Quarles addresses 2017 Fruit and Vegetable Conference
Commissioner Quarles visits with Jeremy Hinton, former president of the Kentucky State Horticultural Society
Ryan Quarles didn’t make it to the first day of the 2016 Kentucky Fruit and Vegetable Conference on January 4. You see, he was a little busy being sworn in as Kentucky’s new Commissioner of Agriculture that day.
Quarles made up for it in 2017 by being at the conference bright and early on the first day, January 10, to reflect on his first year in office and share some insights on what lies ahead for his department, specifically those related directly to the event attendees.
“Besides consistent income for farmers, I think the biggest issue nationwide is that we have a populace that just doesn’t know how food gets on their dinner table,” Quarles observed. He says his department has taken and will continue to take an aggressive and proactive approach to reminding Kentuckians of their rural and agricultural roots.
“We’re fortunate to come from a state that has deep traditions, a deep history and heritage of roots firmly planted in the common clay of Kentucky,” he said.
Quarles challenged his audience to not just expect government, commodity groups or professional educators to carry the message. He encouraged them to seize the opportunity to tell their story, particularly at venues like farmers’ markets. “You can’t have a sophisticated conversation if people don’t know the difference between a soybean and a green bean,” he quipped.
A priority of his department, Quarles noted, is to take a “deep dive” into the future of Kentucky Proud and how that program can continue to succeed and grow. He cited the program as a priority of the Agriculture Development fund and pledged that efforts would continue to assure that those funds are distributed appropriately and that they have a direct farm impact. “The last economic study I saw said that, for every dollar that is invested in Kentucky Proud, about $2.94 comes back. We want to make sure that if there is room for more efficiencies we’re going to find it and that it really does connect our farmers with our markets.”
A major thrust of the Department of Agriculture since early in Quarles’ administration has been reduction of food insecurity for less fortunate citizens of the Commonwealth. “If we are going to have a public policy position that we need to increase the amount of food that goes into our food banks or goes to our food pantries, that food needs to come from Kentucky farmers,” Quarles said.
Quarles told the group he would like to see programs like Farms to Food Banks become more robust to benefit farmers as well as those who are recipients of the produce. According to the Kentucky Association of Food Banks, Farms to Food Banks provides fresh, healthy produce to Kentuckians in need while reducing losses for farmers. Slightly less than wholesale prices are paid for Kentucky-grown surplus and Number 2 grade produce (perfectly edible but not saleable on the retail market) and distribute it at no cost to struggling Kentuckians through the food bank network.
The commissioner also renewed his pledge to attempt to keep the politics out of agriculture. “We’re already too small a constituency to divide ourselves with partisan politics,” he emphasized.
On the topic of politics, Quarles pointed out that one-quarter of the members of the Kentucky House of Representatives are brand new. He urged producers living in an area under new representation to invite those fresh faces out to the farm or to the farmers’ markets to express to them firsthand what agriculture means to the Commonwealth and to the individual farmer.
“The worst thing you can do is make the assumption that they know,” Quarles said.
To highlight the importance of the conference, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture recently posted on their Facebook page that, according to the most recent available figures “Fruit sales in KY totaled $12.3 million in 2014. And cash receipts for veggies and melons were approx. $31.4 million.”