When the Dust Settles

Story by Margaret Heltzel
Photos by Michael Swensen

Full story at 


HARRISON COUNTY, KY – A cattle trailer, prepensely parked in the shade of a tree line, contains 4,000 wildcards: young hemp plants. Hundreds of thousands of these little green uncertainties will be planted within a 306-mile radius by first-time hemp farmers.

Nick Farmer studies the labels on jugs of molasses-colored minerals. His wife, Ashley, feverishly Googles the ratios of minerals to water needed to make hemp fertilizer, calling out exact measurements as she comes across them. It’s June, the start of the planting season, and Nick pours about-amounts from the $300 jugs into his 300-gallon water tank.

"These are the things we should have figured out last night," she says as she stares into her phone.

Nick Farmer settles on a ratio and, content with the concoction, climbs into his tractor outfitted with his 1960s tobacco setter that he rigged to plant hemp. He drops the tractor into gear and prepares to start his first round of hemp planting, a giant leap for a family that has grown tobacco in Harrison County, Kentucky, for 20 years.

The transition is a daunting one for Farmer and dozens of other farms throughout the country. For decades, even centuries in some cases, tobacco has been king, a cash-rich crop that has sustained farming families for generations. But a shifting industry and climate change are creating lapses in the rhythm of southern life, forcing farmers to try their luck at creating new traditions.

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