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Horse farms lead agricultural boom

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By Walt Reichert

About five years ago, Karen and the late Ed Frickey decided to move their 40-head Saddlebred and hackney pony operation from Lafayette, Ind., to Harrington Mill Road in Shelby County.

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“All of our friends in the industry were here, and all of the shows we wanted to go to are here,” Karen Frickey said. “And we've always loved Kentucky.”

Horse operations such as the Frickey’s are just one example of why the agriculture sector in Shelby County has boomed in this decade, even as the number of farmers and farmland has dwindled in other parts of the state.

A report by Census Bureau shows from 2002 to 2007 the number of farms in Shelby County grew by 6 percent, and the number of horse farms has increased by a staggering 48 percent during those five years, from 338 farms up to 565, or 34 percent of the county’s 1651 agricultural operations.

Overall the number of agricultural acres in the county has surpassed 205,000, up about 2 percent from 2002.

Shelby now ranks fourth for horses and ponies, behind Fayette, Woodford and Bourbon, in a state that ranks first nationally in the number of horses and ponies and in the value of equine sales in the nation.

Shelby County ranks 20th of more than 3,000 counties in the nation for the number of horses and ponies on farms.

Saddlebred trainer and breeder Edward “Hoppy” Bennett said he was not surprised at the growth in the number of horse farms during those five years. He estimated the county now is home to 66 large Saddlebred operations alone.

“Since time began, tobacco was king in the state of Kentucky,” Bennett said. “Shelby County leaders had the foresight to recognize the eventual decline of the demand for tobacco, and so they encouraged the new number one agricultural crop – horses. To quote my old friend  [the late] Louis Payne, 'Hoppy, Shelby County is pretty lucky. Our tobacco barns are going to be filled with horses.'”

  Farm diversity

Tobacco may be down, but it's certainly not out. The Census data ranked Shelby County third in tobacco production in 2007 and Kentucky as the second-leading tobacco state, behind North Carolina. Shelby County farmers had $8.4 million in tobacco sales in 2007.

Horse farms may account for the growth in the number of farms, but cattle are still the No. 1 livestock raised by Shelby County farmers. The county had 704 beef and dairy farms in 2007, with just more than 35,000 head of cattle.

Shelby County Farm Bureau President Jack Trumbo said Shelby County's rolling land and soils are suitable for cattle, and they fit the lifestyle of the growing number of part-time farmers.

“There's always going to be people who just love to have a little piece of land with two or three head of cattle on it,” Trumbo said. “They don't really care if they're making money; it's just for the aesthetics of it.”

  Chickens and grain

If Shelby County does not have all of its eggs in one agricultural basket, it does have some eggs in the basket. Poultry production in the county has grown, too.

The county had 37 farms with layers and is the leading poultry producer in the state east of I-65. The eggs find their way into health -food stores, restaurants and farmers markets here and in the region.

Though the county's farms are mostly small, especially by national standards, the Census showed 42 operations in the county of 1,000 acres or more. Most of those are grain farms.

Shelby County ranked 23rd in corn production and 21st in soybean production in 2007. Shelby County's soybean farmers surpass the national per-acre average production most years.

Jim Ellis, who farms 5,800 acres of corn and soybeans with his brothers, Mike and Bob, said there likely will remain a place in the county for large operators, even as the county develops.

“You have a lot of people coming in and buying land, but they really don't want to farm it,” Ellis said. “When they're adjacent to the large farms, they let others do it. As long as development doesn't residentialize us, we'll keep agriculture here.

“The agricultural/commercial/industrial combination will keep us from being a bedroom community of Louisville, gives us our own tax base. It's just a matter of vision.”

 Other info

• The number of farms in the county increased from 1,557 in 2002 to 1,651 in 2007.

• The county also has more land in farms. In 2002 it had just over 201,000 acres in farmland; in 2007 it had just over 205,000 acres, an increase of 2 percent.

• The value of agricultural production in the county jumped 25 percent in the five-year period. County farmers sold almost $57 million worth of farm products in 2007.

• Most farms in the county (over 1,100) fall into the 10-179-acre category.