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BY MOLLY HAINES and JOHN WHITLOCK
The future of Owen County’s 950-acre Eden Shale Research Farm is unknown after the University of Kentucky recently announced it would close the farm and lay off five people employed at the facility.
The closure comes following cuts in state funding to the university. UK has also announced it will lay off 140 employees.
The farm was purchased in 1955 for $67.04 per acre. The money to purchase the farm was raised by local residents and others. Over 200 Owen County citizens donated money to purchase the property. The total cost of the farm was $63,000.
150 head of cattle will be sold. It is unclear whether the property can be sold or leased, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Owen County Extension Agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources Kim Strohmeier said the Eden Shale farm had the first you-pick strawberry operation in the state, was the site of the first Christmas tree farm in Kentucky, and the major reason for alfalfa-seeding failures was discovered in a research test on the farm.
In recent years, Strohmeier said the farm has focused on cattle research, but grazing research, regional tobacco variety tests, and livestock feeding trials have also been done.
Strohmeier declined to further comment on the farm.
Owen County Judge-executive Carolyn Keith had a meeting with UK College of Agriculture Dean M. Scott Smith.
“I’m heartbroken,” Keith said. “I’ve cried, matter of fact. I think this is sending a bad message to young people who have an interest in farming. The Eden Shale farm was there to find better farming methods and if ever we needed that it’s now.”
Keith said she was joined at the meeting by Chairman of the Owen County Industrial Authority Frank Downing, Owen County Chamber of Commerce President Dallas Stafford, and soil conservation member Jimmy Cammack.
“It appears that this wasn’t anything directed at Owen County or Eden Shale,” Keith said. “There just had not been a great deal of research done recently.”
David Chappell, president of Kentucky Farm Bureau in Owen County, said closing the farm is a real loss for Owen County.
“We will miss it,” Chappell said. “There has been a lot of research that has helped Owen County.”
Chappell said a tough economy and budget cuts from the state hurt the university’s ability to keep the farm operational.
“Money has gotten tight and there has been less research done,” Chappell said. “I just wish it had been made to revert to the to the county ownership.”
The impact of Eden Shale’s closure not only affects farmers across the commonwealth, it will have a direct impact on the Owen County economy.
“We hate to lose the jobs ... That’s more money leaving Owen County,” Chappell said.
Chappell said he hopes the property can continue to be productive.
“Maybe some local farmer can buy it,” Chappell said. “It’s been a monument that the county has had and we hate to lose it.”
Although he is disappointed by the closure, Chappell said he understand the fiscal realities.
“The state cut so much money from the budget, they (UK) didn’t have a lot of options,” Chappell said.
Joe Wyles, who managed the farm for 28 years, said the closing of Eden Shale closes an important chapter in the county’s history.
“I’m disappointed but I understand the reasons behind it,” Wyles said. “Over the years, a lot of people have worked there and the research that has gone on there has not only benefitted Owen County, but northern Kentucky and the entire state.”
In at least one instance, the research conducted at Eden Shale helped millions of farmers across the world.
Wyles said fly tags for cattle, small plastic pieces containing insecticide that are attached to cows’ ears to keep flys away, were developed and tested at Eden Shale and are now standard on most cattle farms.
Wyles said he is unsure what the future holds for the property but hopes someone will maintain the farm’s mission.
“I would like see something done that continues to benefit Owen County and northern Kentucky,” Wyles said.
On a personal level, Wyles said he is saddened by the lost of jobs and the farm’s closure.
“That is the finest group of men you will fine anywhere that worked there and you hate to see them lose their jobs,” Wyles said.
In April 1953, farmers in Owen County asked the University of Kentucky to develop a research farm to help them meet the challenges of farming land in the Eden Shale area.
O.D. Hawkins, the farm’s first manager, led a committee of farmers to petition the dean of the UK College of Agriculture and Home Economics.
The dean advised the group to make a farm available to the university and the college of agriculture would operate it as a research and demonstration farm.
In November 1953, delegates from Mercer, Bracken, Pendleton, Anderson, Carroll, Grant, Nicholas, Trimble, Boone, Campbell, Kenton, Owen and Garrad counties met to discuss how to raise money to purchase a farm.
Their decision prompted each of the 33 counties with Eden Shale type soil to raise between $500 and $1,000.
Keith said the group that met with Smith took documents to show Smith that the land had been purchased with donated funds.
“The contributions were very far reaching,” Keith said. “It wasn’t just people of Owen County donating money.”
Owen County was later chosen for the location of the farm and five farms were purchased to form one farm, close to 950 acres.
O.D. Hawkins was named the farm’s first manager and research later began.
Keith said talk has surfaced on leasing the farm for private research, but no final decisions have been made on the farm’s future.
The deeds to the farm are made to the Commonwealth of Kentucky for the use and benefit of the University of Kentucky.