Former UK Ag dean saw major changes in state's farm economy

Nancy Cox
Nancy Cox UK College of Agriculture

In January 2001, when Scott Smith became dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture (as it was then called), the mainstays of the farm economy were horses, tobacco, corn and beef cattle, with total farm cash receipts of around $3.6 billion in 2000.

The agricultural landscape has changed considerably in the last 13 years.

When Smith's tenure began, the master tobacco settlement that ended the Depression-era quota system had been signed and Kentucky's General Assembly had just passed House Bill 611, which set up a plan to spend half of the state's settlement on reinventing agriculture.

As dean of the state's major agriculture college at a land-grant university, Smith had a seat on the Agricultural Development Board and had his work cut out for him. The first few years were frustrating, full of committees and task force meetings that did not seem to be making much progress. But he came to see that things were changing, gradually.

"The tobacco transition kind of set the tone for my term," Smith said in a recent interview reflecting on his tenure. "It was a very different situation. At the college, particularly in agronomy, tobacco and beef cattle dominated the conversation, and there was not much effort beyond the Gluck Center to bring horses into the tent. Agriculture was defined in a different way. That might be said about the horse industry itself; they didn't necessarily want to be seen as farming. They saw themselves as something different."

But the biggest curve ball, and one that ultimately would do as much to reshape the focus of the college, came from the horses.

"Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome hit us on Derby Day," Smith said.

That gorgeous spring, mares suddenly began aborting or giving birth to terribly sick foals. The weekend of the Kentucky Derby, the state's biggest day of Thoroughbred racing, farmers were lined up outside UK's Livestock Disease Diagnostic Lab in Lexington with dead foals.

They wanted answers. Immediately.

The college faculty, many of whom had relatively little to do with horses, sprang into action. Within weeks, they were able to say definitively that the unusually high concentration of tent caterpillars on cherry trees that year was responsible for the foal deaths.

The partnership between the college and the horse industry became a turning point. These days, things are much different. The renewed interest between the horse industry and the agriculture college blossomed in 2007 into the equine studies program that is now one of the largest majors in the college.

"It certainly had an impact on the animal science department ... when I got here and well into the '90s that was about food animals ... beef cattle and dairy in research and extension. Students came because wanted to be large-animal vets or work with livestock," Smith said.

There are still plenty of pre-vet students, but they are now planning to treat dogs and cats and horses, he said.

Of the 450-500 students in animal science today, a very high percentage are female, coming from suburban backgrounds, he said. "Huge change in the demographics. A lot of it to do with horses and domestic animals."

And these days, the farm economy is different, as well: At the annual UK agricultural review and forecast in early December, the economists predicted that Kentucky farm cash receipts will hit $6 billion for 2013, and top that for next year.

As in the past few years, the top commodity is poultry, with $1.25 billion in revenue for broilers and eggs, about 21 percent of Kentucky farm revenue.

"Statistically, poultry has become at the top of the lists, and it did kind of sneak up on us," Smith said. "And it also illustrated some difference in the role of the college. Poultry so integrated and advanced in mechanics of the operation. The college had a very different role than in beef cattle, tobacco or horses. It's such a centralized managed process."

The enormous gains in cash receipts obscure other parts of the story, such as the growing diversification and the divide between Eastern and Western Kentucky, Smith said.

"One of positive outcomes of ag development fund was those kinds of start ups, the specialities. The culture of agriculture became more open, and the tent got bigger," Smith said. Before the transition, "it was all about tobacco farming in terms of the politics of leadership — tobacco was so dominant in end of '90s. Now its just one of the enterprises."

Parts of agriculture like farmers' markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture or shares in a farm's output) used to be novelties but now are legitimate parts of the farm economy, Smith said.

"It's still poultry and grain but if you look beneath the statistics, there are more things at the table and that's very positive," Smith said. "There's a different kind of entrepreneurial spirit which allows flexibility to try new enterprises. Even on family farms that have been successful for three generations you often see the new generation doing agritourism or going into an orchard rather than build their career on expanded grain production."

And the college has adjusted. It now teaches courses on grape and wine production, something that was an afterthought a decade ago. The university's South Farm, just off Nicholasville and Man O'War, has become a center of organic and vegetable production.

"We've added a great deal of emphasis to value-added agriculture that wasn't there before, kind of in response to the ag development fund," Smith said. "More work and teaching on food processing, and agritourism support, and things like grape and wine, meat processing, all of those specialty products. The food system in general is something I would have liked to develop even more — the relationship between ag policy and food."

But the growth in agriculture has been largely a shift to the west, away from Eastern Kentucky, something that the college aims to play a role in countering, he said.

"The geographic differences are very real and still troubling to us," Smith said. "I wish I had an answer for why the geographic shift was so dramatic. That story is lost in the farm gate receipts. The ag statistics are real, but all of that growth, that doubling from $3 billion to $6 billion was growth in the western part of the state. The east did not benefit. There were people and communities who did not prosper."

Smith is going back to teaching, with a freshman course in the spring semester.

"'Gen. 100,' on issues in agriculture and natural resources," Smith said. "That's all I know now is issues."