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Local Food Interests, Grants Boost Kentucky's Horticulture Industry

This article appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by Tim Thornberry.

As the move toward local foods and the growth of local food economies continues, the state’s horticulture industry has seen gains over the last few years.

Helping in the development of that sector has been and remains the use of Kentucky Agriculture Development Funds.

Recently, the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board approved the Kentucky Horticulture Council Inc. for $1.3 million in state funds to be disbursed over two years to continue the expansion of and increase profitability for horticulture crop producers in Kentucky, according to information from the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy.

Jeff Hall, the executive director of the KHC said the organization, which is nearly 25 years old, is actually made up of other organizations.

“The council sort of came together to pull the different segments of horticulture together; fruit growers, vegetable growers, landscapers, and groups like that, to come up with a more cohesive voice of what was needed in horticulture,” he said.

Hall added that over the last ten years the organization has been the group that manages the grant funds from the KADF.

With the growth of the industry, those funds seem to be paying off. Last year, despite the bad weather, the horticulture sector faired well. Tim Woods, an extension professor in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s Department of Agricultural Economics said the horticulture sector continues to see growth and 2012’s cash receipts projection should be around $121 million.

“In its own way (horticulture) has been responding to a lot of efforts that we’ve put in the state to try and encourage diversification particularly on the produce side,” he added. “Despite some impacts from the recession, we’re still looking at a pretty strong year with a number of different factors contributing to it.”

Hall said the funding is broken down into categories such as research trials and production systems, marketing studies and cost share programs, with the biggest portion going to sponsor on-farm demonstration projects across the state.

“We work with the extension service to put extension associates out in the field working with growers primarily who are trying horticulture for the first time. They may have been farming for years but want to diversify and get into some other enterprise and they’ve chosen horticulture,” he said.

Those growers in turn put on field days and work with demonstration projects to bring in other farmers to see what is going on in the industry.

“We’ve gone from a state that really had an industry for years but what we’ve seen is a growth in that sector and it’s really helped by the fact that there is an increase in the interest in locally produced products,” Hall said. “We don’t believe we are even close to reaching whatever the potential is out there.”

Hall added he thinks the number of people wanting to get into the industry is growing because they are seeing the likelihood of these markets being around for a long time.

Woods said the state has the potential for huge growth in the horticulture industry even though it is small economically in comparison to surrounding state markets.

“The big growth drivers for produce in particular here in Kentucky are kind of connected to this local food to local markets driver,” he said. “There is lots of interest and opportunity with consumers more and more interested in where their food comes from.”

Woods added that there is a huge growth in the number of community farmers’ markets and vendors going to those markets.

“There are currently 2,500 to 2,700 vendors selling at over 150 community farmers’ markets across the state,” he said. “A lot of these folks are smaller scale selling to these markets but, over the last five to seven years vendors are continuing to expand and looking at opportunities to market through other channels.”

Those channels include the direct-to-restaurant avenue as well as the Farm to School program interest that is growing fast and the state’s produce auctions that draw over 700 vendors to the six auctions currently being held, according to Woods.

Hall noted that the long-term picture shows steady growth and one thing that has figured into the equation is Kentucky’s vast marketing program, Kentucky Proud, that helps vendors find a market.

He said one thing the KHC points out when requesting funds is that in order for a program like Kentucky Proud to succeed with good quality products, it has to begin at the farm level.

“The investments here help Kentucky Proud to be more successful because we have a better mix of products and better quality products that are going into that marketplace,” said Hall.

While last year proved to be tough, he added that the industry did well because of things such as better management practices and the fact the horticulture sector is solid enough to withstand such a difficult growing season.

“That really goes back to the KADF supporting these kinds of activities. We wouldn’t have the market stability and we wouldn’t have the level of production we have today without those investments,” Hall said.

The KHC anticipates that nearly 8,000 farm families will benefit either directly or indirectly from the investment made by the Kentucky Agriculture Development Board.

Written by Tim Thornberry

Photo: Tomatoes grown in Franklin Co./Tim Thornberry