Despite his relatively young age, Ryan Quarles is something of a Frankfort veteran. The 36-year old just started his second term as state commissioner of agriculture. Before that, he was a three-term state representative from Scott County. But his Frankfort experience extends even farther back – all the way back to when he was a sixth-grader.
"My first assignment here was to serve as a legislative page," says Quarles. “If I got all As on my report card, my mom would allow me to come down and page for the Kentucky House or Kentucky Senate."
From running errands for lawmakers as a student, to working with lawmakers to pass legislation as commissioner, Quarles sees himself as a critical player in farm and food issues across the state, whether it’s expanding the Kentucky Proud marketing program, building a hemp industry, or developing other new opportunities.
“During the second term, we’re going to continue to elevate the importance of agriculture for rural economic development,” says the commissioner. “That doesn’t just include jobs, it includes investment, but also making sure that we have an advocate to make sure that we take Kentucky to international markets.”
Boosting Foreign Trade
The agricultural sector in the state accounts for one in every five jobs, according to Quarles, which puts farming second only to manufacturing in terms of employment. Taken as a whole, Quarles says farming generates about $45 billion annually in economic activity for the commonwealth.
But recent years have been hard on farmers. Quarles, who is a Republican, admits growers and livestock producers have been hurt by President Donald Trump's trade wars with other nations, which have resulted in retaliatory tariffs, particularly from China.
The commissioner says the future looks brighter thanks to phase one of a new trade pact with China as well as the recent signing of a new agreement among the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. He also foresees a new trade deal coming with England after its departure from the European Union.
The trick, he says, is to build on Kentucky's existing reputation as a producer of bourbon and racehorses to get other agricultural products to international buyers.
“Imagine the day when we use UPS, DHL or the new Amazon center in northern Kentucky, slap that Kentucky Proud sticker on the side of that box, and (ship) overnight perhaps a country ham to a Tokyo restaurant or Parisian meat market,” says Quarles. “That’s what we’re talking about.”
A Rough Start for Hemp
Hemp and hemp-derived products could be another significant export for the state. The 2018 federal farm bill legalized hemp production, and since then nearly 1,000 Kentucky farmers have started growing the plant, which has been touted as replacement to tobacco as a cash crop. More than 200 businesses have also set up shop in the state to process hemp fibers and oil for consumer goods.
Interest in the crop and health products made from hemp-derived cannabidiol, or CBD oil, has been substantial. Quarles estimates that farmers and processors sold $100 million in hemp and hemp-related products in 2019 alone.
But the outlook for hemp remains uncertain. Last week, the state's leading hemp processor, GenCanna, filed for bankruptcy protection. Meanwhile, prices for raw hemp have plummeted.
Quarles says the hemp market is volatile and investors are reluctant to enter the field because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to decide how to classify CBD and other hemp derivatives. He says the products could be regulated as health care supplements called nutraceuticals, or as prescription-strength pharmaceuticals. Other products, such as hemp oil, could be considered food-grade, which makes them safe for cooking, he says.
“The fact they haven't decided primarily due to lack of research and lack of data what they’re going to do yet, has caused hesitancy in the market,” says Quarles. “We need peer-reviewed clinical research... They need studies to learn about the short-term use [and] the long-term use of these products.”
The commissioner says he's meeting with FDA officials to try to speed that process along. He says the commonwealth could be an epicenter for hemp- and CBD research, given the reputations of the Universities of Louisville and Kentucky, and because so much hemp cultivation and processing already occurs here. Until then, he tells those considering a jump into hemp to be cautious.
“We encourage every farmer, every processor to acknowledge the financial risk before they choose to grow or process hemp,” says Quarles. “It's still in its infancy, and just have some patience, and don't risk more than you're willing to lose.”
Hemp regulation isn't the only issue Quarles wants Washington to address. He says it's time Congress finally acted on comprehensive immigration policy.
“What we need is a legal immigration system that provides an adequate guest-worker component so that those choosing to come to Kentucky... for seasonal jobs can do so legally,” he says.
The commissioner says reform is crucial because the existing H-2A temporary agricultural worker program is too cumbersome, rigid, and expensive. He says migrant workers are vital to the state's farmers and consumers.
“It’s important to realize that if people enjoy eating food in America that there is a major part of our efficiency, a major part of our economy that depends on the hard-working members of the migrant community, many of which are here to provide for their families back home,” says the commissioner.
A bill moving through the Kentucky legislature would require local police agencies to cooperate with federal officials on immigration enforcement. Senate Bill 1 would also prohibit communities from labeling themselves as so-called sanctuary cities. Opponents argue the measure could adversely impact the availability of migrant farm labor in the state. Quarles says he's heard no concerns from farmers about the legislation.
Quarles is working with state lawmakers on several priority measures of his agency. He supports an update the state's food safety laws to ensure that they align with new federal regulations. He also wants the Kentucky Department of Agriculture to be reorganized to better handle its licensing and regulatory activities.
The commissioner also backs a measure by state Rep. Richard Heath (R-Mayfield) to direct more incentives and Opportunity Zone growth funds to struggling rural communities. He says farmers and small towns also need access to high-speed internet service as a tool for business, job creation, and education.
“You’ve got to start thinking about internet the same way we thought about electrifying Kentucky back in the 1930s and 1940s,” Quarles says. “This is something that needs to be done – it’s an infrastructure project.”
As with internet service, Quarles says access to health care is also vital to helping rural Kentucky thrive. In recent months, two rural hospitals in the state announced they would cease operations. A study last year by Navigant Consulting indicated nearly a quarter of the state's rural hospitals are at risk of closing.
“If you don't have access to internet, and if you don’t have quality of life issues such as access health care, you're less likely to get that millennial to move out to the rural areas,” says Quarles. “It's about creating an environment for success, an environment where companies are wanting to come to Kentucky.”
As lawmakers craft a new two-year budget for the commonwealth, Quarles says it's important for the Department of Agriculture to have the money it needs to fulfill its statutory duties. But he says he's also prepared for limited funding if that's what is required of his agency to help pay the pension obligations owed to state workers and retirees. During his first term as commissioner, he says the agency experienced six budget cuts within three years.
Quarles is expected to seek another political office in the future since he's limited to only two terms as agriculture commissioner. Until then, he says he has the "dream job" of someone who loves politics, policymaking, and advocating for farmers.
“I want to make sure that I spend the next four years determined to be the best commissioner of agriculture Kentucky has ever had,” says Quarles.