Fayette County's Agriculture

Amanda Harper


It’s a word that probably evokes the image of man in bibbed overalls standing a field, stalks of corn reaching up to the sun, countless rows of green as far as the eye can see. Maybe a tractor is driving by.

It’s not a particularly thrilling topic for most people to mull over, but we’re here to say... It's a big part of what makes Lexington great! 



Agriculture and the businesses that support it in Fayette County account for one in twelve jobs and over $2.3 billion in annual output, according to the University of Kentucky’s Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky. Those numbers are massive, especially for something that most people don’t think about past Sunday meal prep.

Agriculture isn’t just food that’s grown or raised for the grocery store. Merriam-Webster tells us that it’s: “the science, art or practice of cultivating the soil, producing crops and raising livestock and in varying degrees the preparation and marketing of the resulting products.”

Farms have a ripple effect through other industries and areas of our lives, too. The beautiful horse farms and greenspaces encourage tourism and boost everyone’s quality of living. Produce farmers supply ingredients to restaurants, breweries, wineries and farmers’ markets. Livestock farms help support other industries, as well.

Every farm has a network of positive influence in our local economy, offering jobs and better lives for men, women and children throughout the Bluegrass and beyond.

“The Fayette County farms, which provide for a distinctive and scenic countryside, are also significant contributors to the local economy,” explained Alison Davis, a Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky director and agricultural economics professor. “This is seen not only in traditional ag output, but also in the tremendous growth in tourism tied to the ‘ag cluster’, such as Keeneland, Horse Country, breweries, wineries and more.”

What’s an “ag cluster”? It used to be common practice to measure the economic impact of farms directly on the profits or expenditures of the farms themselves. But that’s not the whole story. Because of their wide influence in our communities, farms have far-reaching economic impact.

Take a cattle farm, for instance: it employs farmhands and makes a profit from the cows they sell or milk. But they also help keep butchers, veterinarians, auctioneers, farm supply stores and livestock transporation companies in business. Maybe they supply meat to a restaurant, milk to an ice creamery and excess hay to a landscaping company. Perhaps they rent out a barn for weddings or host farm-to-table dinners in their beautiful fields: in fact, a local tour company regularly includes the farm on their tours.

That’s a whole cluster of economic activity. When the farm sells off 300 head of cattle, that’s not the whole story of their economic footprint in their community.

As you might imagine from looking around, Lexington’s agricultural story isn’t told in rows of corn. Fayette County’s economy, culture and appeal owes a lot to the local ag cluster.

There are 114,857 acres of farmland in Fayette County. To put it in perspective, that’s about two and a half times the size of Washington, D.C



It’s impossible to ignore one massive aspect of Kentucky’s agricultural landscape: we’re proudly known as the Horse Capital of the World. Over 25,000 horses reside in Fayette County on 89,000 acres of land. They’re a huge part of Lexington, and one of the most iconic symbols of our region.

The estimated economic impact of Kentucky’s horses is $4 billion annually, and much of that centers around Lexington sales, where these incredible animals sometimes fetch in excess of $1 million. Horses are big business for Fayette County!

It’s probably no surprise that about 70% of the horses in Fayette County are Thoroughbreds. According to a Kentucky Equine Survey conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the combined value of these superstar animals totals over $2.5 billion.

The second-most common horse breed in Fayette County is the American Saddlebred, which was developed into its modern type right here in Kentucky. Saddlebreds participate in harness racing at Red Mile and are often shown at the Kentucky Horse Park. Like Keeneland, these events bring in participants from all over the world and draw in spectators who will inevitably spend money at local businesses during their visit.

How did horses become such a big part of our identity? Settlers from Virginia brought their horses–and their deep love of horse racing–with them. They built tracks and breeding stock before Kentucky was even a state. The first newspapers reported on the quality of breeding stock.

As it turned out, Kentucky’s landscape is ideal for raising horses. Many claim that the limestone shelf beneath our soil nourishes our pastures, producing grass that serves as amazing horse feed, developing strong bones and sturdy constitutions. What we do know is that our moderate climate is perfect for horses, who seem to grow best when exposed to distinct seasons on our gently rolling terrain.

