UK Professor: Water Critical to Kentucky’s Thriving Ag Economy

Amanda Gumbert of Water Grows KYIf you’ve driven around Kentucky, chances are very high you’ve seen many farms throughout our beautiful Commonwealth. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Kentucky boasts 74,100 farms as of 2021. That makes Kentucky the state with the sixth most farms of any state, behind Texas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Ohio.

Those farms make a big impact on Kentucky’s economy – and the agriculture industry is only growing in the Bluegrass. A 2022 report by researchers at the University of Kentucky showed the total economic impact of agriculture in Kentucky in 2019 totaled $49.6 billion, an 8.8% increase from 2012.

So what is the key to Kentucky’s booming ag economy? It’s all in the water.

Dr. Amanda Gumbert, an Extension Water Quality Specialist at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food & Environment, is an expert on water, water conservation, agriculture, and food systems. She attributes her interest to her time growing up on a farm in rural Kentucky. That time on her family farm gave her an early education in water’s value to a farmer.

“Water is critical for farmers. If you don’t have adequate water supply, you’re not going to have very much production,” Gumbert said.

The Commonwealth has a vast supply of water, due in large part to the Ohio River, which spans Kentucky’s northern border.

“Depending on who you ask and how you measure it, Kentucky has over 90,000 miles of streams and rivers,” Gumbert said. “Not all of those are perennial streams, but we have a lot of water here in Kentucky at our disposal.”

Rain makes its way through Kentucky quite often, which helps prevent drought and water scarcity – things that can hinder a state’s economic growth.

“When you compare us to states west of the Mississippi River, we do have ample rainfall. Some of our agriculture weather specialists here at UK do a lot of data analysis on our rainfall. The most recent report I saw from them says that we are averaging around 50 inches of rain annually, which is up from 47 in the 1990s and early 2000s.”

Gumbert pointed to Kentucky’s key agriculture subsectors to highlight water’s importance to the state’s ag industry.

“Kentucky is a big beef producer. We have the largest cattle herd of any state east of the Mississippi River,” Gumbert said. “We also have a lot of poultry, and there is of course a huge equine industry here too.”

The state’s smaller farmers that grow crops rely heavily on the state’s abundant water supply.

“Corn, soybeans, and wheat are some of our top three crops that we produce in Kentucky. We have a fair number of vegetable producers that are producing food for fresh market,” Gumbert said. “Those are smaller producers who are growing for farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, restaurants and such. But those are strong parts of our agriculture economy.”

The agriculture industry in Kentucky is continuing to grow, and farmers throughout the state – Gumbert included – believe that water is the key to the industry’s success in the Bluegrass.

“Regardless of your production system and how you produce, you’re going to produce an ag product that is mostly water,” Gumbert said. “For all our key farm products, water is a critical element in production.”