FRANKFORT — Although the number of farms in Kentucky has dropped over the past 10 years, farm sales in the state are expected to top $4.7 billion this year — just shy of the $4.8 billion record set in 2008.
Seven men — five Democrats and two Republicans — are vying for the state's top agricultural position on May 17 with hopes of seeing Kentucky's agricultural economy grow even faster.
Richie Farmer, who has been commissioner of agriculture since 2003, cannot seek a third term and is running for lieutenant governor on a ticket with gubernatorial candidate Senate President David Williams in the Republican primary.
B.D. Wilson, a former Montgomery County judge-executive and former commissioner in the Transportation Cabinet, leads a crowded field of Democrats with the most money — more than $144,000, according to his latest campaign finance report. Much of that money has come from county officials and contractors. Wilson has about $28,000 on hand going into the May 17 primary.
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In the Republican race, state Rep. Jamie Comer of Tompkinsville has out-raised Shelby County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger nearly 6-1. Comer's 15-day pre-election report shows he has raised $200,000 compared with Rothenberger's $33,945.
Comer, a cattle farmer who was first elected to the state House in 2000, said Kentucky needs to stimulate rural economies by attracting businesses that process the state's farm products.
The state should use money from the tobacco settlement to entice those industries to Kentucky, which would create jobs and decrease costs for Kentucky producers.
"We are one of the biggest beef cattle states, but we do not have one processing plant in Kentucky," Comer said. "I also want to see more biofuel made from non-corn sources."
Rothenburger, a farmer and former fire chief, said he would be a voice for Kentucky producers with federal regulators.
"The federal government wants to impose unnecessary, burdensome regulations on small farmers," he said.
Rothenburger, in his third term as judge-executive, said he would hold regional monthly meetings with Kentucky producers to ensure that the Department of Agriculture's 300 staffers are meeting the needs of the state's farmers.
Rothenburger also touts his experience managing county budgets and employees.
As a full-time farmer and part-time legislator, Comer said, he understands the plight of the farmer and how government works.
"I think we need an active, informed and accessible commissioner of agriculture," Comer said.
Each of the Democratic candidates for the commissioner's job say the state's top farm official should be an outspoken advocate for farmers and have a vision for growing the state's agricultural community.
"I'm the only Democratic candidate that was also a full-time farmer," said Stewart Gritton, who also worked for 15 years in the Department of Agriculture. "I also have the experience within the department."
Gritton, of Lawrenceburg, stepped down from his position in the department in July to run full-time for the office. "Frankfort farmers need someone to advocate for them on a daily basis whether it be in Frankfort or in the halls of Washington D.C.," he said.
Gritton said he wants to ensure that the department's $29 million budget is being used wisely.
"The number one thing is to get a handle on the budget," Gritton said. "How can we maximize what is allotted to us and live within those bounds?"
John Lackey, a Richmond lawyer and farmer who also served one term in the state Senate in the 1970s, said Richie Farmer has not always been the voice that Kentucky farmers need.
"I would like to see the emphasis on helping the smaller operations, the 200- to 300-acre farmer who is having a very hard time making a living," Lackey said.
He wants to provide incentives to bring canneries to Kentucky and create machinery co-operatives to help farmers who want to farm alfalfa but can't afford the equipment.
Lackey, 69, said his age, experience and education give him an advantage.
"I have a certain willingness to speak candidly and with healthy skepticism about grand decisions and solutions that perhaps my colleagues don't have," Lackey said.
Wilson, who worked in farming and retail before being elected Montgomery County judge-executive in 1994, touts his experience managing budgets and people.
Working with the business community, Wilson said he was able to bring more than 3,000 jobs to the Central Kentucky county during his 14 years as judge-executive.
"I do have a record of experience and proven leadership," he said.
Wilson said he would like to see more year-round farmer's markets and road-side markets. He pledged to work with the University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University, the state's main agricultural schools, to keep Kentucky's agricultural community competitive.
Wilson said he also would support doing away with a sales tax on horse feed and other equine-related supplies. Cattle and other livestock farmers already enjoy a similar sales tax exemption.
Robert "Bob" Farmer, a marketing and public relations executive from Louisville, said that what sets him apart is his business savvy. Bob Farmer, who is the chief spokesman for the Farmers' Almanac, said the commissioner's chief duty is to sell Kentucky farms and Kentucky products.
"You are supposed to be the chief marketing agent for Kentucky," Bob Farmer said. "That's all I've ever done is marketing."
Bob Farmer said a friend joked that he should run for the office several years ago because of his name. But the more Farmer began to look at Kentucky's agriculture industry and the issues it faced, the more intrigued he was.
"This is not about whose the best farmer, it's about what's best for farmers," he said.
He said the state has done "a lousy job" attracting new businesses in the biofuels industry. He also favors using incentives to lure more agricultural processors.
David Lynn Williams, a former Glasgow construction industry worker, could not be reached for comment. Williams is a perennial candidate for public office and has run for governor, agriculture commissioner and a host of other offices in the past. Williams has not actively campaigned and has not filed any campaign finance reports because he did not plan to raise more than $1,000.