Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Programs Make Shepherds of Struggling Tobacco Farmers / Uncertain Profits Prompt Diversification

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Programs Make Shepherds of Struggling Tobacco Farmers / Uncertain Profits Prompt Diversification

Article excerpt

PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Farmers struggling against increasingly uncertain tobacco profits are diversifying in the rugged highlands of eastern Kentucky - they're becoming shepherds.

One of the driving forces in the change is Mike Hancock, a teacher at Harry Sparks Vocational School in Mount Vernon. He has been promoting sheep raising in 16 counties in a program sponsored by the state Office of Vocational Education.

""We've got farmers doing very well with sheep in these depressed farm times,'' Hancock said.

Morehead State University, with a $136,404 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, hopes to boost Kentucky's sheep flocks, which currently total 27,000 sheep and lambs in a $1.1 million-a-year industry. The university plans to help farmers start herds on 18 farms in the spring.

Eastern Kentucky was a major sheep producer before World War II and ""it's an industry well suited to the region's steep and hilly land,'' said Charles Derrickson, dean of Morehead's College of Applied Sciences and Technology.

Hancock said he has watched the flocks in his area grow from about 1,000 ewes on 24 farms to nearly 8,000 on about 100 farms since he started his program in 1979. An annual April lamb sale started four years ago at Monticello draws participants from as far away as Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana and Texas, he said.

Sheep, he said, ""like high, rolling country. They're ideal for this kind of land. They are very effective forage consumers. They eat a lot of weeds and plants the cattle won't eat.''

The region's small family farms have the people available for the labor-intensive task of caring for sheep, he added. The animals require protection from free-ranging dogs and other predators, special foot care, frequent worming and extra attention when having their young.

Births occur in the cold winter months, when, as it happens, tobacco barns on most farms are available, Hancock said. ""They strip the tobacco out in November and December and move the sheep in in January. …

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