The push at the turn of the 20th century to make gambling legal helped solidify Kentucky’s place in horse history. At the time, many states banned gambling of any sort, but not the Bluegrass State. Gamblers with deep pockets and a passion for equine racing settled in central Kentucky, building racetracks and farms with stately mansions. According to a UK study on The Influence of the Agricultural Cluster on the Fayette County Economy, the presence of a racetrack in a county has a strong impact on the hospitality, recreation and retail industries. For us, that’s $88 million in additional annual payroll in these industries and $74 million in recreational sales, all attributed to the presence of racetracks in Fayette County. A study commissioned by Keeneland from the University of Kentucky’s Center for Business and Economic Research, Gatton College of Business and Economics estimates Keeneland’s yearly economic impact at $590 million when combining retail impact, horse sales, race attendance and wagering.

Shortly after Lexington was made a city, there were more horses here than people...



Kentucky is the 8th largest cattle-producing state in the US, with over 2.2 million cows grazing on Bluegrass farmland. The overwhelming majority of Kentucky cattle are raised for beef production. Most farmers rely on middlemen to auction the cows off for processing or to source new steers to keep their herds strong: that’s where stockyards come in.

Since 1946, Blue Grass Stockyards has served as a hub for livestock farmers to engage in commerce and socialize, especially during their many livestock auctions. When a fire destroyed the Lexington facility in January 2016, the staff turned their attention to expanding and creating a new facility to serve as more of a one-stop-shop for people who are passionate about Kentucky’s agricultural heritage and future.

The facility offers educational opportunities and a museum to help people of all ages to experience and connect with local agriculture and cattle production. The Bluegrass Regional Marketplace also includes shopping and dining, making it a great destination for anyone. Located across from the Kentucky Horse Park, it’s easy for tourists to stop in and discover a little more about our region.

“You really have to see it for yourself,” said Lauralee Estill, Event Coordinator at Bluegrass Regional Marketplace. “This is becoming the center of ag culture in central Kentucky. From the classroom and museum to the sales ring and barn, this is the place connecting people to where their food comes from and the people producing that food.”

In 1942, Kentucky had more sheep per square mile than any state east of the Mississippi. Sheep were able to thrive in central Kentucky for many of the same reasons that horses love our state. In spite of our state’s love of mutton barbeque, our sheep were raised primarily for wool. After World War II, cheap synthetic fibers dealt a major blow to the wool industry and sheep numbers have never quite recovered. However, the number of sheep in Kentucky has started to rise with the interest in alternative meats and milks, as well as the (perhaps ironic) interest in genuine wool as an alternative to synthetic fibers.

Fayette County is second in the state for producing livestock, poultry and their associated products. We’re first in the state for “other animals and other animal products”, a category which includes bees, alpacas, llamas, rabbits and a host of other critters and their products!


A Growing Future

When most people think of agriculture, they think of crops. The total value of Fayette County’s crop sales sits around $13.5 million coming from corn, soybeans, hay, tobacco, grains, fruits and vegetables.

Like much of Kentucky, tobacco was once a major cash crop for the city of Lexington. During the Civil War, military blockades of southern ports combined with fighting in the biggest tobacco-producing states opened up the opportunity for Kentucky to cement its place as a major growing powerhouse. Burley tobacco, a favorite among cigarette manufacturers, was introduced and our soil suited the plant perfectly.

In the early 1900s, deadly feuds erupted in western Kentucky’s tobacco production community. Major warehouses and auction companies headed east to Lexington. The location allowed farmers from both ends of the state to congregate and the biggest tobacco buyers to buy and ship product easily via new post-war railroads. By 1910, Lexington called itself the “largest tobacco market in the world”.

The decline of the tobacco industry began in the 1970s, with many warehouses demolished or abandoned by the 1990s. Following the passing of the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act (more commonly referred to as the “tobacco buyout”) in 2004, most Kentucky farm families moved away from growing tobacco, leaving a vacuum in our agricultural economy.

The solution, according to many, dates back to 1775. In that year, the first hemp crop was grown in Danville. Senator Henry Clay was a “hemp pioneer”, growing it on his estate, Ashland. In 1810, he gave a speech on the Senate floor in favor of requiring the US Navy to use domestic hemp exclusively. The speech was widely reprinted and helped encourage hemp’s production. By the mid-19th century, Kentucky was the nation’s leading hemp producer.

At its height, hemp covered 52,000 acres of Kentucky

Throughout history, industrial hemp has had countless applications. One of the fastest growing plants around, it was one of the first plants to be spun into fiber over 10,000 years ago. Hemp can be made into paper, clothing, biodegradable plastics, insulation, biofuel, paint and more. Hemp can also be eaten raw, ground into meal, turned into drinks, pressed for oil or ground into animal feed.

This crop was banned across the nation by the Controlled Substances Act due to what most feel is a misunderstanding of hemp’s chemical makeup. Industrial hemp is a member of the Cannabis sativa family, making it a cousin of marijuana. Both plants contain the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is why hemp was targeted during the War on Drugs. However, hemp has significantly lower concentrations of THC and higher concentrations of cannabidiol (CBD), which decreases or eliminates the psychoactive effects. In fact, with careful breeding of the plant, the levels of THC can be lowered further–and levels of CBD can he higher.

In recent years, CBD has sparked national interest due to its potential medicinal applications. Scientific studies have shown that CBD is an effective treatment for certain types of childhood epilepsy. A CBD-based drug is used in Canada and Sweden to alleviate pain associated with multiple sclerosis. People have used CBD to aid with sleep, appetite, pain and a host of other concerns.

There are ongoing efforts to revive this industry in Kentucky. Helping lead the charge are The Kentucky Hempsters, a team of young, female professionals who have teamed up with volunteers, sponsors, partners and farms to advocate for this incredible plant. Co-founder Alyssa Erickson explained, “In college, we recognized Kentucky’s struggling economy and wanted to help give back to our home state. With tobacco to coal production declining, it was important for us to find something that would help supplement these industries, and create new opportunities for Kentuckians. After discovering the impact hemp had on Kentucky’s economy from the late 18th century to World War II, we hoped to help bring back what was once the state’s leading cash crop to Kentucky farmers and manufacturers.”

Thanks in part to their advocacy and having the issue championed by representatives like former Kentucky Agriculture Comissioner and congressman James Comer and  Senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, hemp legalization has gained a footing in Congress. Kentucky was one of the first states to pass a hemp bill that would set up the framework for legalization. The Agricultural Act of 2014 included language that clarified industrial hemp’s status as a legitimate agricultural product and authorized higher education institutions and state departments of agriculture to conduct research programs. Shortly after, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture launched the Industrial Hemp Research Program to allow farmers and processors to begin development of a local hemp industry.

“Right now, there are a multitude of hemp products being produced as part of the Kentucky Hemp Pilot Program. We strongly encourage everyone to purchase these products to help give back to those proving the crop’s economic potential. There are also a number of hemp events you can attend, and organizations you can join,” Alyssa explained. “We hope that more people will become advocates for hemp, and share their own experiences with others. Many misconceptions still remain about hemp and what it is, so the more people who become educated and help educate others, the sooner these misconceptions will be cleared and the door will be opened for a thriving industry here in Kentucky.”

Their website, kyhempsters.com, offers a wealth of information about hemp’s past, present and future in Kentucky. “Recently, we opened a hemp museum in partnership with the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation here in Lexington at Hopemont, the Hunt-Morgan House to preserve and promote pieces of hemp history,” Alyssa said. “You can also explore the Heritage Hemp Trail at hertiagehemptrail.com, which highlights a number of historic sites with a significance to the early hemp industry in Kentucky including Lexington stops like Hopemont, along with Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate and Waveland which feature live hemp crops growing.”

She added, “Hemp offers a number of agricultural, industrial, environmental and economic benefits for Kentucky. It gives farmers a new source of income, and can be used for more than 10,000 different products that are sustainably produced and healthier for us. It also has the potential to create thousands of jobs, whether its on the farm or in manufacturing or retail.”


