Democrats pick a Scott County farmer to take on Quarles for agriculture commissioner

Robert Haley Conway, left, and Ryan Quarles
Robert Haley Conway, left, and Ryan Quarles

Robert Conway, a Scott County farmer who has campaigned for increased hemp production and the legalization of medical marijuana, won the Democratic primary Tuesday for agriculture commissioner.

He will aim to unseat Republican incumbent Ryan Quarles, another Scott County farmer who easily took the Republican nomination against opponent Bill Polyniak.

Conway defeated Glasgow cattle farmer Joe Trigg.

At 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Conway said he was on his tractor plowing rather than watching live election results: “I’ll be honest with you, right now my mind’s still on the back 40.”

The conversation in the general election will likely revolve around hemp, waning tobacco production, and the decline of small farms throughout Kentucky.

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Conway, 63, is an 8th-generation farmer and former 12-year member of the Scott County Board of Education. He is an operations manager for C&S Transportation, and also is the supervisor of the Scott County Soil and Water Conservation Board.

Along with boosting hemp production, Conway has supported the legalization of medical marijuana. Quarles has not voiced support for legalizing medical marijuana.

2016 RFQ Full Headshot
Republican Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles

Both Conway and Quarles have said the state needs to find ways to attract more young people into agriculture. According to the USDA, the average Kentucky farmer is 57 years old.

The state has also seen a decline in the number of small farms.

The number of Kentucky farms between 50 and 500 acres has dropped by the thousands over the past 20 years, while the number of farms over 2,000 acres has continually increased, according to the USDA.

Tobacco’s dramatic decline — from nearly 500 million pounds harvested in 1997 to just 174 million pounds in 2017 — has left some small farmers looking for a new way forward.

“When I was a kid, there were parts of this state you would drive, and farm after farm after farm was either tobacco or dairy, but we have neither now,” Conway said. “So I think it’s time to sit down and really do a cross-examination of what we’ve done, what works and where we need to go from here.”

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Quarles, who has served as Kentucky’s Agriculture Commissioner since 2015 and also served on President Donald Trump’s Agricultural Advisory Team, has said he’s proud of the state’s progress on hemp production since 2014, when the Kentucky Department of Agriculture first launched hemp pilot programs across the state.

Hemp sales jumped more than 300 percent between 2017 and 2018, with a total sale value of $60 million last year.

This year, the state approved hemp cultivation on more than 42,000 acres of land. That’s about half of tobacco’s acreage in 2017.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Quarles told the Herald-Leader earlier this year.

Commissioner of Agriculture


  • Robert Conway 189,161
  • Joe Trigg 124,104


  • Bill Polyniak 39,538
  • Ryan Quarles 182,423

(94% precincts reporting)

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Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service project made possible in Eastern Kentucky with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Based in Pikeville, Wright joined the Herald-Leader in January 2018 and reports on Eastern Kentucky.