Kentucky has dramatically fewer farms and much less land devoted to farming, according to the latest snapshot by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Between 2007 and 2012, the Bluegrass State had the greatest percentage decrease in farmland of any state in the country, the Census of Agriculture says.
Farmland — which the government counts as privately owned or leased cropland, pastures and woodlands — declined in Kentucky by 943,000 acres, or 6.7 percent.
That's an area larger than the combined acreage of Daniel Boone National Forest in Eastern Kentucky (707,000 acres) and Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Western Kentucky (170,000 acres).
Other states with the largest percentage declines in farmland were Alaska (5.4 percent), Georgia (5.2 percent), Mississippi (4.6 percent) and Wisconsin (4.1 percent).
The number of farms in Kentucky also declined, from 85,260 in 2007 to 77,064 in 2012.
These numbers are contained in the 2012 Census of Agriculture that USDA released in May. The census is conducted every five years to record a snapshot of business activity on farms, but it doesn't track how much land was lost to development. Nor does it tell what happened to other land in the decline that wasn't developed.
However, estimates from the latest National Resources Inventory — a nationwide survey of non-federal land conducted by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service — shows that development in Kentucky claimed 41,000 acres of the state's rural land base between 2007 and 2010.
These are figures that Kentuckians should watch, said Jennifer Dempsey, director of the American Farmland Trust's Information Center. The trust is a leading conservation organization dedicated to farmland protection; it plans to hold a national conference in Lexington in October.
"There's a growing demand among consumers for locally grown products," Dempsey said, "and if at the same time you have a significant decline in your land in farms, I would say that's a problem. You've lost almost 944,000 acres almost in one clip. That's pretty significant."
Dempsey later acknowledged that "lost" is a stronger verb than necessary, because it suggests a permanency that isn't really there. Farmland acreage fluctuates from census to census — some years it goes up and some years it goes down — depending on the demand for food and the productivity of agriculture.
But the general trend nationwide and statewide over time is that fewer acres are devoted to farms, said David Knopf, regional director of the National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Louisville. The service is the agency that conducts the census and distributes its results.
"Within any given year, you could have someone in (farming) one year and out the next," Knopf said. "It tends to be the relatively small farms, either in size or in the value of sales, who report in one census that they are a farm and they report in the next census that they're not a farm."
(A farm is defined by the government as "any place that produced and sold, or normally would produce and sell, $1,000 or more of agricultural products during the census year.")
For example, one operation may raise livestock and have 100 acres in one census, "so they get counted as a farm," Knopf said. "Well, in the next census, they're not raising any livestock and so there goes 100 acres of land in one farm. So it goes like that from one census to the next."
There is more land that could be put back into production than is going into development over a five-year period. Knopf said. For this reason, Knopf takes the view that the decline in Kentucky farmland is something to watch, but not something to be overly concerned about.
"To sound alarms because we have dropped 6 percent of our farmland, that I don't find startling," Knopf said. "Let's see what happens in the next five years."
How did it decrease?
It should be noted that many sources interviewed for this story were skeptical of the figures on farmland decrease. The statistics service says it checks its information against other known data, and have staff in each state to review it as well.
Kentucky probably saw a decline because some land was unproductive and some was intentionally rotated out of production, Daniel Smaldone, a spokesman for Kentucky Farm Bureau, wrote in an email.
"Arable farming acreage lost to residential, industrial and economic development are the pieces we should be most concerned about as they are acres permanently removed from the total land available to grow crops and raise livestock," Smaldone wrote.
John-Mark Hack of Versailles has another theory about where some of those 943,000 acres went. Hack is executive director of the Local Food Association, a national trade association that works to improve market share and market access to buyers and sellers of local food. He suspects that much of Kentucky's farm acreage is idle and is not being used to grow anything —so it dropped off the radar of the census.
"It's a lingering aftereffect of the demise of the tobacco program that no one has taken notice of," Hack said. "My perception is that we have a tremendous asset in productive farmland in Kentucky that is being underutilized."
The federal tobacco-quota program ended in 2004. Buyout payments to farmers were started under a 2004 law that ended Depression-era tobacco quotas and were to be made annually for 10 years. The last of those payments will be made this fall.
"That happened to coincide with the exit of a relatively large percentage of our farm population due to age and retirement," Hack said. "So there were a number of people who literally took the money and retired, and they may still hold their land, but they're not actively farming it."
David Appelman, extension agent for agriculture in Bracken County in Northern Kentucky, can see some validity to this theory.
"We have lost operating farms because there's no longer anyone to do the work," Appelman said. "With the loss of the tobacco program, those farms are sitting idle. ... Without tenant farmers and an older farm ownership with no children to take over, there's an inability to do the work. They can't maintain the fences, harvest the hay."
Jessamine County beef farmer Dan Shearer said he sees farms sitting idle, too, "which is not good because it's out of production. ... People took the buyout money and retired and are using their money for something else other than upkeep on the farm.
"When they pass away, their heirs don't seem to want to farm, and probably most of them couldn't if they wanted to because they don't know how," Shearer said.
Others question Hack's theory. Michelle Simon, Scott County's extension agent for agriculture, said she doesn't see much idle land. Grain farmers in that county "are picking up as much acreage as they can. And I've seen a lot of people rolling hay on places that I haven't before now," Simon said.
As for the generational shift, Simon said many younger farmers who have tried to get into beef-cattle farming are getting out because the costs are too high for them to get started.
"The older farmers — who you would expect to be the ones who are retiring, who are in their 60s and 70s — are the ones that are sticking it out and staying in," Simon said. "People in their 50s and 60s are expanding more now."
Woodford County hay farmer Larry Johnson falls into this category. Johnson, 65, grew up on a farm in Marion County, pursued a 37-year career with IBM and Lexmark in Lexington, then retired in 2004 to devote time to his first love — farming. He grows hay just south of Versailles and sells it to area horse farms. When Johnson added 33 neighboring acres this year to his existing 22, his accountant shook his head.
"He said, 'And some people play golf,'" Johnson recalled. "I said, 'Tom, I'm not some people. I'm just different.'"
Once he fixes some fences, Johnson plans to put beef cattle on his expanded acreage. His youngest son has indicated some interest in farming, but Johnson doesn't see many others planning to join him.
"You don't find many young kids any more that have any interest in staying with the farm and fighting it — and it's a fight every day," Johnson said. "You fight the rain, you fight disease, you fight insects every day."
Nationwide and statewide, agriculture is about to see a huge transfer of assets, said Adam Probst, Woodford County extension agent for agriculture. The principal operators of Kentucky farms are getting older. The average age was 53.4 in 1997; in 2012 it was 57.6. Estimates are that up to 70 percent of all farmland in the nation will change hands by 2025.
"There aren't that many new farmers, and we've got the oldest generation of farmers we've ever had," Probst said.
As Hack sees it, Kentucky must be "very deliberative" about its agricultural future.
"Do we embrace our agrarian heritage and societal movement to high-quality food and return the land to its highest and best purpose?" he said. "Or do we surrender it permanently to development that really has a pretty short time frame associated with it? It's a really important question that needs to be more thoroughly discussed."
Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety