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In-Depth: As the agriculture economy in Kentucky grows, farmers are leaving the industry

Posted at 7:00 PM, Jun 07, 2024

SCOTT COUNTY, Ky. (LEX 18) — The latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows the agricultural economy is booming in Kentucky, yet the number of farms in the state is declining.

Every five years, the USDA conducts a Census of Agriculture. This year, it released the data collected in 2022.

It reports the total number of farms in Kentucky dropped from 75,966 in 2017 to 69,425 in 2022, a drop of 8.6%.

It's a drop farmers and Professor William Snell, of the University of Kentucky's Department of Agricultural Economics, credit to a variety of factors.

"The drop in the number of farms from 2017-2022 was somewhat anticipated given consolidation in farming with increasing age, labor challenges, urban sprawl, increasing land values encouraging sales, mental stressors including weather and disease challenges, opportunities outside of agriculture, and other factors," Snell said.

"What was a surprise for me was not the decline, but the magnitude of the decline."

In that same 5-year time period, the average age of farmers also increased from 56 years old to 57 years old.

The key to overcoming the disappearing farm workforce is to get a new generation involved in agriculture. It's something Megan Sharpe, owner of HomeGrown Direct in Georgetown, is passionate about.

"I'm hopeful that this is something our children will want to continue to prosper as they grow older," Sharpe said of the 9th generation farm.

She sees local farms not only as a necessity to the communities they provide for, but also as an economic opportunity for the future.

The census shows a booming agricultural economy in Kentucky, producing about $8 billion, which is a 40% increase from 2017.

While some of that is credited to an increase in input costs, Sharpe said the industry seems to be thriving.

"Some years, we're pretty reserved, we're trying to play it a little bit safe, but when you start to hear USDA numbers like that, it may be one of those riskier years where we're really going to push ourselves and try to get to that next level," she said.

Snell added since the census, more change in the industry has likely already occurred, as crop prices fall and interest rates climb, putting a strain on income for some farmers.

He also has some concerns about the challengers for young farmers or beginning farms to enter the industry, given how expensive land prices have become.

Still, Sharpe sees a bright future on the horizon for Kentucky agriculture.

"These little girls are learning this and they're seeing people like them now in the business and it's exhilarating," she said. "It's so exciting for what the future has to hold."