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Princeton research center carries on legacy of experimentation despite tornado’s devastation

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Liam Niemeyer
Tobacco leaves stick out of the ground at Princeton's research center.

The cracked, light-brown dirt crunches beneath Andy Bailey’s feet as he motions to the green tobacco leaves sticking out of the field.

“The best thing about it is that if you do something in dark tobacco, you're the only one doing it,” Bailey said with a laugh. “The worst thing about dark tobacco research is you're the only one doing it.”

This acre of dark fire-cured tobacco is a small sample of Bailey’s 20 years of research as a University of Kentucky tobacco extension specialist at the University of Kentucky Research and Education Center in Princeton. The uniqueness of the crop is something he prides himself in, helping perfect a type of tobacco that he says is known worldwide but only grown in western Kentucky and northwest Tennessee.

That acre of tobacco is one of the few things Bailey still has to work with in the late May sunshine. He walks up to a concrete slab, all that remains of one of his tobacco curing barns.

The agriculture research center took a direct hit from the catastrophic long-track tornado that ripped through western Kentucky in December, taking historical curing barns from the 1940s with it. When he remembers the morning after the tornado, his son and him were looking at pictures on social media trying to discern what of his workplace was still there and what wasn’t.

“I didn't hardly wanna come over,” Bailey said. “It was just chaos. It was just … everything was gone, and a few things that, maybe even a few things you thought weren't gone really were.”

Other barns and silos were toppled, and more than six miles of fence that corralled cattle was missing. Almost all of the research center – 49 of its 58 buildings – was unsalvageable.

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Liam Niemeyer
The original headquarters of the research center, built in 1931, still in rubble in late May.

The UK Grain & Forage Center of Excellence that opened at the research center in 2019 – taking $30 million in state and private funding and years of planning and construction to build – had its walls and ceiling to be torn off, rendered unrecognizable by violent, 165 mph winds. All that remains of the first office building, built on the farm in 1931, is rubble and what was a basement now a hole in the ground.

For Bailey and his colleagues, nearly a century of growth and research helping western Kentucky farmers improve yields, conserve land and provide a welcoming space was thrown into complete disarray from the December tornado outbreak. Much of the center’s research had to be put on hold as the center’s 60-plus employees started figuring out next steps after the disaster.

Bailey, standing in his tobacco field almost six months after the storm, keeps a steady optimism for what the future will bring, even if a full rebuild is several years away.

“It'll work out,” Bailey said before pausing a moment. “Some days, you wonder. But it will.”

Research delayed and challenges ahead

Research center managing director Carrie Knott has tried to make her new office – one of a couple of air-conditioned metal shipping containers – as homey as possible. Artwork from some of her four children hangs on the walls and potted plants sit on her desk. These offices were brought on-site just days after the tornado, but it wasn’t until recently that she’s been able to settle into her new normal.

“I think the shock has finally wore off of the actual event for me, and I have to say this – in all sincerity – very recently, like probably within the last few weeks,” Knott said. “My personal home wasn't even damaged, but it still just kind of hit you to the core. When you have 70 or 80 people that rely on the [research] station and you feel really helpless to try to get it up and going again for them.”

Liam Niemeyer
Carrie Knott, the managing director of the research center, inside the metal storage container serving as a temporary office.

Along with managing the center, Knott’s research expertise is studying grain, and only about 25% of that research has been able to continue after the storm. She said even small variables can interrupt research for a year or two, something that’s been magnified by the storm. Some of the equipment researchers use takes years to calibrate, such as an in-furrow application that helps plant seeds while also applying chemicals like fungicides.

Knott said much of the research still happening has been moved outside of Princeton. For example, Bailey’s tobacco research has been moved to private plots in western Kentucky and other research farms at the University of Tennessee and Murray State University.

Even then, having the research spread out across western Kentucky has drawbacks. It’s not the same as having a central office space, a place where conversations and ideas can be sparked.

“You'd be amazed how many research ideas that you get just walking up and down the hall seeing your colleagues, or when a producer stops by and they can actually pop into your office and say hello and just talk to you,” Knott said. “You'd be surprised how much research ideas you get just from a simple conversation with one of your producers.”

She’s hoping to get enough temporary facilities at the research center to bring back all the staff to Princeton. A rebuilding committee is still calculating reconstruction costs and getting details on insurance coverage for the center’s buildings, and two structures need to be demolished before that process can even begin.

