Whitesburg KY

Can cattle industry help save eastern Kentucky?

SOAR to hold ‘listening session’ in Whitesburg Thursday

Taking eastern Kentucky’s cattle industry to a new level was the idea most discussed at one of the first “listening sessions” of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, the effort to diversify and improve the economy of Appalachian Kentucky.

Other ideas included raising sheep and goats, promoting agri-tourism, and expanding oak and sorghum harvesting to take advantage of the growing whiskey industry.

The listening session was held by the SOAR working group on Agriculture, Community & Regional Foods and Natural Resources, one of 10 groups working on issues and topics this summer to help draft an economic plan for the region. One of the next two sessions will be held in Whitesburg Thursday (June 19) at 6 p.m. at the Letcher County Extension Service office for Letcher, Perry, Knott, Leslie, Harlan and Breathitt counties. The office is located off the Whitesburg bypass at 478 Extension Drive.

Last week’s conversation at the Morehead State University Farm was dominated by agriculture. Forests, which have often been identified as Appalachian Kentucky’s most neglected resource but are the base of a significant industry in the area, were mentioned only twice – when one participant said the region needs more industries to use its hardwood timber, and another said lack of proper understanding of forest management was a challenge for the region.

Daniel Wilson, Wolfe County’s extension agent for agriculture and natural resources, led the crowd of about 40 people through a discussion of the region’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges.

George Heineman, the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation’s program manager for northeastern Kentucky, said one of the strengths is the region’s transition from tobacco, which lost federal price supports and quotas almost 10 years ago, and acceptance of agricultural diversification.

“If you show us a market, we will grow it,” Hieneman said, adding later that Eastern Kentucky farmers have shown an ability to make money on a wide range of landscapes.

One of those includes grazing cattle on reclaimed strip mines, said Dr. Philip Prater, a veterinary professor at Morehead State. He and others said a heifer development program using reclaimed mines has improved the region’s cattle industry, which should be boosted by the recent opening of the region’s largest slaughterhouse, the Chop Shop at Lee City in Wolfe County.

Most Kentucky cattle are raised on pasture, then sold and shipped to large feedlots in the Midwest. Several people at the meeting endorsed the idea of a covered feedlot where cattle could be fed grain to fatten them for slaughter. “I believe there’s a tremendous opportunity here for a finished beef product,” said working-group member Charles Miller.

Alice Melendez, executive director of Winchester-based Plowshares for Patriots, said there needs to be more education about the beneficial health effects of eating beef that is entirely grass-fed.

Prater said grass-fed beef is tougher, and research is needed to see which breeds or genetic lines of cattle finish better on grass. “If we can make that steer on grass get a little juicier,” he said, “that’s a good deal.”

But the region’s water quality, which could be critical to a feedlot, is one of the region’s weaknesses, one participant said.

Other participants cited lack of communication, coordination and cooperation among the region’s counties – a bugaboo that has often been mentioned by 5th District Rep. Hal Rogers, who started SOAR with Gov. Steve Beshear.

Other weaknesses mentioned included lack of access to land because of absentee ownership and other reasons; reduction of agriculture programs in the region’s schools; and wildlife interference with agriculture.

The latter example illustrates a potential conflict between agriculture and tourism based on hunting and wildlife watching. Such conflicts will be addressed by the SOAR executive committee when it receives reports from the working groups to draft a regional economic plan this fall.

In addition to the meeting this week in Whitesburg, a listening session of the Agriculture, Community & Regional Foods and Natural Resources working group will also be held in Louisa for Greenup, Boyd, Lawrence, Johnson and Martin counties. Each working group has a page on the SOAR website, www.soarky.org.

Organizers say the public is encouraged to attend and participate in any and all listening sessions.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. SOAR supports the institute’s independent journalism about the initiative.

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