As a guest speaker during the Knox County Chamber of Commerce’s meeting Thursday, Dr. Ryan Quarles, Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture, confirmed that county livestock shows across the state had been given the green light for 2021.
“Pursuant to CDC guidelines,” Quarles clarified. “We’re going to make sure we give those young 4-H and FFA members a chance to showoff what they’re doing.”
Quarles added that the state was planning on having a state fair “that we’re proud of” this year, as well. Last year, the state fair, that normally sees around 600,000 make their way to Louisville, was closed to the public.
The Kentucky State Fair is an opportunity for Kentucky farmers to showcase and celebrate the good things in agriculture, Quarles explained. It, like the county fairs, allows the state a chance to empower young Kentuckians in 4-H and FFA through high-leveled competitions.
“Those Kentuckians that may not have spent much time on a farm, they don’t have dirt on their boots, it’s an opportunity for us to educate them about where their food comes from,” said the Commissioner of Agriculture.
“16 million Americans honestly think that chocolate milk comes from the brown cows, and white milk comes from the white cows. Now these are adults,” Quarles told the chamber members via Zoom, drawing a laugh from those with unmuted microphones.
“40 percent of American school children don’t know cheese is a dairy product. Another 40 percent of our school children don’t know that a hamburger is not ham, it’s actually beef,” he continued.
Quarles said that when he travels the country and the world, he’s always asked about three things regarding Kentucky: horse racing, bourbon, and Colonel Sanders. All three, he says, relate to agriculture.
“Chicken is our number one industry in Kentucky, $1.3 billion a year and growing. It’s a big part of our economy,” he said as an example.
Kentucky’s agriculture industry employs 200,000 residents, the second largest industry in the commonwealth, only behind the manufacturing industry. Agriculture is responsible for $45 billion worth of Kentucky’s economic activity, making up approximately 20 percent of the state’s total GDP at $208 billion.
Kentucky is home to approximately 76,000 farms. Of those 76,000 farms, Quarles says Kentucky has one of the most diverse arrays of agriculture with 400 different types of stock and livestock operations represented.
“We’re starting to see goat and sheep really take off, where you don’t have to have a lot of land,” noted Quarles, adding that in eastern Kentucky there was an emphasis on focusing on high tunnels and hot tunnels to extend the growing season.
Kentucky also has one of the highest number of female farmers in the country, at 35 percent.
Another thing that’s interesting about Kentucky is we have a lot of female farmers compared to most states. In fact, 35 percent of all of our farmers in Kentucky are female. That’s one of the highest rates in the nation.
“I think that’s a good thing because if it’s anything like the farm I grew up on, my mom was calling the shots anyway, telling my dad what to do,” joked Quarles. “She was the farmer in the family.”
10 percent of Kentucky’s farmers wore a uniform in the military before returning back to work in the fields. As a result, Quarles said the state had received a $700,000 grant from the USDA to assist those veterans with their farms.
“So we have a lot of educating to do,” Quarles said. “Things that for those of us in rural Kentucky we take it for granted, but you’ve got to stop to think about how hard it is sometimes to have a conversation with somebody.”
Quarles recalled a fiberglass cow cut-out of a cow showing the different cuts of meat installed at the Cattleman’s booth at a previous state fair.
“After looking at this fiberglass cow, they came up to my staff and asked where the bacon came from off the cow,” remembered Quarles. “So you’ve got to stop and just remind folks that food just doesn’t show up at a grocery store.”