By Jeff Franklin
Photography by Stephen Patton

Agriculture and horticulture extension agents across Kentucky often receive phone calls from growers asking them what they should plant. It’s a broad question that depends on a lot of factors, but in the end, the agents often point the growers to the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment’s Center for Crop Diversification website. The center offers web-based marketing and production resources, price reports, podcasts, webinars, and videos. There are also printed resources on crop diversification topics.

“That information is needed, because people don’t want to grow things just for fun when it is their livelihood,” said Kelly Jackson, Christian County horticulture extension agent.

While there are a handful of resources scattered across the country, the center has emerged as the gold standard in the region as a source for vital information such as budget sheets and crop viability data.

Brett Wolff leads workshops to help small-scale farmers plan their production based on sales goals.

The Team

The Center for Crop Diversification got its start from a U.S. Department of Agriculture special research grant in 2000. Though its original goal was to help Kentucky farmers diversify from tobacco, over time the center took on a specialty crop focus, including fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, floriculture, and nursery crops. The UK departments of Horticulture and Agricultural Economics co-manage the center today, partnering with regional and national organizations.

Christy Cassady, a horticulture extension specialist who coordinates publication development and updates, said the favorite part of her job is being able to respond to someone who calls or emails with a question by either providing them with an answer or putting them in touch with an expert who can solve their problem. But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

“It is a group effort with a really big team that is spread all across the state,” Cassady said. “We always try to encourage people to contact their extension agent, because we can’t be extremely familiar with what is going on in every county in this state, and the agents are.”

Cassady is part of a talented team of experts. Joshua Knight, a senior extension associate, is Cassady’s colleague in horticulture. Knight’s position with the CCD is funded by the Kentucky Horticulture Council through the Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund. His duties include developing resources and conducting agent trainings. Matt Ernst, a former UK extension associate in ag economics, still works as a resource on a number of projects. Agricultural economists Brett Wolff, an extension specialist, and Professor Tim Woods make up the rest of the center’s team. One of Wolff’s duties is to aggregate Farmers Market Price Reports for Kentucky, as well as managing the CCD’s website and Facebook page. But Wolff’s job isn’t all about high tech; it’s the high touch, too, according to Myrisa Christy, project director for the Kentucky Center for Agriculture and Rural Development.

“Brett did a workshop on helping small-scalemarket farmers plan their production based
on what they want their sales to be,” Christy said. “Brett was willing to drive to Harlan on a Tuesday night in the middle of winter and meet with a group of farmers.”

Continued demand for workshops like this one led Brett and other members to secure Specialty Block Grant funding to create a statewide basic marketing curriculum titled Marketing for All. The program covers a wide variety of marketing topics including visual merchandising, social media tactics, and setting retail prices.

Woods specializes in agribusiness management and marketing with special emphasis on horticulture, food business development, consumer and direct markets, and farm entrepreneurship.  He said specialty crops could contain a lot of hidden costs that growers need be aware of up front.

“Because a lot of specialty crops are perishable, you do have to pay a lot of attention to the harvesting, cooling, distribution, and marketing,” Woods said. “And a lot of those crops don’t sell themselves; marketing is an important component to being successful.”

The Price is Right

The center began price reporting for farmers markets in 2004, and those reports are still archived on the CCD website. Also on the CCD website are farmers market reports for Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Produce auction reports for Kentucky, Illinois, and Ohio are also posted. Having those reports from Kentucky’s border states creates a lot of regional traffic to the CCD website and includes states not contiguous to Kentucky. Thirty percent of the traffic to the CCD website is seeking information on price reports. Wolff says price reporting information is a valuable tool for growers.

“These kinds of price data can be challenging to collect, because the markets are so variable and decentralized,” he said. “Through an incredible team of reporters at markets throughout the state and the support of our college, departments, and extramural funders, we are able to deliver this much-needed, but difficult to find, market information.”

Growers who sell produce at local farmers markets around Kentucky depend on the price reports for setting prices at their markets. Donna Jones is the market coordinator for the Farmers Market on the Square in Columbia. She closely watches to see what prices other markets are putting on their produce and lets vendors know if they should change their prices.

“We did that with green onions a couple of years ago.  We were selling ours at a dollar a bunch, and a lot of other markets were selling them for two dollars,” Jones said.

“So, we did too and had no problems at all and made twice as much money.”

Holly Laytart is the secretary/treasurer for the Harrison County Farmers Market in Cynthiana. She and her husband, Larry, grow “everything from A to Z,” on their S & L Farms. The S stands for Solomon, Holly’s maiden name, the L for Laytart.

“It should stand for luck and stupidity,” Holly joked. “You have to be a little bit stupid and a lot lucky to do what we do.”

The Laytarts are one of the largest vegetable producers in Harrison County, running their own Community Supported Agriculture program in addition to the farmers market and direct wholesaling to the hospital and restaurants in Cynthiana. How the Laytarts became such large vegetable growers has deep roots. Holly and Larry had a little family-friendly competition a few years ago after they bought their farm. Larry, who grew tobacco all his life, said they had to decide if they were going to raise vegetables or tobacco. They pitted an acre of tobacco against an acre of vegetables. The one with the most profit at the end of the year was the winner.

“That was the last year we had tobacco on the farm,” said Holly. “It was no contest. There was no room for argument, or discussion.”

Laytart says she keeps the CCD’s website bookmarked on her cell phone, so she can check the price reports every week and share them with vendors at the Harrison market.

“We tell our members that we are not going to tell you the price to sell your produce,” Laytart said.  “But with the information on the CCD website, they can see what they could get and adjust to our area and market.”

Larry and Holly Laytart, S & L Farms, Cynthiana

Up-to-Date Decision Tools

The CCD has a wealth of resources to assist growers, including 200 crop and marketing profiles, fact sheets, food safety resources, crop budgets, videos, webinars, and a monthly newsletter. Crop enterprise budgets, which are becoming rare these days because of funding challenges, can help growers evaluate crops and develop business plans. The need for small-scale budgets led the CCD to develop a second set of vegetable and melon budgets based on a 100-foot row or a tenth of an acre to better serve small growers. Crop profiles can help growers narrow the list of crops they want to grow, and marketing profiles can help them decide which marketing channels might work best for them. Much of this resource development is made possible by funding secured through the Kentucky Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.

Crop diversification isn’t specific to Kentucky. It’s the focus of SERA 45, a Southern Extension and Research Activity project. A group of research and extension faculty at nine universities in eight states, the project addresses the need for crop diversification across the country. The states participating are Utah, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia. SERA 45 conducts assessments of resources and needs, focusing on research, extension, and marketing related to crop diversification.

Farmers Market

As surrounding states have made funding cuts in some areas, the CCD has become a specialty crop resource for the entire region. As a result, Cassady and Wolff are in great demand, traveling to speak at meetings, making presentations, or just representing the center with their display at conferences and field days, both in and out of state.  They talk about their resources, pass out information, and make sure people know how to find their website,  

The variety of crops, producers’ diverse experience levels, and ongoing budgetary uncertainty poses real challenges for the Center for Crop Diversification team. They are responding by offering innovative on-line and in-person resources, creating stronger regional partnerships, and always keeping a focus on the needs of the producers in the state.