WAVE stands for West Kentucky Alliance for a Vibrant Economy. The consortium of the leadership of four Mississippi River Counties, Ballard, Carlisle, Fulton and Hickman, began in 2016 with a hope, a logo and a consultant, Jonathan Miller. The goal was promoting the often forgotten rural counties as far from the Capital City as geographically possible. The group of four different counties and four different county leaders have managed not to take their marbles and go off and play somewhere else. For Kentucky politicians, that is an accomplishment in itself.
Since its early days, the group has altered focus a bit since 2016. From courting industry (any industry!), the emphasis has shifted to agriculture. That's a logical move. Agriculture is the major economic driver of the region. WAVE hired a part time ag consultant, Steven Elder, a Graves County native with deep ag roots. From all reports, Elder is putting in a lot more hours than his paycheck shows. WAVE county judges are much more comfortable promoting agriculture than factory work. River county farming in the 21st century is almost exclusively row cropping on thousands of acres and large scale poultry and hog production. There are few farms owned by out of state (or out of region) absentee owners. Families and generations of farmers still work the land and in businesses and industries connected to agriculture.
The course correction is producing benefits and attention from state and federal politicians and policy makers. Inviting company down to Columbus Belmont State Park on Thursday, July 18, 2019 was a day for WAVE to show off. The day long event featured an early morning breakfast, speeches, awards and lots of vendors eager to connect with farmers. Sixty vendors, from sellers of fancy tractors to hay to the Soybean Council, filled Park with booths and pitchmen and pitchwomen.
What stood out in the speeches was the newest crop being hailed as the saving grace for farmers beset by too much rain, too many tariffs and too full grain bins. Keynote speaker Matt Lohr, USDA Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS), shown at left, hailed the West Kentucky farmers and their "spirit of innovation". He said that Kentucky is the epicenter of hemp production.
With its large stretches of arable land, highly educated farmers and a thirst for another profit center, WAVE agriculture is the dot in the center of Kentucky's hemp map.
Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles, no stranger to the area, said that the impact of agriculture is in the billions.
Tony Brannon, Dean of Murray State's Hutson (the tractor company) School of Agriculture bragged that his school is the center of hemp research. The first hemp seeds came in through customs to MSU in 2014. Since then, research into the three profit centers of hemp - seed, fiber and CBD oil - has taken off.
Warren Beeler of the Governor's Office of Ag Policy said US Ag Commissioner Sonny Perdue called the area "the tip of the spear" for hemp production. Beeler said that of new loans for chicken barns, seven out of ten go to young farmers. He sees that as a positive step to keeping young people in the agriculture.
Currently "one-third of America's 3.4 million farmers are over the age of 65, long regarded as retirement age, and nearly a million more of them are within a decade of that milestone, according to new USDA data".... But there is reason to hope. "Some 27 percent of farmers are categorized as new and beginning producers, with 10 years or less of experience in agriculture." Fern's Ag Insider: April 11, 2019
During the awards ceremony, that hope was demonstrated by the Young Farmer of the Year Award going to Hickman County farmer, H. O. Weatherford. He and his father, Curtis, farm 4000 acres together. Davie Stephens, a Hickman County farmer, currently president of the American Soybean Association, was named Farmer of the Year. Stephens was on the road promoting his organization but his wife Judy was on hand to accept the award for him. The legacy award went to deceased farmer, Harold Wilson, whose large family is involved in agriculture. One of his sons, Mark Wilson, works for Hutson Ag by day and serves as co-chair of the Fancy Farm Political Speaking in his spare time.
The final award presentation, the Community Investment Award went to the WAVE organization. It is as it should be that the prize went to WAVE. Getting heads wrapped around the unique character of the region and promoting its agricultural strength is proving a good fit.