A small factory on rolling Kentucky hills is home to Farmer's Tobacco Co. just outside Cynthiana. In a county where tobacco used to be king, the founders of this independent company take pride in employing around 45 local residents who make tobacco products on European machines as old as 40 to 50 years.
Company president Desha Henson says a former employee once commented, "This isn't a factory. It's a working museum."
Founders Bob Ammerman and his son Mike started selling cigarettes in 2001 and invested in second-hand machinery after they saw that big corporations turned more and more to cheap foreign tobacco. Much of the tobacco today comes out of South America and Africa.
"The American tobacco farmer got outsourced," says Mike.
Family farms around Cynthiana were watching a livelihood that had sustained them for generations begin to shrink. An American tradition and way of life was disappearing. Bob himself was born and raised on a tobacco and dairy farm, and it's all he's ever done.
Many of the factory workers are self taught in the maintenance of the older machines. One way the company continues to run smoothly is by hiring staff that can perform multiple duties.
"Small crews that can do several different tasks prevents layoffs," says Lee Alan Judy, operations manager.
Farmer's Tobacco manufactures cigarettes, filtered cigars and loose tobacco in bags for people who still like to roll their own cigarettes. The signature American blend used in Kentucky's Best cigarettes uses 25% premium grade burley from Kentucky. The company holds one-fourth of 1% of the U.S. cigarette market. It is a competitive market, and smaller companies can struggle against the largest producers.
An additional obstacle is that the cigarette business is shrinking fast. Fewer people smoking and the rising popularity of vaping has weakened demand.
Desha says diversifying will move the business forward. Federal legalization of hemp as part of the 2018 Farm Bill has many in Harrison County embracing the potential of this crop and hoping its profit margin will make up for what has been lost in tobacco.
It's hard to say to how long tobacco will be profitable, so local entrepreneurs like Mike and Bob need to have an eye on the future.
They have a new company, Kentucky's Best Hemp Inc. that makes CBD oils, gummies, salve, cream and lotions. They are looking to expand the lines.