Ky. women ag conference will focus on lack of labor, farming's future

Carla Garey gathered eggs produced by her Red Star hens at Garey Farms in Paris last week. Garey said the labor-intensive work of farming makes it hard for her to find people willing to do it.
Carla Garey gathered eggs produced by her Red Star hens at Garey Farms in Paris last week. Garey said the labor-intensive work of farming makes it hard for her to find people willing to do it. Herald-Leader

When Kentucky Women in Agriculture holds its 13th annual conference next month, Carla Garey won't be there. She's just too busy.

"We're trying to clean up for the fall and start for the spring," said Garey, who runs Garey Farms in Bourbon County with her husband, David. "I would love to be able to attend, but I just don't have time."

And that, she said, is why her candidate for the biggest issue in farming is the lack of labor.

"There's no one out there. People don't want to do the labor-intensive work anymore," Garey said.

This year, Garey Farms, which raises and sells sustainably grown vegetables, fruit, meat birds, eggs and pork, stopped coming to the Lexington Farmers Market and focused instead on the more lucrative Louisville markets and restaurant sales.

Next year, they might cut back even more "because we can't find people to work. We can't get out there," she said.

Garey gave up a career in banking to farm full-time, but she doesn't think that will be the norm in the future.

"I think farming has gone to more of a hobby. People have to work at a public job to have the income and the insurance," Garey said. "My kids, I know, will definitely not be going into farming."

Garey's dilemma is familiar to Sharon Furches, current president of Kentucky Women in Agriculture and a grain farmer in Murray for decades. Furches also is one of three co-chairs of an Ag Summit task force working on a plan for Kentucky agriculture for the next five years. The Women in Agriculture conference segues into the Ag Summit in Louisville.

In forums held across the state, concerns about the future prompted this year's summit focus: Farming — The Next Generation.

At the summit, members of the Kentucky Agriculture Council will vote on the top farm priorities for the next five years. Those priorities are likely to include issues critical to the future of farming.

"What will it look like and who will it involve," Furches said.

The summit also will review the last five-year plan, what worked and what didn't.

There were many changes that simply couldn't have been anticipated, Furches said, such as the rise of technology and social media, something farmers increasingly are using to communicate directly with potential customers.

"Just like any other business," Furches said. "Tons of folks are blogging, getting the word out about farming, markets, weather, how things affect the food supply. It's a huge awareness thing."

She's seen the effect just a few snapshots can have. "I post pictures of when the combines are running on Facebook," she said. And people comment. "It makes them stop and think about how different things are now from how they used to be."

Most people "are two, three, four generations away from ever being hungry. We don't have to think about food on a daily basis," Furches said.

But when the divide is bridged, when people reconnect with the source of their food, the results can be wonderful, Garey said.

Garey Farms has built up a strong customer base among top Louisville restaurants such as Equus, Corbett's, Harvest, The Oak Room and more. And several times a year the Gareys go to "meet the grower" dinners.

"When you go up to 'farm day' and go into restaurants where people have paid $175 to $200 a plate to meet the farmer who grew it, that is worth everything to us. Those people know what we're doing and how we feel about what we're doing," she said. "I truly, 100 percent believe in what we're doing. If I don't grow it, I don't serve it and I don't eat it."