The tobacco landscape in Kentucky has shifted dramatically, although not always in the expected ways.
The value of the crop in 2005, the first year after the buyout and the end of federal price supports, was less than $294 million, down from a high of almost $948 million in 1997. In the years since, as farmers began selling their crop directly to manufacturers through contracts, the overall value increased to more than $404 million in 2013, according to figures compiled by Will Snell, University of Kentucky tobacco expert.
But under the surface there are changes: burley, the tobacco in cigarettes, has decreased in value while dark tobacco, used in smokeless consumption, has grown to be almost a fourth of Kentucky's crop, Snell said.
The changes are more dramatic when you look at the farms: in 2002, before the buyout, there were 29,237 tobacco farms in Kentucky. By 2007, just after the buyout, the number dropped to 8,113. In 2012, according to the Agriculture Census, there were 4,537, an 85 percent decline in a decade.
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Look a little closer and another change becomes clear: tobacco has shifted west. In 2003, the top five burley producing counties were Bourbon, Fayette, Shelby, Woodford and Scott. In 2012, burley has moved to Barren, Monroe, Shelby, Green and Breckinridge.
And Christian County, boosted by dark tobacco, was the top tobacco producing county by far.
And the crop that once kept so many small farms going, particularly in Central and Eastern Kentucky, is largely gone.
Many of the counties most dependent upon burley tobacco for significant farm income — places like Bath, Casey, Clay, Clinton, Cumberland, Elliott, Fleming, Jackson, Lewis, Lincoln, McCreary, Magoffin, Menifee, Metcalfe, Morgan, Owsley, Powell, Rockcastle, Rowan, Russell, Wayne, Whitley and Wolfe counties — have lost 75 percent or more of their tobacco farms.
Marion Pittman once raised 25,000 pounds of tobacco a year in Casey County. Now, his Pittman Produce is a fixture of the Lexington Farmers' Market. He raises almost 5 acres of tomatoes, squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes and a wide variety of beans.
Does he miss tobacco?
"I don't miss it at all," Pittman said. "The garden stuff has replaced it. I make more off the garden than I did off the tobacco any way."
After the buyout, raising tobacco just wasn't worth the effort any more, he said.
But many formerly tobacco-dependent counties have struggled to replace lost tobacco income.
The buyout payments were intended to compensate farmers for the loss of the asset of "quota" — the right to sell a certain number of pounds of tobacco. And a decade ago hopes were high that farmers could use the money as a bridge into new agricultural enterprises.
But no single crop has come to mean what tobacco once did, particularly on small farms in Eastern Kentucky, Snell said.
Many farmers used the money to bring down debt; a lot of farmers in Central Kentucky expanded into livestock operations, such as beef cattle, Snell said.
In recent years, with the soaring price of corn, much of the land has gone into grain and horticulture — fruits, vegetables and ornamentals, he said. And some land, particularly in Eastern Kentucky "just stayed out of production ... which is another concern for those counties given the coal situation."
Hampton "Hoppy" Henton, a former USDA Farm Service Agency state director who farms in Woodford County, said that many rural Kentucky farmers may not realize that the buyout is over until January, when they don't get a $20,000 check in the mail, as they have for the last 10 years.
And then, he said, the real pain will begin. "I don't think many of them have reinvested those dollars," Henton said.