• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Agriculture vital to Kentucky’s economy, Quarles says

RYAN QUARLES, state commissioner of agriculture, pictured with Elizabeth and Cole Vanzant, came to Woodford County in February 2017 to promote voluntary donations to the Ag Tag fund, which supports 4-H and FFA youth development programs in Kentucky. (File Photo by Bob Vlach)

Agriculture remains “a major driver to the local economy” in Central Kentucky and across the state, according to Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles. He said agriculture has a $45 billion economic impact on the state annually. “And in Central Kentucky,” said Quarles during a recent telephone interview, “we have signature industries such as the equine industry and bourbon industry, which not only create jobs, but put Kentucky on the map internationally.” The state’s bourbon industry purchases 15 to 20 million bushels of corn – generating $60 million in direct farm receipts, said Quarles. He said it’s important to remind people across Kentucky of this important role that agriculture continues to play in the greater economy. And he described the Kentucky Proud marketing effort as an opportunity for the state to become known nationally – and perhaps internationally – for high-quality agriculture products. “…we have a lot of things going for us that other states don’t have,” said Quarles. And he said Woodford County has several advantages that other counties in Kentucky don’t in terms of growing and broadening its agriculture economy. “You have very established, high-quality agricultural pursuits such as Woodford Reserve … also, American Pharoah – perhaps Kentucky’s most famous athlete (and a Triple Crown winner) – resides in your county” at Ashford Stud, Quarles said. Woodford County’s residents, as well as its state and local leaders, also have a tremendous respect for the agricultural community and an understanding of the economic impact of agriculture, he added. Having grown up on a family farm in Scott County, Quarles pointed out that an agricultural development fund has been used to reinvest over $1 billion to diversify the agriculture economy as the state moved away from tobacco to other crops. “Kentucky has diversified itself to the point where we can grow everything from apples to zucchini and everything in between,” said Quarles. He described Kentucky as having “more diversity and variety than just about any other state.” Because of that diversity and small-farm traits established during the tobacco-growing era, “we still are a family farm commonwealth,” with 95 percent of Kentucky’s 76,000 farms owned and operated by families, Quarles said. Also, he said Kentucky boasts more than 500 agri-tourism sites, which bring families here to visit horse farms, distilleries and wineries, while also having on-farm experiences to learn about their food and why agriculture matters. “If you like to eat, you’re part of the agricultural economy,” said Quarles. A recent series of meetings with the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers sponsored by the state Department of Agriculture focused on the links between manufacturing and agriculture as a potential incubator for new businesses, said Quarles. He cited investments in agri-businesses in the Louisville-area as an example of how agriculture can become more than crop production and raising livestock. Continued interest in locating large-scale greenhouses in Kentucky offers one example of how the state can take advantage of its solid agriculture workforce and its role as a distribution hub for agriculture products, Quarles said. “And that’s something that we’re going to be leading the nation on.” Kentucky’s high-quality agricultural research has become internationally known, according to Quarles. “No-till corn was invented in Kentucky (where the first commercial crop was grown), which changed the way (farmers) produce corn around the world – right here in our state.” Tobacco plants in Kentucky were also used for an Ebola virus vaccine, Quarles pointed out. And he said efforts led by the state Department of Agriculture continue to investigate “a portfolio of new crops,” including industrial hemp and hops. “It’s my goal to connect farmers with existing markets such as the exploding craft beer industry,” Quarles said. He said a $50,000 research grant will investigate the viability of hops production in Kentucky. Asked about the challenges of large-scale hemp production and establishing markets for its many value-added products, Quarles said, “We’re still researching the agri-nomic viability of the crop – its profitability. “There seems to be no lack of enthusiasm about discovering the … applied uses of hemp” for manufacturing a variety of products. “…And I would love to coordinate our hemp industry with our automotive industry.” Light-weight natural fibers from hemp plants would support auto industry efforts to improve fuel-efficiency, he added. With the average age of Kentucky’s farmers near retirement age, Quarles said, “We have to do a better job of inspiring the next generation of agricultural leaders. And that’s one reason why the Department of Agriculture strongly supports 4-H and FFA” youth development programs. Looking to the future, Quarles said it’s important to get a federal farm bill passed with policies that benefit Kentucky agriculture, while also making sure that farmers in the state do not get overlooked in terms of international trade. “So there are a lot of opportunities we need to explore over the next few years,” he said.

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