State Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles says he is so country that “my boots have Kentucky dirt on them.”
His opponent in the Nov. 5 election to select the state’s farm chief for the next four years, Robert Conway, says he is an eighth-generation Kentucky farmer and is the “true farmer” in this race.
Both candidates hail from Scott County. They both know how to drive tractors, house tobacco, milk cows and slop the hogs.
But one, Conway, is a Democrat who says he is worried about the future of Kentucky’s farms and farming families, and the other, Quarles, is a Republican who says he has “a record, vision and work left to be done.”
The agriculture commissioner is responsible for expanding agricultural markets, increasing rural economic development and promoting the Kentucky Proud Program, a marketing program for foods grown in the state. The job pays $124,113 a year.
The state department has 197 employees and an annual budget of about $36.3 million. Kentucky’s farm economy is worth about $5.7 billion, including livestock and crops. Cash receipts for tobacco last year were about $300 million.
Kentucky has 75,966 farms. The average size is 171 acres, compared to the national average of 444. About 66 percent of Kentucky’s farms have annual sales of less than $10,000.
The hottest issue in Kentucky farming today is hemp.
Quarles, who holds seven college degrees, including a law degree and doctorate degree from Vanderbilt University in higher education administration, said hemp is the fastest growing area in Kentucky farming. It now makes up less than 1 percent of the state’s farm economy but is growing.
Hemp sales last year in Kentucky totaled about $60 million, a 300 percent increase over the previous year, said Quarles. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Louisville got a hemp legalization provision included in the 2018 federal farm bill and Kentucky was the first to file a statewide hemp-growing plan.
McConnell this week said, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed hemp regulations for all states in 2020, that hemp this year is growing on more than 26,000 acres in Kentucky and in 101 of its 120 counties.
Last year, the state approved 16,100 acres for hemp. Nearly 1,000 Kentucky farmers will grow hemp this year and more than 120 companies in the state are processing the plant.
Conway, a farmer and operations manager for a transportation company, said he wants to make sure every farmer has the option to have a piece of the hemp pie, not just large farm owners.
He also is for the legalization of medical marijuana.
Quarles said he has helped Kentucky be a national model in handling hemp, saying it has created hundreds of jobs. The incumbent said he has focused more on hemp than medical marijuana but his office would be a resource for it if the legislature should approve it.
Conway spent 12 years on the Scott County Board of Education, including two as its chairman, and is a member of the Scott County Soil and Water Conservation Board. He said he rarely mentions his opponent on the campaign trail.
“I have nothing personal against him but Ryan Quarles is not a true farmer,” said Conway. “I’m in it every day. Ryan is a politician who grew up on a farm and did what his dad told him but really doesn’t know how to farm.”
Quarles dismisses that criticism as “an outright lie.”
“I grew my own crops in high school to pay for my first car and pay for college,” he said. “It’s a slap in the face to farm kids and farmers for him to claim that I’ve never worked a day on the farm.”
He said Conway “watched me grow up farming.”
“And at the end of the day, it’s not about who is the biggest farmer. It’s about who is the best candidate for commissioner of agriculture,” he said.
As the state’s farm chief the last four years, Quarles said he has expanded the Kentucky Proud program and is “an effective advocate” in Frankfort and Washington for rural issues, such as broadband Internet access and food security.
In a second, four-year term, Quarles said, he would like to increase international trade and create a plan to make Kentucky a national hub for agriculture technology that improves crops, makes farms more efficient and boosts profits.
Conway said he would focus on family farms. He said the state is losing about three family farms a day and has about 10,000 fewer farms today than it did 10 years ago.
In campaign dollars, Quarles has a tremendous advantage.
State campaign finance records showed Quarles starting the fall campaign with a balance of $421,197 compared to Conway’s $10,943.
As of Oct. 21, Quarles reported $22,070 in contributions, $411,183 in disbursements and $32,083 on hand. Conway took in $9,755 and spent $10,814, leaving him with a balance of $9,883.
Josh Gilpin of Sedalia is a Libertarian in the race for agriculture commissioner. He is chairman of the Libertarian Party in Graves County. The Kentucky Registry of Election Finance reports he has not raised or spent any money for his campaign.
The Candidates On The Issues
Should Kentucky farmers be concerned about climate change?
Conway: Historic 2019 floods and droughts stressed livestock, crops, and farmers; but Kentucky farmers can lead the way. A 1% increase in soil organic matter holds up to 20,000 gallons more water per acre. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture must incentivize building soil organic matter for resilience to drought and flood.
Quarles: Farm families know agriculture is a weather-dependent business. Contrary to popular perception, they’re the best stewards because they want to pass the family farm on to the next generation. While politicians debate actions to fight a changing climate, the ag community should be praised for our conservation efforts, not attacked.
Should Kentucky legalize medical marijuana and/or recreational marijuana?
Conway: My administration will make legalization of medical marijuana and a quota system of production a legislative priority. This is a moral issue: we can help so many people suffering from ailments, disease, and the opioid epidemic; and for farmers, raising the crop can be a lifeline in a farm crisis.
Quarles: I’m not opposed to medical marijuana. However, we’re focused on hemp, including getting the Food and Drug Administration to partner in recognizing any medical benefits it has. I’ve made Kentucky a top hemp state and created jobs. If the legislature goes that way, we’ll be a resource for them.
How should Kentucky regulate lab-grown meat?
Conway: Lab-grown meat must be labeled and its ingredients fully listed for consumer choice. This issue arises because many are concerned about corporate factory farming. Address the root cause by increasing USDA-certified livestock processing facilities so farmers can raise healthy animals on pastures and directly market their products.
Quarles: The regulation of lab-grown protein is something we’ve led on. This past spring we wrote and passed a law that prohibits lab grown/fake meat from being advertised as “meat.” Consumers deserve transparency on the label and this was a huge win for our cattle producers.