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Injured farmer gets helping hand from FFA chapter; members learn value of giving back


Western Hills High School student Jenny Carr has become quite proficient at grading tobacco, thanks to her involvement helping an injured farmer strip his tobacco. (Photo by Tim Thornberry)


By Tim Thornberry
KyForward correspondent

‘Tis the season for giving, and in the agriculture community, perhaps no organization does it better than the FFA – Future Farmers of America.


The chapter at Western Hills High School in Frankfort recently proved the point while also learning a bit about an historic crop.

The group experienced the centuries old art of stripping tobacco by way of a community service project that helped an injured farmer at a critical time in the season.

Keith Beasley, a producer from Mercer County, had not raised a crop in 14 years but decided to come back this year in a small enough way that he could do all the work himself.

“That was my plan but a bush hog fell on me and broke my foot,” he said.

With that, he found himself in need of assistance. J.R. Zinner, the school’s FFA adviser heard of Beasley’s dilemma from the farmer’s wife, a fellow teacher in the same school system.

Zinner has had students in the past help in similar situations, so he offered the experience to his students and the badly needed service to Beasley.

“I felt like it was important to help him out in the position he was in,” said Zinner. “To expect him to strip the tobacco on his own, that wasn’t going to happen. When everything happened, he was kind of at a loss and that’s when we stepped in.”

He added that there are fewer tobacco farmers around the area, and most of the students in his classes have never worked with the crop. But they turned the ag shop into a tobacco stripping facility for a couple of weeks, and each student took on a specific task.

Most of the subject matter taught by Zinner is based on animal science and horticulture.

“As it is, a lot of our animal science students are learning the importance of small side crops to go along with their livestock enterprises and how they complement each other,” he said. “This is a great way to learn how to be a part of the agriculture of Kentucky.”



Western Hills High School FFA Adviser J.R. Zinner worked with students to teach them how to strip tobacco. (Photo by Tim Thornberry)

Zinner said the project also gives students knowledge of what it’s like to work with their hands, learn and perfect a process, follow directions, and be observant. He said it has been surprising to see so many of the students take to the project and perfect it to the level they have considering most had no prior experience on a tobacco farm.

“There are about a third of the students that have been exposed to the activity and really enjoy it and seven to 10 students that have impressed me that they have picked up the process rather quickly and have become pretty proficient at grading and stripping tobacco in a timely manner,” said Zinner.

He noted that as difficult as it is for tobacco farmers to find good help, many of these students could pick up part time jobs with producers after getting this experience in the classroom to have gas money for the weekends or to set aside some money for college.

The feedback Zinner and the students have received has been positive. He said most parents, teachers and community members associated with the local FFA program understand the benefit of exposing young people to real-life agriculture.

“In Kentucky, stripping tobacco is as real-life as it gets in a lot of cases and has been for a lot of years,” he said.

For students participating in the project, Zinner said he has explained to them some of the things going on with the crop today, such as trying to convert some production to biogenetically engineered tobacco to be used in the pharmaceutical industry.

“I can see where that might open up someday and take away the negative culture that tobacco has experienced over the last several years,” he said. “It is still a cash crop that pays a lot of bills and it’s part of Kentucky’s heritage as an agricultural community.”

According to a report from Colorado State University, tobacco is one of the most commonly used crops in plant-made pharmaceutical field trials.

But students have learned more than a little history and alternative uses for the crop. Many have gotten a sense helping others by participating; the true nature of this project.

Jenny Carr is a senior at WHHS. She said by working in the tobacco she has learned a lot about the process and so much more.

“It has definitely been a new and exciting experience for me and many other ag students. I have learned how to pull leaves, identify them based on appearance and separate them into grades,” she said. “I’ve used what I have learned to help others and improve my work ethic.”

Carr plans to learn even more about the crop as she has entered a tobacco essay contest to be held next March. She said she has spent time researching the history of tobacco and plans to begin her draft of the essay soon.

As far as the project goes, Carr added it has changed her perspective of tobacco and inspired her to grow academically.

Beasley said he was thankful to have had the assistance of the students and plans to raise more tobacco next year, only this time he would like to bypass any injuries.


He plans to pay the chapter for their work. Zinner said that money will go toward a memorial garden to be built at the school to honor teachers and students that have passed away while being at WHHS.


“I think the students that are participating understand that by doing this, it makes an impact on our school climate,” he said.

Zinner also said that by working with the tobacco, students have taken something they are being taught and applying it.

“Anytime you throw application into the equation, it creates a little bit of excitement with them,” he said.

Tim Thornberry is a freelance writer and photographer who has covered Kentucky agricultural and rural issues for various publications since 1995. 

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