Photo of father and son swimming

Nick Farmer and his 4-year-old son, Aldo, named after the famous environmentalist Aldo Leopold, enjoy cooling off in Beaver Creek after a long day of mowing hay. Farmer, whose family has been in the tobacco business for more than 200 years, is slowly transitioning to hemp farming because it is a hardier — and potentially more lucrative — crop than tobacco. Tobacco farmers in the area were hard hit in 2018 by an unusual amount of rainfall, which destroyed almost threequarters of their crop.

Where tobacco is king

Seeking opportunity in rural Kentucky

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PHOTOS BY MICHAEL SWENSEN

In this corner of rural Postindustrial America, where tobacco farming has been the main economic driver for decades, residents face challenges including joblessness, addiction, and the effects of climate change. Sometimes, the despair is on gruesome display.

Eliah Gross, a 22-year-old Cynthiana, Kentucky, resident, is looking for work in a place with few prospects. Though there are two: One of the area’s largest employers is the Kentucky’s Best tobacco plant, and there is a 3M facility that produces the ubiquitous Post-it Notes.

But it’s not all hardship and suffering in Cynthiana, a small town in northern Kentucky’s Harrison County.

But it’s not all hardship and suffering in Cynthiana, a small town in northern Kentucky’s Harrison County.

Michael Swensen was born and raised outside of Pittsburgh, but he fell in love with small-town America when he moved to Athens, Ohio, and then Cynthiana, Kentucky. He aims to document the resilience of Appalachian communities beyond the dominant narratives..

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