She is thankful for the fellow researchers, farmers and lawmakers behind her in helping the center rebuild and move forward. Her coworkers have all received new state vehicles to drive after most were totaled, and they’re beginning to understand how they’re going to replace their needed equipment.

Knott said the center is a place that provides “unbiased” research for farmers that’s essential for farming communities, sometimes running counter to agriculture industry interests.

“When I have some very difficult days, I remember that really what we're here for, is for our farmers, and that kind of gets me through,” Knott said.

Finding a way forward

It’s those farmers that have been crucial in the past six months for the center and its research, including the cattle that still roam the pastures nearby the center.

Katie VanValin, the beef extension specialist at the center, lost more than six miles of fencing when the tornado came through, but thankfully, somehow, she didn’t lose any of her cattle.

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Liam Niemeyer
Researchers Andy Bailey and Katie VanValin standing beside the temporary offices.

In the immediate aftermath with the center’s pump house offline, the local fire department and farmers brought her hundreds of cows water, and farmers from Caldwell County and other nearby counties helped with the debris cleanup. Yet the center’s progress still feels in limbo, she said, still like a “disaster zone.”

“Even though we've picked up so much debris – it really does look better – it just feels so temporary right now,” VanValin said.

These aren’t just cattle to her, though. Like much of the other research that’s happened at the center, these animals represent decades of effort and work. The black cows have been selectively bred for docility. They’ve also been fed specific mineral supplements over the past decade that could show potential benefits for cattle farmers.

A farmer in a nearby county lost their entire herd to the storm, a prospect that seems incomprehensible to her.

“My predecessor spent the majority of his career here, developing this herd, and I was able to kind of inherit it,” VanValin said. “To think about having to start that from scratch is, you know, that's a lot to think about and take on.”

Scientists at the research center have made numerous agricultural discoveries and breakthroughs, some incremental and others leaps, since it was established in 1925. The first scientist at the station studied native types of walnuts and pecans; researchers in the 1970s provided insightful research on the best techniques for double-cropping, or planting more than one crop on the same plot at the same time; and researchers in the 1980s found that soybeans planted in narrower rows increased yields.

It’s that legacy of research that means the world to farmers like Joseph Sisk, president of the Kentucky Corn Growers Association and one of the farmers who came to help move debris in the days after the tornado.

The Princeton center is unique in that it’s the meeting place of where two dominant soil types in the state converge: limestone and sandstone. It was one of the main reasons lawmakers in Princeton advocated for a research center to be established there in the early 1900s.

“It's amazing,” Sisk said. “They're able to study both of those things. And it's been incredibly important to us.”

He said the potential loss of the center would be a “big hit” for himself and other farmers, helping with techniques for irrigation and types of fertilizer. But when he was helping move debris, he came across pieces of roof and family mementos scattered among the center, a reminder of what other families had lost in the region.

Liam Niemeyer
Some of the hundreds of cows that survived the December tornado at the research center.

Four people died in Caldwell County, 11 people were injured and neighborhoods were destroyed near the Princeton Golf Club.

“What happened [to] UK is a huge thing. It's incredibly expensive, it was a big area, all the buildings gone, it was very overwhelming to look at,” Sisk said. “But it wasn't anybody's life.”

Lloyd Murdock, whose research in Princeton has focused on rowcrops, first arrived at the research center around 1970. The 80-year-old remembers being crowded in one office with multiple coworkers with little equipment to work with, but he said he at least had those colleagues to bounce ideas off of. As his connections with local farmers and fellow researchers deepened, he decided to stay in Princeton and raise a family.

“This is a good place to work. Western Kentucky has got good agriculture, it's got good diversity. They got good people that believe in agriculture,” Murdock said. “Most of us just stayed because it worked out so well. And the people were so good.”

He’s seen the center grow into what it was before the tornado because local farmers believed in the work they were doing, only for the tornado to wipe away the decades of progress.

Murdock is anxious to see his colleagues to be brought together again to continue their research and collaboration, but he knows the journey ahead won’t be simple.

“A lot of people are discouraged now because it's been six months, and they don't see a lot of improvement,” Murdock said. “I have no question that it will come back. It's just been too important in the past, and I don't think people are gonna allow it not to come back.”

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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