Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said proposals can be submitted for the Specialty Crop Black Grant program. (Kentucky Today file photo)

FRANKFORT, Ky. As 2023 begins, I’m reminded how blessed I’ve been to serve as your Agriculture Commissioner for the past seven years. With just one more year left in my administration, thank you for allowing me to honor Kentucky’s agricultural past and plan for its future.

I’m hoping 2023 is another successful one for Kentucky farmers. That success sometimes comes in dollars. Cash receipts for Kentucky agricultural products reached an all-time high at $6.9 billion in 2021, with predictions that 2022’s cash receipts could soar to $8 billion. This is just a fraction of the total economic impact agriculture has on Kentucky’s economy – estimated at $49.6 billion a year. It gives you an idea of how the state of Kentucky is still very rich in agriculture. More than half of Kentucky’s acreage is engaged in some sort of agricultural pursuit. We are stronger together.

But, success can also come in accomplishments.

When I was sworn in January 2016, I pledged to run an efficient and transparent department that advocates for Kentucky’s agriculture industry. As the youngest statewide elected official in the nation at the time, I had a lot of eyes on me and my administration. I was determined to accomplish what I set out to do.

One of my first acts was to look at hunger. In Kentucky, one in eight people, including one in six children, lack consistent access to enough food for a healthy, active lifestyle. I, along with a task force, began the Kentucky Hunger Initiative, a first-of-its-kind effort in Kentucky to bring together farmers, charitable organizations, faith groups, community leaders, and government entities to begin a dialogue to reduce hunger in Kentucky.

Through the Hunger Initiative, we’ve focused on resources for food insecure individuals. Donations of freezers, refrigerators, beef, sausage, venison, eggs … and yes, even candy, were made to agencies serving those in need. Since its inception, the Hunger Initiative has raised more than $36 million through collaborative partnerships between the public and private sectors.

My administration also looked at innovative ways to help those in need. I supported a bill that allows instructional time in the classroom to go toward breakfast for our schoolchildren. It’s hard to learn on an empty stomach.

We partnered with Kentucky Farm Bureau Insurance for the Clays for a Cause fundraising event. With Farm Bureau underwriting 100 percent of the expenses, all money raised – more than $1 million in its four-year run – was designated to support the Hunger Initiative.

We also began the Servings Up Solutions annual fundraising dinner. Since its beginning in 2018, we’ve raised more than $100,000 for agencies whose purpose is to protect those who are food insecure. The last dinner for my tenure is set for Feb. 8.

Another focus for my administration was farmer safety. At the beginning of my tenure, KDA signed an agreement with Kentucky Community and Technical College System/Kentucky Fire Commission to promote farm safety. Our farm safety program has traveled the state and the nation training farmers and rescuers in safety precautions to prevent tragedy on the farm. Today, states from across the nation contact us asking about our program seeking help on starting one of their own. It’s a world-class operation that we know has saved lives.

In addition to physical safety, we focused on the mental strains of farming on the individual. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture teamed up with state universities, and the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services to launch Raising Hope. With funds appropriated through the General Assembly and a USDA grant, Raising Hope works with farmers and their families to promote their wellbeing – mental and physical. 

Farmers’ mental and physical health should be top of mind for the entire state. I’ve traveled throughout the state highlighting the impact agriculture creates in our everyday lives. My travels promoting Kentucky agriculture have also taken me across the ocean. Last year, I participated in two USDA-sponsored trade missions. Developing markets for Kentucky farm families is an essential responsibility of mine as Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner. In 2021, Kentucky’s total agricultural and related product exports amounted to more than $1.1 billion. My goal is to increase that for the betterment of farmers and the state.

Part of that betterment also means focusing on the future of agriculture. During my tenure, voluntary donations to the Ag Tag program, money generated when farm tag owners renewed their vehicle license, have brought in more than $4.3 million. The donations are equally divided among Kentucky 4-H, Kentucky FFA, and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) for youth development and promotional programs. We’ve also given away thousands for students athletes in the annual Ag Athlete of the Year scholarship program.

We saw the addition of the Kentucky Office of Agricultural Policy, the agency responsible for the administration of the boards the provide grants and loans from Kentucky’s tobacco settlement, into the KDA.

While that was definitely a win, we’ve also been through some rough patches. A world-wide pandemic that threatened to shut down family-owned small businesses. I went to the mat fighting to see those businesses remain open when the governor wanted to shut them down. We’ve also witnessed horrific natural weather disasters, such as tornadoes and floods that threatened our agricultural community. But, what I saw most was the resiliency of Kentucky’s farmers and the willingness of neighbors helping neighbors.

As I begin my last year as agriculture commissioner, there are a few things I want to accomplish. First is finding workable solutions to Kentucky’s large animal vet shortage. We’ve begun the discussions and I’m praying we find the right answer. Our vets are our first eyes and ears out there protecting the health of our herds and flocks.

I am also looking forward to working with others to develop plans to renovate the Kentucky Exposition Center. We need to maintain Kentucky’s leader status as host of major agricultural shows. Renovations to the Expo Center will go a long way to making sure that happens.

Lastly, I want to continue the Department’s work on the hunger crisis. Latest numbers show there are as many people today using the food banks as when protocols around COVID-19 put people out of work. Helping our fellow neighbors get the food they need to maintain a healthy and happy life should be top of mind for all of us. The crisis won’t go away on it’s on, it’s going to take all of our work to help the food insecure.