter Katie finishes college she is planning to return to live and work on the farm.

Katie Smith, Smith Farm: "I see myself running the farm, the winery with the help of my sisters, and my parents, of course. And I see my family being here with me and I'm excited about that. I can't wait to come back."

For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.


Tags: agriculture Kentucky news tobacco wine