Kentucky Commission of Agriculture Ryan Quarles said Tuesday night that farmers in the commonwealth are not just good, they are great.
Quarles, who was the guest speaker during the second annual Farm to Fork dinner at Calhoun Baptist Church, told the more than 200 people in attendance that the 76,000 farms that he represents translates to 76,000 families, and 76,000 small businesses.
"They are the driver of rural Kentucky," he said, noting that Kentucky farmers grow 400 different types of commodities, from apples to zucchini, and everything in between.
But, he said, agriculture is changing.
To demonstrate this, he asked the crowd to raise their hand if they had ever been involved in growing tobacco. Nearly every person in the room raised their hand. When Quarles asked how many people are currently involved in growing tobacco, that number dropped to about 20.
That shows us, Quarles said, that agriculture has changed in the past 20 years.
"We used to have over 80,000 farmers growing tobacco, now it's less than 4,000," he said. "Those same tobacco farmers that are used to doing a lot on a small acreage are now diversifying in things we simple didn't have years ago."
He referenced the growing hemp industry in Kentucky, stating that there are 1,000 farmers currently
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growing hemp across the commonwealth, including 16 in McLean County. He said hemp connects Kentucky's past with its future, and that the expected yield from this year's hemp crop is expected to be $100 million in sales.
This places Kentucky "lightyears ahead of other states," he said.
However, there are glitches in the system, he said, because some banks are still refusing to loan to hemp farmers, and Facebook is still taking down ads for hemp.
"There are still a lot of risks involved with this crop," he said.
The two biggest issues in American agriculture today are that commodity prices are in their seventh year of a downtown, and that there are still consumers who do not know where their foods come from.
American farm income is half of what it is in 2012, Quarles said, and there are still 16 million Americans who think chocolate milk comes from brown cows, and white milk comes from white cows.
"We have a lot of work to do, but farmers have an incredible story to tell," he said. "Help tell the story of Kentucky agriculture. Get to know where your food comes from."
Kendall Bishop, president of the McLean County High School Future Farmers of America, and a group of her peers were present at the dinner volunteering their time.
She said FFA uses the night as a service opportunity for students, but also a chance to get to know their neighbors.
"I think things like this are important," she said. "We need to get to know our neighbors, and need to get to know our farmers."