FRANKFORT — One of the Kentucky officials the Calloway to the Capitol bus excursion has included on its schedule every year is Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.
Anyone who heard his opening comments last week as he once again addressed a group consisting of several community and business leaders from Murray and Calloway County probably did not have to think too long to understand why.
“Murray and Calloway County is a special place to me. That’s because agriculture is a big, big part of your economy, bigger than it is in many other counties in this state,” said Quarles, who is in the fourth year of his tenure and has filed to run for re-election this year.
“You do it better than just about anyone else.”
And with the increase in attention to hemp, a crop once forgotten in the United States — and with which Calloway County’s biggest economic driver, Murray State University, is heavily involved — that subject did receive heavy attention during his talk. However, he made it clear that another crop, one that was Kentucky’s king crop for many, many years, is not being forgotten — tobacco.
“Tobacco is something that people have a perception of not being a big part of Kentucky agriculture anymore. It’s not true,” he said, acknowledging that the number of farmers producing this crop has significantly dwindled. “At one point, we had 85,000 farmers raising tobacco. Now, we have about 4,000.
“Tobacco is still a $350 million-a-year crop here, though. That’s money that’s going into the pockets of Kentucky farmers.”
Quarles said chicken has become the top commodity for Kentucky agriculture, generating $1.2 billion a year with the potential to increase to $2 billion. He said corn and soybeans are next at $1 billion a year each, then comes wheat $600 million.
Then comes tobacco, which Quarles said is misunderstood.
“You’ve got people like me who raised it while growing up and wound up paying for college because of it or paying off their first cars. And no one in my family smokes or uses the product,” he said. “So I’ll tell you this; as long as tobacco is a legal product in the United States, we’re going to defend the American tobacco farmer.
“It’s a crop you don’t see grown in too many others places. This is its natural home. Here, it’s unique. It’s not grown in clusters in other parts of the world and it’s still putting food on the table for a lot of folks.”