John Mahan is the fourth generation of his family to tend to the family farm. As he has met more and more farmers around the country, he said he’s realized central Kentucky farmers work the land too much in the same way as the previous generation.
“Central Kentucky is 15 or 20 years behind as far as technology and production techniques,” he said from an office in his house at Mahan Farms, which is set in Fayette, Scott and Bourbon counties. “We were so dependent on tobacco for so long — that was our mainstay. That was our bread and butter. As antiquated as the process of tobacco is, we really didn’t have to grow and grasp a lot of new concepts.”
But times have changed. Tobacco farmers, he said, can still get away with machetes and hatchets to harvest leaves. But conventional means were not the answer for Mahan, who relocated his farm in 1996 after a land swap with Ball Homes that resulted in Mahan’s original farm being developed into the Glasford subdivision. In order to survive as a farmer, he had to be more flexible. He had to diversify and modernize.
Modernizing The Farm
As the ’90s ended, Mahan wanted to expand his family’s farm with additional property, but his ability to do that was based on a tobacco quota that was about to plummet. So he changed his model, method and machines.
“Grain has become very popular over the last few years,” he said. “With high commodity prices, there are more people now producing corn and beans than there have been in generations. In the grain belt, they’ve always produced that, so they’ve stayed advanced and on the cutting edge. Here [in central Kentucky], the use of GPS and auto steer and variable-rate fertilizer application and those types of production practices are slow to catch on.”
In addition to shifting to a corn- and bean-based farm from livestock and tobacco, Mahan used his family connection with Ball Homes to start a sod business. In 2000, he grew 10 acres of sod. A few years later, he started Sodworks to supply the Balls and other homebuilders with green grass for the new subdivisions that sprouted around the region. That, however, turned him into a farmer who was at the mercy of the housing market.
“We felt it exactly the same as everyone else did,” he said. “We were down about 33 percent in sales, which I think is very fortunate, as many people went out of business. ... We got lean and we got creative. We did the renovation of Valhalla [Golf Club] in Louisville, which was a great feather in our cap, so things like that helped. And as the sport-horse industry has begun to grow here in Lexington and surrounding counties, they have spent a ton of money rebuilding these farms. That’s a trickle-down effect, and it is big.”
This year, Sodworks planted 400 acres, and Mahan is unsure if the small patch of tobacco growing on the farm will be able to be harvested at all, because his workers are too busy elsewhere on the 1,350 acres he owns and other land he rents.
About John Mahan
Title: Owner, Mahan Farms & Sodworks LLC
Education: Attended the University of Kentucky studying production agriculture
Member: Commerce Lexington Executive Board BL