Republican Ryan Quarles wins second term as Kentucky agriculture commissioner

Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles, a Republican farmer from Scott County who campaigned on the successful expansion of Kentucky’s hemp industry during his first term, won reelection Tuesday to another 4-year term.

Quarles defeated Democrat Robert Conway, who is also from Scott County.

In his second term, Quarles told the Herald-Leader he hopes to expand international markets for Kentucky farmers and promote agricultural technology that could make farms more efficient and profitable. Quarles said he would also push for the expansion of broadband Internet access, healthcare and “other issues that affect everyday Kentuckians, not just farmers.”

“We’re honored to be given a chance to continue serving Kentucky,” Quarles said Tuesday night. “We’re going continue to bring Kentuckians together, both rural and urban, Republican and Democrat and everything in between.”

An agriculture commissioner’s duties include promoting the Kentucky Proud Program, inspecting gasoline pumps and boosting rural economies.

Quarles is a 9th generation farmer and holds seven higher education degrees, including three undergraduate and two graduate degrees from the University of Kentucky. He serves on the Agricultural Advisory Team to President Donald Trump, and acted as chairman of the Republican Agriculture Commissioners Committee.

As Kentucky’s commissioner, Quarles founded the Kentucky Hunger Initiative in 2016, an effort to help food-insecure populations throughout the state. More than 662,000 Kentucky residents were considered food insecure in 2017, according to data from the non-profit Feeding America.

The state’s agricultural sector has shifted substantially in recent years, including an aging farming population. Quarles has said he hopes to recruit more young people to the industry.

The average Kentucky farmer is 57 years old, according to the USDA, and while Kentucky has a higher percentage of smaller farms than the nation as a whole, the number of farms between 50 and 500 acres has declined by thousands over the past 20 years. The number of farms over 2,000 acres has continued to rise.

Under Quarles’ administration, the prevalence of hemp production has arguably been the biggest shift.

There were just 32 acres of hemp production in the state three years ago. This year, the state approved more than 42,000 acres, and sales will total more than $100 million.

Still, hemp accounts for less than 1 percent of Kentucky’s farming economy and has yet to overtake tobacco. In 2017, tobacco grew on about 80,000 acres in Kentucky, down from 250,000 in 1997. The number of dairy farms has also dropped significantly, from 1,400 in 2005 to just over 500 at the end of 2018.

“Here in Kentucky, we are making hemp great again,” Quarles said during his acceptance speech Tuesday.

Both Quarles and his Democratic competitor campaigned on expanding the hemp industry even further. Quarles has not endorsed the legalization of medical marijuana, but has said his office would help farmers if the Kentucky legislature approves it.

Commissioner of Agriculture

  • Robert Haley Conway 547,300
  • Josh Gilpin 44,635
  • Ryan F. Quarles 823,801

(100% reporting)

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.
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