Chamber breakfast

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles speaks to Murray-Calloway County Chamber of Commerce members Wednesday during a virtual meeting on Zoom.

MURRAY – Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles talked about a variety of topics during Wednesday’s virtual Murray-Calloway County Chamber of Commerce Business@Breakfast, including how the ag industry fared during the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity and the Kentucky Proud program.

During the Zoom meeting attended by chamber members, Quarles said he wished he could be in Calloway County in person and treasures his honorary degree from Murray State University, as well as his friendships with Hutson School of Agriculture Dean Tony Brannon and Sharon Furches with Furches Farms, whom he said was like a “second mom” to him.

“Agriculture has a special place in west Kentucky,” Quarles said. “When we look at our farm cash receipts, which are about $6 billion a year that go into the back pockets of our farmers, west Kentucky outperforms the rest of this state because you’re so heavily dependent on what’s going on in the fields. And just to pull a few statistics on Calloway County, you have 710 farms just in the county, and you’re farming 135,000 acres. Just to put that into perspective – 135,000 tillable or workable acres – sometimes you have to take two or three other counties combined to get the same sort of acreage. 

“And the other neat thing is that the number of women who are producers in Kentucky is very high; 35% of our farmers are women, and 10% of all our farmers wore a uniform for the military before they return to the field, so we’ve got a very diverse workforce.”

Quarles said that while 2020 was a tough year for many industries, the agriculture industry has already been “social distancing in the fields for decades long before it was required,” and the year saw a lot of record-high yields across the state. He said 2021 was already on pace to be another great planting year.

“Speaking of COVID, if there’s one silver lining that I could pull from what happened last year, it’s this: that because so many folks had to press the pause button on their daily routines, a lot of folks, including myself, spent a little bit more time in the kitchen and folks learned to reconnect with local agriculture,” he said. “Our Kentucky Proud sales had a phenomenal year in 2020 as many Kentuckians went to the grocery store, or hopefully went to a farmers’ market for the very first time – and yes, I can say that Calloway County has one of the best farmers’ markets in Kentucky. We have 160-plus farmers’ markets that are open for business, so please support your taste buds buying local as well.”

Quarles said that as students had to transition to learning at home last spring, it was fortunate that the Department of Agriculture was able to get a critical waiver from the federal government to allow schools to legally pass out free lunches and breakfasts to families. He said food insecurity is a major issue in Kentucky, so he was proud to one of the first states to make that move after the pandemic began. 

“As you all probably could guess, if a kid and student has an empty stomach, the last thing they want to do is learn, so it really affects career trajectories and where folks are going to end up in life, so I’m so appreciative of our school systems being able to do that and position and pivot,” he said.

Quarles said the Kentucky Hunger Initiative also played a huge role in providing food for people who lost their jobs after so many businesses shut down at the beginning of the pandemic. He said that before the pandemic, one in seven Kentucky adults and one in five K-12 students were food insecure. Now, he said, those statistics have risen to one in five adults and one in four K-12 students, leading to a 30% increase in Kentuckians relying on food banks – many for the first time – since the start of the pandemic. He encouraged people to donate $25 at during a statewide fundraiser.

Quarles said the pandemic also redefined the word “essential,” shining a new light on the importance of agriculture workers. Workers were mostly exempt from restrictions from executive orders and some policy makers had to be educated on the fact that farms cannot follow an arbitrary schedule when it comes to planting and harvesting.

Kentucky has 76,000 farms and over 200,000 agriculture-related jobs, Quarles said. He said manufacturing is the only industry in the state that employs more people than agriculture, and the industry is responsible for $46 billion of economic activity in the commonwealth, amounting to about 20% of the state’s economy.

Quarles said the Kentucky Proud program, launched by former Agriculture Commissioner Billy Ray Smith two decades ago, has been the most successful marketing campaign in the state’s history. He said it is a gold standard for local agriculture marketing, and 30 states have met with Kentucky officials to discuss it so they can model their own state programs after it.

“It’s a simple program: use tobacco settlement money to diversify ag and help promote anything that comes off a Kentucky farm process,” he said.

During a question-and-answer session at the end of the talk, Chamber President/CEO Michelle Bundren asked what types of agriculture jobs would be available to young people in the next 10-15 years.

“Great question. The next generation of agriculture jobs are going to be highly-skilled, highly-educated, and quite frankly, we need the next generation to step up to the plate,” Quarles said. “We need the next Elon Musk, the next Thomas Edison to help agriculture out.”

Quarles thanked the business community for its support of local Future Farmers of America (FFA) clubs, saying he would not be where is today without FFA. He said his department’s Ag Tag Program raises nearly $600,000 for FFA programs through county clerks’ offices. FFA students from both Murray and Calloway County high schools watched the virtual breakfast, as did agriculture students from Murray State. Brannon said that although chamber members were not able to gather in person, a group of students were still able to enjoy a breakfast of Kentucky Proud products while watching Quarles’ presentation. The MSU students said they chose Murray-Calloway County Need Line’s Backpack Program as a charity to support this year. Nearly 2,000 items were donated to the program, they said.

Quarles also warned drivers to slow down when around farm equipment on the road.

“Our farmers want to get home to their families just like you do, and some of our equipment is very large, so just have a little patience if you get stuck behind a planter,” he said.

The event was sponsored by Hutson Inc., and Regional Sales Manager Matt Ramage welcomed attendees.