COMING TO GROUND is a feature documentary that portrays Kentucky’s efforts to move away from tobacco dependency to create a new agricultural economy and culture. It looks at the historic changes that have taken place in Kentucky in response to regulatory change and the globalization of the tobacco economy. Told through the voices of Kentucky farmers, agricultural thinkers, and policy makers, this is a story of how Kentucky agriculture survived catastrophic change to create a new farm culture and the foundation of a new local food system.
Coming To Ground explores the history and experience of Kentucky farming and portrays farming as it developed under the Federal Tobacco Support Program that arose out of depression era farming, through, to the historic regulatory and cultural shifts that have taken place since the deregulation and termination of federal support for tobacco farming, and what is now called the “Master Settlement Agreement.” The Master Settlement Agreement is the agreement struck in 1998 by all the States’ Attorneys General in their historic lawsuits of the tobacco companies for compensation to the states for their Medicare expenses resulting from tobacco related diseases. These very significant events set off a cascade of changes in the tobacco economy and throughout Kentucky’s farm community.
Once called the New Eden by 18th Century Europeans, Kentucky has always been one of those places that is about everyplace due to its position in the national historical mythos. Consequently, the region’s unique farming culture and circumstance can provide compelling metaphors and knowledge for the growing movement of new agrarians who are ‘coming to ground’ in a global quest to create a new, sustainable food system.
Early European settlers to Kentucky found some of the richest, most ancient soil in North America. Accumulating for millennia, undisturbed by glaciers for over a million years, the soil encountered by early European settlers was incredibly fertile, “There were no leaves under the trees because the ground was so rich the fallen leaves rotted before the winter was over.” Two hundred years later the people, soil and farmlands of Kentucky had become dependent on the tobacco economy with a farming culture bent to ‘cash cropping’. Small family farms and rural communities were rapidly failing and disappearing, soil loss and depletion were rampant.
In 1963 the Surgeon General declared smoking was hazardous to health and for the first time warnings were printed on cigarette packs. Many Kentucky farmers knew then that a 200-year tradition of farming was coming to an end, but it wasn’t until 40 years later that it became a reality. The late 90s brought a kind of perfect storm that could have spelled the doom of rural Kentucky and its small family farms. Rapid structural change was on the immediate horizon. Family farms were vanishing at the rate of 1,000 a year in Kentucky, and, by then, it was clear that the Federal Tobacco Price Support Program would not survive the prevailing political climate intact. By 1997, the question was how will rural Kentucky, its farm economy and family farms survive, much less change? Then in 1998 the States’ Attorneys General settled their historic lawsuit of the tobacco companies.
Grappling With Change – anticipating this radical economic and cultural shift, Kentucky farm leaders and Kentucky Governor Paul Patton’s administration initiated a series of broad-based strategic planning discussions along with critical policy initiatives that were designed to allow Kentucky to transform its farm economy and offset short term economic loses in order to retain the value in its agricultural resources and culture. When the States’ Attorneys General lawsuits against the tobacco industry were settled collectively and became the Master Settlement Agreement, a 25 year, $225 billion settlement, Kentucky would receive $3 billion dollars over the next 25 years. They were the only state to put half of their funds toward long-term agricultural advancement, enhancement and diversification.
This process of change eventually culminated in the creation of Kentucky’s Agricultural Development Fund and the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy, a unique office to administer the unprecedented funds becoming available to assist farmers in change. By then Congress had voted to end the Federal Tobacco Program in 2004 and everyone understood change was not going to be easy. Powerful agricultural and biotech interests had designs on the money. Small farmers and tenet farmers were in danger of being shut out of the planning process. But eventually, in a bipartisan effort that appears astonishing today, Kentucky’s policy makers, farmers, legislators, commodity interests, educators and agricultural philosophers came together to find a way to save Kentucky’s farms. In the 2000 session of Kentucky General Assembly House Bill 611 emerged to embody in law an equitable, democratic distribution of funds to the farmers and agriculture institutions of Kentucky.
Kentucky farming and food culture has since undergone a sea change. Although small farms and farmers continue to disappear, Kentucky ranks 2nd per capita in the U.S. in the number of small family farms. There has been an explosion of sustainable and organic farms in Kentucky and a diversification of crops, farm products and enterprises, from organic and biodynamic beef, fruit and vegetables, wine, goat’s milk and cheeses, an abundance of salsas, jams and preserves, to abattoirs dedicated to humane and sustainably grown lamb and poultry as well beef, and agro-tourism with vineyards featuring live music concerts on a yearly schedule, as well as a proliferation of rural-to-urban-to-school educational farms. For most of the last 10 years Kentucky has had the largest cattle industry east of the Mississippi River. On the distribution side of agriculture Kentucky is seeing a rapidly expanding number of community supported agricultural [CSAs] operations and the creation of farmers markets throughout the state, many of which are the primary market for the region’s farmers.
The film features Ann Bell Stone, farmer (Scott Co., KY); Sam Moore, former president of Kentucky Farm Bureau; Martin Richards, director of Community Farm Alliance, Frankfort, KY); John and Randy Seymour of Roundstone Native Seed and Grass (Hart Co., KY); Susan Miller, BleuGrass Chevre (Clark Co., KY); Bill Best, seed saver (Madison, KY); Laura Riccardi Lyvers and Janey Newton biodynamic farmers (Oldham, Co., KY); Susan Sweitzer of Sustainable Food Lab (Hartland, VT); vintners Mary Berry and Charles Smith (Henry Co., KY); Charles Miller, master cattleman (Jessamine, Co., KY). Also featured are John-Mark Hack, Governor Patton’s senior policy advisor on agriculture, and founding director of the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy; Roger Thomas former state representative and now the current executive director of the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy; and Wes Jackson of the Land Institute (Salina, KS).