Kentucky is one of 12 states that holds elections for agriculture commissioner, which facilitates and promotes the state’s $5.9 billion agriculture industry that has more than 75,000 workers.
Kentucky’s commissioner of agriculture in many ways is a marketer and advocate for the various agricultural organizations and associations in the state. The department also helps farmers and businesses grow various crops, monitors the needs and health of agriculture in the state, regulates hemp growing licenses and even inspects 60,000 gas pumps across the state.
The Kentucky Constitution requires a commissioner to be at least 30 years old and a state resident for at least two years. A commissioner is elected to a four-year term, limited to serving two terms.
Incumbent Republican Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles is a native of Georgetown, Kentucky. He says he is seeking reelection to expand the Kentucky Proud program, which markets locally-grown produce, livestock, and other products. Quarles also points to the expansion of the state’s hemp pilot program under his watch, a program first established under the previous commissioner, now-Congressman James Comer.
Quarles, who is 36, has a long academic and political resume. He completed three undergraduate, two master’s degrees and a law degree at the University of Kentucky. He holds a master’s degree in higher education from Harvard University, and completed a doctorate in education at Vanderbilt University.
Quarles previously served as a state representative from 2010 until 2015, representing Owen and Scott counties.
Quarles’ Democratic challenger is Robert Conway, who is also a native of Georgetown. Conway is also a University of Kentucky graduate and an eighth-generation farmer from Scott County. He currently serves as an operation manager for freight company C&S Transportation and served 12 years on the Scott County Board of Education. This is his first time running for state office. Conway defeated Joe Trigg in this year’s Democratic primary to advance to the general election.
Conway says he wants to save farms from bankruptcy amid a downturn in commodity prices, partially influenced by the ongoing international trade war. He has repeatedly claimed Kentucky has lost thousands of farms in the past decade.
He’s also a supporter of continued hemp cultivation and for legalizing medical marijuana, which he says could help people deal with pain and medical issues. If medical marijuana is legalized, he said he would allow each licensed farm operation to grow up to one acre of marijuana. Conway said that acre would generate “up to $40,000” for each individual farmer.
Kentuckians also have a third option for commissioner in Libertarian candidate Joshua Gilpin. Gilpin is from Graves County in far west Kentucky. His social media profile says he’s the Chairman of the Libertarian Party of Graves County. In a Youtube video at the annual Fancy Farm picnic and political forum in 2017, Gilpin said he wanted to reduce the regulations controlling hemp cultivation.
Gilpin did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. Here are Quarles’ and Conway’s responses, which have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why are you running for agriculture commissioner?
“I have a proven track record. I’m a known entity. And also believe that during my administration, we have run a very inclusive administration. Where there’s a seat at the table big enough for everybody. I also believe that I’m the strongest candidate for this office because I grew up on a Kentucky farm. My family continues to farm today. It’s the primary source of income for my family growing up and continues to be so for my dad, and that separates myself from the competition. I also have a strong working relationship with the Trump administration. Something that I know for a fact the other two will not have this point, and also have a good track record with Kentucky General Assembly. We’ve passed over 20 bills since being in office, some of which were quite complex. And I had the leadership skills already in place to build consensus. They get Kentucky’s laws passed that are pro agriculture.”
Robert Haley Conway
“I want to truly promote a culture in the state. Now, we’re promoting agriculture but we’re not doing anything to make agriculture successful or to make it beneficial to the farmers right now. We’re losing roughly 1,000 farms here in the state of Kentucky and that’s not all due to urban encroachment that a lot of that has to do with people just cannot financially make it on the farm. And I think it’s one thing to run around and do photo opportunities and tell everybody how great farming is. But if you don’t find the root cause of why we’re not successful, then we’re going to continue to show the same result.”
What separates you from the other candidates?
“Having a farm background is absolutely essential to being Commissioner of Agriculture. That’s why I’m so proud that I had the privilege of growing up on a family farm. I grew my own crops in high school, making $1 an hour and I was working for my dad. Paid for my first car, paid for college. By working on the farm, I’ve got plenty of memories, working on holidays growing up, and knowing for a fact that my family’s been farming in Kentucky since the 1780s. And that’s a tradition and heritage that I continue to rely upon while serving in office. And as Commissioner, I’m so busy, I work seven days a week, I try my best to get back out in the farm when I can but the strengths of the job and the advocacy that’s needed right now keep me busy, by going out on other people’s farms, putting the tailgate down and having those one on one conversations with their farmers. I’m proud of the farm upbringing that I had. I know the difference between a soybean and a green bean and that those are the sorts of memories that I have that continue to put me in the right direction as Commissioner of Agriculture.”
Robert Haley Conway
“Well, I think one of the things that separates me is that I am a total supporter of medical marijuana and he is on record of saying that he would follow the lead of the state legislature, which to me is really not a position at all. I totally support the legalization of medical marijuana. I don’t know why you would not want to do something that would make life a little bit easier, more tolerable for an individual because to me, that is political when it gets approved coming out of committee 17 to 1, which is a committee comprised of Democrats and Republicans, but the Republican leaders refuse to bring it to the floor for a vote that makes it political. And to be very honest about it, I think is too damn important to be political. It should be a moral implication. And I think you should take care of people that need help.”
Do you support the Trump Administration’s tactics of using tariffs to negotiate a trade deal with China? Why or why not?
