Quarles says ag industry doing much to help situation during virus pandemic, including an attempt to create plant-derived vaccines
Published 5:30 pm Tuesday, April 7, 2020
‘Much more than cows, plows and sows’
Ryan Quarles says COVID-19 has caused Kentuckians to get back in touch with their agricultural roots. Kentucky’s commissioner of agriculture took a few minutes Tuesday to talk about how the industry is dealing with the new restrictions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
And where getting back to our agricultural roots is concerned, Quarles says, is “not just at grocery stores, but we’re seeing them learn how to cook again, which means there’s an opportunity for local agriculture, including CSAs and farmers markets.”
CSAs, markets following guidelines
During the month of April, many will sign up for different CSA programs — which stands for community supported agriculture — where consumers can pick and choose from various products to be delivered to a centralized location and picked up by those who subscribe.
Locally, consumers may sign up for the program run through Boyle County Extension, the Wilderness Trail Farm Share, by going to its Facebook page.
“In many cases, it’s enough food to last the whole week — fresh vegetables, meats, eggs and more,” he says. The programs have been around for quite some time, but the Department of Ag predicts it will be useful now more than ever, Quarles says, with the new social-distancing guidelines through the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
“And for anyone who’s not familiar with these programs, they can join the CSA Virtual Community Supported Agriculture Fair,” he says, which will happen beginning April 16, running through April 30. He says it’s a great way for consumers to learn the basics about what they can take advantage of from their local farmers.
Most CSAs, like the local one, offer food which ranges in variety, Quarles says, with quite a few options in order to customize their regular purchases through subscriptions. “The fair will let consumers know what they can find … some may focus on green beans, tomatoes and potatoes, some have eggs and fresh beef. Joining in on the fair gives them an opportunity for people to interact with each other, and gives a list of farmers involved around the state.”
And through the pandemic, Quarles says, “We’ve fought tooth and nail to keep farmers markets open. However, we still must maintain social distancing and follow CDC guidelines, of course.” He says this past weekend, he was happy to see many of them open for business around the state, operating safely.
Another big initiative through the Department of Ag is providing more information to link consumers to Kentucky Proud takeout. “Where Kentuckians can easily locate a restaurant near them that supports the Kentucky Proud label. Our restaurants are hurting right now; they’ve either shut their doors or changed to curbside. This is just another way to support local agriculture as we stay at home.”
This unprecedented time of shutdowns is affecting our farmers just like any other business, Quarles says. “Ag, like other industries, is very concerned about the impacts (from the virus pandemic). However, we are deemed a critical infrastructure industry by the Department of Homeland Security, meaning we are exempt from many of the executive orders that have caused other businesses to close.”
However, Quarles adds that doesn’t mean the industry is exempt from CDC guidelines, like social distancing. They’ve told farmers who hold markets to stay at home if they’re sick.
“But ag is open for business — we work on the seasons; we don’t work on a calendar, like many do.”
Opportunity to shine
Quarles says it’s important to him to make sure people understand that “food doesn’t magically show up at a grocery store. It comes from farms and must be processed. If anything, the COVID pandemic has thrown a bright light on ag, where people are reminded of the importance of the industry that keeps us fed.”
Another issue affecting farmers is the economic impact. He says commodity prices are down, for instance, and beef cattle producers are hurting. “Now, more than ever, consumers can support local agriculture by exploring all the options near them. This is a really tough time for farmers, as well, so please keep them in your prayers, as well as all of the medical heroes out there.”
Since agriculture depends on the production process, Quarles says if there’s an intense increase in demand for, say, beef — “you can’t turn a switch and magically create more. There’s a life cycle involved. People may experience temporary shortages, but our food system is strong. There are no food shortages.”
Quarles says what consumers are experiencing at a grocery store is simply a temporary change in the buying habits of Americans. “However, the long-term effects of COVID are unknown, and this is an opportunity for American agriculture to shine through.”
He says 2 percent of the population feeds this country, “and we export around the world for other countries, too. However, it doesn’t solve supply chain issues we know will occur. Changes are if you ate enriched flour this week, odds are it came from Chinese produced vitamins. There may be some policy changes on focusing on domestic production of the same supplies.”
The same conversations, he says, are being held about medical supplies, for instance, and that may affect domestic agriculture long term.
“There is a chance that the medical treatment which will help the world get out of this pandemic may come from agriculture,” Quarles says. At least two agribusinesses in Kentucky are currently holding FDA clinical trials of Kentucky-grown medical treatments from plants. “Who knows if we’ll solve this problem, but it shows that ag industry is taking a stab at this using biotechnology.”
Quarles points to back in 2014, there was a Kentucky company that produced an Ebola vaccine. “And tobacco is an easy medium to grow enzymes — it’s easy to modify it to grow medications or other desired enzymes to be used for medical treatment … it starts with a seed the size of a grain of salt, and grows very big. We’ll see what happens — again, we don’t know if a solution will come from this, but it’s encouraging to see our ag businesses stepping up to the plate and rising to the challenge.”
Quarles says one of the most interesting things that’s happened during the pandemic is how the agriculture industry has been so generous. “We’ve had restaurants and food distributors donate tractor-trailers full of food to food banks. We’ve seen other areas of ag help keep our school lunch and breakfast programs going, so kids can have access to food while they learn at home.”
Quarles says it’s important that the public realize that agriculture is more than cows, plows and sows. The Department of Agriculture is one of the largest regulatory agencies in the commonwealth, overseeing everything from gas pumps to amusement park rides, he says.
“We’re also trying to get the word out to practice safe hygiene, for instance, at gas stations. And to let consumers know (gas stations) are going out of their way to wipe down gas pumps and handles, screens, buttons and even the door handles. I’ve been impressed with the level of sanitation we’ve seen at gas stations and convenience stores.”
There’s even a series of short videos the department is putting out right now, he says, “reminding people that we are doing our part, so we hope you do your part, too. We’re doing our best to keep things sanitized.”
Recently, the Department of Ag donated N95 masks to medical professionals. Some of its inspection services provided require that personal protection equipment be worn during inspections, “so we were able to take an inventory and donate them.”
Quarles hopes that as we dig our way out of this pandemic, ag will be one of the industries people will have a better appreciation of going forward.
“And don’t forget, it’s planting season in Kentucky, so share the road. Farmers have been practicing social distancing for decades on their own, out in the field. So be your brothers’ keeper, and look out for those moving heavy machinery on the roads.”