Wine, Beer and Spirits


Did you know that American winemaking began in Kentucky? The first commercial winery in the United State was established in 1799 in what is now Jessamine County. Kentucky’s climate and soil is right for growing grapes that produce excellent wine. By the mid-nineteenth century, Kentucky was the third-largest wine producing state in the country.

When Prohibition was enacted, Kentucky’s winemaking history was all but finished. It wasn’t until 1976 that the Kentucky legislature made winemaking possible again. Kentucky’s “wineaissance” carries on today, with dozens of locally-produced wines gracing glasses the world over.

When a love of craft beer swept the nation, Kentucky was quick to carve a niche in the industry. Local brewers made the best of local ingredients and taste profiles to create beers with a uniquely Kentucky flavor. Distilling is a quintessentially Kentucky pastime, and Fayette County has a rich history in this arena. Craft distillers are making new local spirits, often with local grains.




The decline of tobacco left many of Kentucky’s farms to rethink strategies and attempt to transition into other streams of revenue. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture has made promoting Kentucky agritourism an important part of helping Kentucky’s farms and farmers thrive. New ways to make every acre as profitable as possible–while helping the community at large–is an essential mission to ensuring our farms’ continued success.

“Agritourism offers an opportunity to build relationships between the agricultural community and the local tourism industry by incorporating tour groups, educating school children and hosting civic events. This increases rural economic development dollars in areas with agritourism venues,” the Kentucky Department of Agriculture website explained. “The ultimate goal of an agritourism venue is to increase net farm income by filling customer needs for education and recreation on the farm.”

How are farms making new revenue? Many rent out facilities for special events, like weddings or charitable fundraisers. Others are branching out into autumn with pumpkin patches, haunted forest attractions, hay mazes and other fun activities. On-farm events, like festivals, live music, tours or seated dinners, can be a great way to educate the public about agriculture while offering everyone the chance to get down on the farm!


Why Does Conservation Matter?


The researchers behind the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky had an important question: if mounting pressure to sell off Fayette County’s farmland continues to win out, what will happen to our local economy?

They found if production agriculture declined by just ten percent, there would be an overall additional decrease of more than $26.5 million in output with supporting businesses and services in the ag cluster, a $81 million hit for Kentucky’s economy annually. Of course, the ripple spreads further: this could indirectly affect household spending in unpredictable ways, resulting in even more of a loss.

“It is important to invest in Fayette Counties agricultural future because agriculture is a huge economic driver here in Fayette County,” explained Carrie McIntosh, executive director of the Fayette County Farm Bureau. “We are a destination stop for a lot of tourists because of our signature horse industry. Nowhere else in the country will you find the landscape that we have here in Fayette County and it is important that we protect this beautiful landscape and not become just another large city. Our soils are very unique here in Fayette County and central Kentucky, making for raising great horses, grazing cattle and other livestock as well as distilling great bourbon.”

Farm Bureau is an organization dedicated to serving as an advocate and voice for agriculture. Farm families and allies work together to identify problems in agricultural industries, developing solutions and taking actions to help improve farmers’ net income, providing better economic opportunities and enhancing the quality of life for everyone.

That’s an important mission. The Influence of the Agricultural Cluster on the Fayette County Economy authors assert that, “Fayette County’s unique agricultural status allows it to import tremendous wealth from outside the region that is then invested and spent within Fayette County in a wide range of industries. Agriculture alone does not create Fayette County’s unique image; it is the combination of the visual amenities of its farms, the glamour of its equine events, and the deep cultural history evident throughout the area.” They added, “Having a strong character makes Fayette County a fertile place for business creation. This is particularly true for local agricultural and food businesses that rely on consumer perception of place as a component of their value.”

What is the indirect value of having sweeping, unobstructed views of verdant horse farms and hay swaying in the breeze? The study cites major local commercial businesses who explained that their applicants for high-level jobs chose to settle in Lexington over other offers elsewhere because of the quality of life that Lexington can offer. Business influencers move here because of the beautiful scenery. Farmers’ markets, orchards, wineries and locally-sourced ingredients or products help directly enrich all of our lives. •