Business@Breakfast

Warren Beeler, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Agriculture Policy, speaks at Tuesday’s Business@Breakfast inside the CFSB Center’s Murray Room.

MURRAY — Gov. Matt Bevin’s top agriculture policy official spoke to Murray-Calloway County Chamber of Commerce members Tuesday not only about Kentucky’s rising hemp industry, but about many issues facing today’s farmers.

Bevin appointed Warren Beeler the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Agriculture Policy in 2016. According to his official bio, Beeler is a graduate of Western Kentucky University, where he majored in animal science. Before joining the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, where he worked for 16 years, Beeler served as an agriculture extension specialist at the University of Kentucky, where he helped develop the first on-farm testing program for swine in Kentucky.

Beeler, who lives in Caneyville, said he was a hog farmer for 20 years until the end of 1998. Due to his time at the Department of Agriculture, people often sought his advice, and then Gov. Matt Bevin called him. Beeler said that after meeting with Bevin, Beeler told him he was not a “political guy” and Bevin told that was what he wanted for the position.

“I said, ‘Governor, the thing you have to understand about agriculture is we’re very low-maintenance. You don’t have to do anything for us; just don’t do anything to us,’” Beeler said. “He said to me, ‘Is there anything I can take away?’ Perfect answer.”

Beeler said that before accepting the job, he told Bevin about his concerns about the funds Kentucky was awarded as part of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which came about because of state lawsuits against the major tobacco companies for Medicaid costs related to smoking. According to the Kentucky Attorney General’s website, the historic agreement was between 52 states and territories and the major cigarette companies and was signed by Kentucky in 1998. Kentucky received $102 million in April 2018 and is on pace to collect another $500 million over the next five years, bringing the total for Kentucky to nearly $2.5 billion, the site said. 

Beeler said Kentucky had been smart to split the tobacco settlement funds between agriculture and health care investments.

“We’ve now invested $598 million in agriculture and grown agriculture by $2 billion,” Beeler said. I said, ‘Governor, if you’re going to take this tobacco money and put it into the pensions or the general fund, I don’t want this job. He said, ‘Warren, why would I take the only money in Frankfort that’s making money?’”

Beeler said that despite his years of experience in the industry, he had learned more in the last three years on the job than he had in his entire career. Bevin also appointed Beeler last November to serve as an at-large member of the Kentucky Tobacco Research Board, which formulates policies and procedures and ensures proper expenditure of state funds for the Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center.

Beeler said it is amazing how much agriculture has changed, both in regard to advanced technology and in the types of projects farmers are now doing. He said hemp – one of many projects funded by the tobacco settlement – is one of the more promising crops to come around in a long time. This sentiment was echoed by Tony Brannon, dean of Murray State University’s Hutson School of Agriculture, in his introduction of Beeler. Brannon noted that between the two “foundational” crops of Kentucky – tobacco and hemp – one is on the decline and the other is on the rise.

“We know what’s happened in the tobacco industry in the last 20 years, and unless you’ve been under a rock, you know what’s been happening with the hemp industry since it was made a legal commodity back in December with the 2018 Farm Bill,” Brannon said. “So tobacco has obviously traditionally been strong and it’s paid a lot of bills here in Calloway County. It’s put a lot of money in the bank, it’s filled a lot of homes, it’s bought a lot of vehicles, it’s paid a lot of tuition at Murray State.

“I’ve said for the last 20 years that we’ll never have another crop that will come along that will have the opportunity to replace tobacco. But only a fool never changes their mind. I don’t know how good it’s going to turn out, but (hemp is) the best darn shot we’ve got, so we need to be looking at that.”

Beeler said the agriculture industry is primarily looking at three uses for hemp currently: its seeds, fiber and the chemical known as CBD (cannabidiol). The seeds can make hemp hearts, hemp proteins, and other snack and health foods. Regarding fiber, he said one acre of hemp can produce as much paper as four acres of trees.

“It takes 20 years to grow the trees, it takes 150 days to grow the hemp,” Beeler said. “When we’ve lost 22 million acres of farmland in the last 10 years, it doesn’t make sense (to do it the old way) when we have to produce more with less.”

Beeler said the health benefits of CBD aren’t yet entirely understood, but there seems to be something special about it. As an example, he said his mother-in-law was dying of pancreatic cancer and had been confined to her bed for some time. He said he offered her some CBD to see if it would make her feel any better.

“Three weeks later, she flew to Texas to visit her mother,” Beeler said. “There’s so much out here that God put on this earth for agriculture to find that we haven’t figured out yet.”

Beeler said he loves his job in large part to how agriculture is producing important products in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

“We take good care of the land, we take good care of the water, we take good care of the animals; if you don’t do it that way, you will not farm very long,” Beeler said. “Our problem in agriculture is, we do a great job of farming, but we do a pitiful job of telling people about it. That’s why I give 237 talks (a year). You need to understand, when you think of agriculture, what do you think of? A good ol’ boy with overalls and tobacco juice running down his chin. It’s not like that anymore. It’s so exciting, and we’ve just scratched the surface.” 

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