By Randy Patrick, Kentucky Standard– Ten years after the tobacco settlement and federal buyout, Kentucky’s farming is becoming more diversified, and Ryan Quarles, the Republican candidate for state commissioner of agriculture, wants to make it even more so.
“I want to aggressively pursue any emerging crop or emerging market. That includes international trade, but it also includes trade right here in the United States,” the candidate said in an interview shown this week on PLG-TV during a visit to Bardstown.
The Kentucky Proud marketing campaign is a “powerful” tool to promote quality food to American consumers, Quarles said.
“There are some high-quality ag products, such as our beef, that I think we can market outside of Kentucky as long as we can say that it was bred here, fed here and processed here,” he said.
Many former tobacco farmers have put more emphasis on their beef production since selling out their burley quotas, and Kentucky has more beef cattle than any state east of the Mississippi River, and the state is becoming known for its beef, just as Florida is known for oranges and Idaho for potatoes, he said.
“Reinvesting in our beef market has yielded great success for Kentucky,” Quarles said. “Because of the reinvestment of ag development money, we are now a leader when it comes to our genetics and breeding program in our beef industry.”
Ag diversification money is also being used to improve efficiency of row crop operations.
With the help of those funds and their own money, farmers have “leveraged over a billion dollars in upgrades and improvements across Kentucky.”
Corn production, Quarles said, is a big industry in this area because of bourbon whiskey.
“It’s important that we encourage our distilleries to buy locally produced grain.”
In fact, he noted, a study by the University of Louisville for the Kentucky Distillers Association shows that 40 percent of grain grown for distilleries in the state comes from the state. For corn, the figure is 50 percent.
“If there is a way to improve that or increase that, I would like to work with industry leaders to make that happen,” he said.
One potential area for a new agricultural product is hemp. Quarles said his grandfather grew the fibrous plant on his family’s farm during World War II.
“I think Kentucky is well-positioned to be a leader if industrial hemp takes off, which I think it will,” he said.
He is not in favor of legal recreational marijuana and thinks it’s important to distinguish that variety of the cannabis plant from hemp, which is grown for its fiber, not its intoxicating flowers.
Other crops Quarles believes offer potential for growth are canola and hops.
“We have a growing craft beer industry in Kentucky, but there are not many hops or other ingredients that could be used to make that beer,” he said.
Quarles has repeatedly criticized the Environmental Protection Agency over its enforcement of the Clean Water Act during his campaign.
“Kentucky farmers are already the most conservation-oriented people you will ever meet. It’s in our best interest to make sure we keep the soil healthy so we can pass that farm down to the next generation,” he said when asked about the issue.
Quarles said the state government should test its own water and continue its involvement in a lawsuit by 27 states over the promulgation of new water quality rules.
“We don’t need bureaucrats on our family farms,” he said.
Quarles, a third-term state representative from Scott County, said his background in agriculture, marketing and government make him the better candidate.
“I think the major qualification for being commissioner of agriculture is having a real farm background,” he said.
The Quarles family has been farming in Kentucky since the 1790s.
The candidate graduated the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky and has a master’s degree in agricultural economics. He said he spent two summers working on Capitol Hill, on the tobacco buyout bill and for the USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service.
He currently serves on the Kentucky House Agriculture Committee and the Tobacco Settlement Oversight Committee.
His Democratic opponent, Jean-Marie Lawson Spann, works in international marketing, and her family has been in the farm equipment business for almost 40 years.
The election is Nov. 4.