Quarles briefs Danville Rotary on state ag issues

Published 8:47 am Monday, February 26, 2018

Kentucky’s Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles paid a visit to Boyle County Friday to speak at the Danville Rotary’s weekly luncheon, held at the Danville Country Club.

Quarles praised Kentucky for its strong agricultural sector — a $45 billion industry that represents “roughly one-fourth of the economy.”

Quarles said Kentucky has many small farms and family farmers thanks to its history of raising tobacco, which was a crop that could bring enough revenue from only a few acres to support a family.

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Quarles asked how many in the room had grown tobacco or worked in tobacco earlier in their life, and a dozen or more hands went up. He then asked how many now grow or work in tobacco and all the hands went down.

Ben Kleppinger/ben.kleppinger@amnews.com
Ryan Quarles, left, shakes hands with Danville Rotary member Doug Cox.

“What you just saw visually is why Kentucky agriculture had no choice but to change and diversify over the past 20 years,” Quarles said. “… What’s happened is we’ve had a renaissance period … we have a lot of diversity here and that’s something that when I talk to my counterparts in the midwest — they simply don’t have that. Their entire ag economy is based on three or four crops. Here in Kentucky, we embrace diversity, we have variety.” 

Quarles also brief Rotary members on some of the agriculture projects he and others in the state are working on, including:

• Industrial hemp: Quarles said industrial hemp is a cash crop that has the potential to benefit a lot of farmers.

“It’s crop that Kentucky has a long history in. I’m proud to say that this year, we have approved over 12,000 acres of industrial hemp,” he said. “We have about 240 farmers or so that have passed their background checks and will be farming it this year and we have 57 businesses who are investing right here in Kentucky and turning that industrial hemp into an intermediate or final product. So this is a crop that I think has a bright future and only time will tell where it goes.”

Quarles said kenaf is another fibrous crop that can be used similarly to hemp but has none of the legal concerns that hemp has.

• Hops for beer and corn for bourbon: Quarles said hops is “a crop that Kentucky used to grow a lot of until a little thing called prohibition.”

It has enormous potential to grow as a crop in Kentucky because of the explosion in the number of craft breweries nationwide in recent years, he said.

“Like tobacco, you don’t need a lot of plants. You need expertise in the crop,” he said. “… Last year, 2017, for the first time in our state’s history, we released a Kentucky Proud craft beer using Kentucky-grown hops.”

Quarles said he is also advocating for more use of Kentucky-grown corn in Kentucky bourbon whiskey. The percentage of Kentucky corn in Kentucky bourbon is up 65 percent in the past two years, he said.

That’s important because bourbon is growing in popularity, he said.

“An important part of my job is connecting Kentucky farmers with emerging markets,” he said.

• Kentucky Proud beef: Quarles said even though Kentucky farmers raise a lot of cattle, traditionally the cattle are shipped off to the midwest for processing. He would like to see more of that stay here in Kentucky. To accomplish that, he’s hoping a pilot program for Kentucky Proud ground beef will take off.

“For the past 18 months, I’ve been in negotiations with Kroger and the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association, and next month — knock on wood — we will be unveiling a 100-percent Kentucky Proud ground beef product into Kroger grocery stores,” he said. “… This could actually open the door for international trade, it could open the door for other grocery stores. And this could put enough critical mass in place to attract investment to hopefully have al are processing facility right here in Kentucky in a couple years.

“This is something I’m very excited about and it could be one of the biggest things we accomplish in 2018.”