COLUMBUS, Ky. — Carlisle County farmer Phillip Bean is a lifelong Bardwell resident, but a lack of job opportunities in the area has forced his son to move elsewhere to raise his family. Bean joined the West Kentucky Alliance for a Vibrant Economy, also known as WAVE, because he hopes to be a part of the economic development effort that brings his grandchildren back to live in the area he loves so much.
“In small towns, you have to be civic minded and try to give something back to your community,” Bean said. “Through WAVE, we are working toward a better tomorrow, so the area can provide more jobs, improve the tax base and offer more services to the area.”
The initiative was the brainchild of the judge-executives in the four Kentucky counties that border the Mississippi River—Todd Cooper in Ballard, Greg Terry in Carlisle, Kenny Wilson in Hickman and Jim Martin in Fulton. They joined forces in 2016 to provide an economic boost to their counties—all of which have had a steady population decline during the past five years. They realized that by working together, they make a stronger case to attract potential economic development opportunities to the area than if they were separate entities.
“We represent small counties that have a lot of demands on their resources,” Martin said. “By joining forces and putting aside our fears of losing our county identities, we are opening doors to economic development to occur in the area.”
Agriculture serves as the foundation of the area’s economy with farmers selling more than $350 million in products in 2017. Poultry, corn, soybeans and livestock are the most commonly grown commodities. Knowing this, the judge executives invited the agriculture and natural resources agents with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service to join the initiative early on. Agents Tom Miller in Ballard, Chuck Flowers from Carlisle, Mattea Mitchell from Hickman and Ben Rudy in Fulton serve on the initiative’s agriculture advisory committee and help promote agriculture and related events throughout their counties. This includes the initiative’s Ag Day held each July.
“It’s really knocked down county lines for us too,” Flowers said. “We have been able to partner and offer extension programs to clients in all four counties through this initiative.”
Mitchell also serves on the initiative’s executive committee.
“We want to show our farmers why it’s important for us to all work together and that the initiative is trying to provide opportunities for our young people to come back,” Mitchell said.
The agents, along with the initiative’s consultant Steven Elder, provide a valuable link to producers like Bean and Hickman County grain producer Jonathan Reynolds, who is also a WAVE agriculture advisory committee member. The agents and Elder work to increase producers’ awareness about how economic development can positively impact their operation.
“I try to help producers understand how legislative policy affects their farm, and I advocate on their behalf for educational opportunities and grants,” Elder said. “We are trying to bring the global economy to the four river counties.”
Reynolds graduated college in May 2019 and returned to Hickman County to farm alongside his grandfather Jerry Peery. Through the initiative, he hopes to help other young farmers have success in the area. He runs the initiative’s young farmer Facebook group where participants can get advice, sell equipment and talk agriculture with their peers.
“If we did not have organizations like this initiative that support young farmers, I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to continue farming in my home county,” Reynolds said. “It is very challenging for a new or young farmer to come into the area with so many established producers.”
Initiative members know their agriculture base and river access provide them with many opportunities to attract agriculture-related businesses, but they also know agriculture is just one economic tool in their toolbox. The initiative has seen recent success, with Hickman and Fulton counties collaborating to acquire land in both counties for a joint industrial park. Industry and manufacturing are other economic areas in which they hope to expand.
“I think we have done a good job building a foundation and getting everyone working together,” said Miller. “Our next challenge is to see where we can go from here.”