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  • “Buried in Original Records, Government Reports, Statistical Tables, and Obscure Essays”?:Kentucky’s Twentieth-Century Agricultural History
  • Mark V. Wetherington (bio)

“It defies reason that the Commonwealth of Kentucky has so long and so fervently boasted of its agricultural heritage, yet has no published history of the industry,” the eminent historian Thomas D. Clark wrote near the end of the twentieth century. Despite the “central” role of agriculture in shaping the state’s economy and culture, much of Kentucky’s agricultural history “still lies buried in original records, government reports, statistical tables, and obscure essays.”1 Enough of this story has been told, however, to suggest the overarching themes in this article: increasing migration of the farming population to urban areas both within the state and beyond and the decline of the family farm, the rise of burley tobacco as a cash crop, the consolidation of the best farmland into larger business-oriented farming operations that could afford mechanization and the “green revolution,” and the decline of burley tobacco as a cash crop that benefited family farms.

Why has a subject as relevant as the food we eat been ignored? As a general rule, state and local history during much of the twentieth century was not a favorite topic of professional historians. Moreover, [End Page 271] in a “publish-or-perish” academic world, many book publishers have been reluctant to publish book-length agricultural studies. Clark believed one reason historians gave the subject “short shrift” was because agriculture was considered “too commonplace.” The twentieth century would take care of that problem. In 1900, almost all farming was local and the farm-to-table movement unfolded within the boundaries of an individual farm. Most farmers practiced safety-first farming, that is, they grew crops that fed their families and livestock before risking land and labor on cash crops—hemp and tobacco in Kentucky—destined for distant markets. According to one historian, southern white families produced three-fourths or more of their table needs before World War II. The farming family’s role in the commonwealth’s economy, however, declined tremendously during the twentieth century. By the 1990s, farms accounted for only 2.9 percent of the state’s gross production. Once considered the foundation of the Jeffersonian ideal of independent citizens and a bulwark against an overreaching government, farms at the end of the century contributed less to the state’s gross production than the federal government, which accounted for 3.2 percent.2

Kentucky’s identity as a border state has not helped the case for a book-length investigation of its agricultural history. Gilbert C. Fite’s study of southern agriculture between 1865 and 1980 excluded Kentucky, the author noting: “I have arbitrarily defined the South as the eleven former Confederate States.” Fite wrote that “no general history of southern farming since the end of slavery has been written,” pointing out, as Clark did for the commonwealth, the same gap in scholarship for the region as a whole. Cotton understandably dominates much of the discussion of agriculture in the lower South and much of Fite’s book. In Kentucky, it was only a minor crop, grown in the western part of the state, making the commonwealth easy to ignore in scholarly treatments of the South’s cash crops.3 [End Page 272]

Moreover, Kentucky has not been included in many studies of midwestern agriculture. The U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of the Midwest includes twelve states, among them our neighbors Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Kentucky, situated south of the Ohio River, was not included. The commonwealth was whipsawed between its decision not to join the Confederacy and the federal government’s decision not to include it in its definition of the Midwest. Yet in some respects Kentucky was an agricultural outlier of the lower Midwest. This was due largely to similarities in climate. With annual rainfall of forty to fifty inches, the growing season in Kentucky shared more in common with southern Illinois and southern Indiana than with large swathes of the Deep South. Due in part to the migration of farmers from southern states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia into southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, crop...


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