Farmers Grow Rye to Advance Regenerative Agriculture and Support Kentucky Bourbon

When people think of Kentucky, many things may come to mind: horse racing and fancy hats, large buckets of fried chicken, or even Kentucky bourbon!


Kentucky has a long and rich history of bourbon production, giving the state its claim to fame as the world’s bourbon capital. Bourbon is an agricultural product at its core, relying on high quality wood, water, and grain to develop the tasty spirit. Cereal rye, a key flavoring ingredient of bourbon was once widely cultivated by Kentucky farmers to support the local industry. Over the past several decades, however, production has decreased substantially to make room for newer programs incentivizing corn and soybean production.


The Kentucky Commercial Rye Cover Crop Initiative, a unique partnership of farmers, conservation advocates, and bourbon distillers, is working to bring cereal rye production back to Kentucky as a commercial cover crop. The partnership has a two-fold mission: to increase production of Kentucky bourbon that uses Kentucky-grown cereal rye, rather than importing the grain from Canada and Europe, and advancing regenerative agricultural practices that improve regional soil and water quality and show farmers the benefits of crop diversification.


Cereal rye field in Kentucky


The Illinois Cover Crop On-Farm Network (ICCON) was recently joined by Scott Franklin, Southeast Regenerative Agriculture Program Manager with American Farmland Trust (AFT), and coordinator of AFT’s work in the Kentucky Commercial Rye Cover Crop Initiative. Franklin shared his insights into the program’s structure, his experience working with farmers and distillers in Kentucky, and what other regions may learn from the Initiative’s success.


The Initiative is a 3-year, fully funded program working with 60 farms across 4,500 acres in Kentucky. Farmers enrolled in the program receive a payment of $550 per acre on up to 25 acres of their farm, a price which is much higher than the average $30 – $60 per acre payment that many conservation programs offer. The project pays farmers a market premium based on historic wheat market prices in Kentucky, but Franklin did acknowledge that wheat prices are currently at an all-time high due to international supply chain and geopolitical issues associated with the war in Ukraine.


Farmers have predominantly planted KWS modern hybrid varietals like Serafino, Bono, and Tayo, which have been successful and offered higher yield potential than other population cereal rye varietals. The program works with farmers to provide technical assistance on managing cereal rye as a commercial crop while collaborating with partners to ensure a robust marketplace is available for farmers to access.


Cereal rye harvest in Kentucky


There are 75 distillers in Kentucky who alone produce 90% of the world’s bourbon. How much of that bourbon is being produced from Kentucky-grown rye? Estimates of the entire Kentucky market demand are a bit unclear, ranging between 50 thousand and half a million acres. Although the exact market size is not clear, there are increased opportunities for Kentucky-grown rye to continue to expand, and the Initiative partners are exploring how these opportunities can be applied to other small grains as well.


ICCON members discussed what potential may exist for expanding markets in Illinois, recognizing the need to increase demand beyond the few distilleries who work directly with farmers to source their grain. Another major hurdle that was identified is crop insurance policies which consider a farmer’s first crop to be the cash crop – the crop that is insured. A recent announcement by the Biden-Harris administration may address this barrier by increasing the number of counties eligible for insurance on double-cropped acres.  Changes to crop insurance and other federal policy provide opportunities to better support more regenerative farming practices.


To learn more about the program and stay up to date on their progress, visit the Kentucky Commercial Rye Cover Crop Initiative webpage. If you are interested in getting in contact with Scott Franklin, he can be reached at or (502) 272-0726.


If you are interested in joining the Illinois Cover Crop On-Farm Network to learn about new research and hear from cover crop specialists across the Midwest, you can register for our monthly calls or join our google group by sending an email to

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ISAP Coordinator