“The Trump administration continues to be an aggressive advocate for rural America. What we want is a fair trade deal. China’s one of 200 or so countries, they obviously are a big buyer of Kentucky agricultural goods. But it’s important that we have a trade deal that is fair, one that treats our farmers the same as other farmers around the world. And I think that the Trump administration standing up to the Chinese is admirable, because there’s a lot of things that have been left on the table in the previous administrations that are now being addressed. And one example of that is that when we send a load of soybeans to China, oftentimes they can renege on the contract, or they hold Kentucky farmers to a different standard than other farmers around the world. And so I know that the retaliatory tariffs are affecting the bottom line of Kentucky producers, especially as we go into harvest season, but it’s important to realize that we are making progress in Japan. We are making progress with other countries. And that the best thing that can happen for Kentucky farmers and 2019 is for Congress to ratify the new USMCA agreement with Mexico and Canada. Mexico’s already ratified it. Canada is getting closer. But if we can get that passed, it will demonstrate to China that we can complete trade deals on time, and it will give us an opportunity to help Kentucky farmers in the immediate future.”
Robert Haley Conway
“I think there’s ways to go about it, other than trying to feed your ego. Right now the federal government is paying billions of dollars to farmers — basically your bigger farmers, not your smaller ones that are truly at risk — because of the situation created by the tariffs. Here’s the thing, they [China] have already found some places other than us to supply their need for soybeans and corn. So even if there’s an agreement, chances are in order for us to get our foot back in the door, then we’re going to have to become competitive. So chances are, you’re going to have to renegotiate those price structures, which means the rates are going to drop, which means at the end of the day will not be a great deal for us.”
How should the state continue to support a sustainable future for hemp?
“I think Kentucky is establishing itself as a hemp hub. And because of that we will have a long term sustainable future with this crop. We do know there’s risk in the market and every speech I give and every orientation that our processors and growers sit through, talk about the financial risk of a crop that still has its market development that’s ongoing, and so we felt like we’d been responsible for bringing this crop back. We are currently advising the USDA and other federal agencies in a learning mode as well as 30-plus other states continue to contact Kentucky to get advice on how to grow and develop a hemp framework. I think that this will end up being a crop that farmers can put in rotation on their farm. I think it’s a crop that some farmers may decide is not for them. But right now in 2019, we’re going to continue to be the tip of the spear on hemp innovation. And the numbers speak for themselves. And we’ll talk about over 500 full time jobs, over $100 million in expected sales in 2019.”
Robert Haley Conway:
“I’m proposing a plan that we go to the old fashioned tobacco base-type program where every farm that has a farm number in the state of Kentucky it is considered a legitimate farm has within their ability to have a base assigned to their property. The difference is that you would not be able to take across county lines, you could not sell it if you do not grow it it just isn’t grown. That way everybody gets to share a piece of the pie and that would benefit eastern Kentucky which as we all know, needs desperate help in that area. The other thing is medical marijuana. If we do the legalization of medical marijuana, our proposal is that every farm — I don’t care who you’re related to, how much money you got, how big your farm is — but every farm in the state of Kentucky would get to grow and equivalent of one acre.”
What do you consider the future of agriculture in Appalachia to be?
“Agriculture in Appalachia is already bright. Some of the best food I eat, some of the best cultural practices that identify who we are as Kentuckians come from eastern Kentucky. That’s why I was so proud just a few weeks ago at the store initiative to span Appalachia proud to have a footprint with eastern Kentucky when it comes to defining SOAR [Shaping Our Appalachian Region] and ARC [Appalachian Regional Commission] counties. Eastern Kentucky is also a primary source of hardwood, including white oak for our bourbon industry which is required by law. We’re also having conversations about the establishment of high tech greenhouses, one of which is app harvest. We have four large scale greenhouses either being built or under construction are open right now in Kentucky. A lot of them are locating in eastern Kentucky. Another thing that we’re trying to do to support our friends in Appalachia is to continue to let producers know there’s grants available for high tunnels for farmer market upgrades. And also we’ve been working closely with Congressman Hal Rogers’ office with implementation of 2018 Farm Bill to make sure that Appalachia is getting access to rural development grants and loans to help improve broadband internet to help make sure that the ag development board makes investments in eastern Kentucky, such as the Chop Shop which is processing all of our Kentucky Proud beef right now. And so as we continue into the second term we’ll continue to have an emphasis on eastern Kentucky and we’re proud of the process we’ve made with Appalachia Proud.”
Robert Haley Conway:
“The era of major corporations such as coal companies coming in and taking the wealth, and taking the resources and leaving abject poverty are behind. I think in eastern Kentucky we’ve done a really good job in the last 20 years, there’s better roads up there — and we still can do more, we can do better — but we have roads up there now. So it’s not an area that’s not accessible. You know, we’ve got the infrastructure, if we put it in place like one of the things we desperately need throughout the state. I live four miles outside of the fastest growing town in Kentucky and I do not have the internet. I want you to think about that. I live four miles outside of Georgetown and I do not have the internet. And I’ve looked at everybody. Unless I want to go get a hotspot or something, that’s not what I want. I want Spectrum. Spectrum goes right past the house but we do not have the internet in Scott County. AT&T won’t service it. And until we can get things like that we’re not moving into the 21st century. So that’s all part of it, that’s part of our ag plan. We have to have the internet, we have to have the infrastructure in place to be able to do things.”