Oct. 27–GLASGOW — Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner, Ryan Quarles, hosted a roundtable discussion Thursday at the Barren County Cooperative Extension Office.
The roundtable discussion is part of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s effort to increase its outreach, particularly among key agriculture counties. Barren County fits into that category due to ranking number one in multiple categories.
Quarles began by sharing with Barren County producers issues affecting agriculture on the state level.
The one he focused on the most was the reform of the state pension program.
“That’s dominating Frankfort politics as it should. It’s a major issue affecting us. It’s a major issue affecting us in the Department of Agriculture, too. We are preparing for mid-year cuts. We are about to implement our fourth budget cut in 22 months,” he said. “We are doing our part. Tightening our belt to make sure that we have funds to contribute toward the pension crisis affecting Kentucky.”
One issue that was discussed earlier in the year that directly affects agriculture is the state’s tax structure.
“We have reason to believe the Kentucky General Assembly will address taxes in the upcoming general session starting in January,” he said.
Quarles continued that Kentucky producers are fortunate that Kentucky Farm Bureau, among other agriculture groups, have helped lead the discussion about what tax policy should do and should not do when it comes to affecting Kentucky agriculture.
One of the priorities is to maintain the sales tax exemption on farm inputs and to include industries that currently don’t qualify for it but deserve it.
“I know there are some inputs for our friends in the poultry industry that don’t qualify for it. Others are tobacco inputs, such as tobacco float trays that do not qualify for that exemption,” he said.
Quarles pointed out that surrounding states do not have a sales tax on farming inputs.
“So why would we want to potentially disadvantage ourselves. If you are buying and selling equipment, imagine how easy it would be for a farmer just to go across the state line to buy equipment,” he said.
Another tax exemption that Quarles has been advocating for is the removal of sales tax from the purchase of veterinary supplies.
“That is something that would benefit agriculture as a whole. It would benefit our livestock producers, poultry industry, even the horse industry as well,” he said. “What we are seeing is people buying their inputs across state lines anyway through the mail, so why not allow that to happen all across Kentucky agriculture as well?”
He would also like to the state’s property tax structure that benefits Kentucky agriculture.
“As you know House Bill 44 is about 40 years old has been good for Kentucky agriculture. It’s helped to make sure our property rates are beneficial for the ag community,” he said.
States in the Midwest, such as Iowa, have property tax rates that are “tremendously higher.”
“Kentucky counties pride themselves on having relatively low tax rates for agriculturally zoned land and that is something that needs to continue,” he said.
Quarles also talked about tax credits and said they are something that benefits Kentucky agriculture.
“I think there are some consensus that if tax reform occurs, we may not be able to walk away with all the credits that are (provided) for Kentucky farmers and that something that might be a reasonable discussion to have,” he said.
Maintaining adequate funding for rural infrastructure is something he would also like to see done.
“As you know, it is so important that we have roads, highways and waterways to help get our farm products to market,” he said, adding that a lot of farming inputs are brought into the country via waterways and that is why it is the Mississippi River in particular receives adequate funding, so KDA is working with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao’s office on that issue to make sure there is adequate funding through the gas tax formula for rural roads. “Right now 22.2 percent of the gas tax goes to rural road funds in Kentucky. That’s what we want to see maintained, if not increased.”
Quarles also talked about the Kentucky Ag Finance Corporation and the need to prioritize projects, plus the Kentucky Proud Program and what the program needs to be like in the future.
As for national issues affecting Kentucky agriculture, Quarles talked about the upcoming federal farm bill and the influence Kentucky may have on the legislation due to several federal legislators hailing from Kentucky who are interested in agriculture.
He also talked about KDA’s focus on international trade and the effort that is being made to look for partnerships to connect Kentucky producers to international markets.
Several Kentucky crops are already exported to other countries.
“One-fourth of our corn … ends up overseas. Half of the soybeans grown in Kentucky ends up overseas. Our tobacco industry, is still a $350 million annual industry and is the top five commodity in our state. Eighty percent of our tobacco ends up overseas,” he said, adding that it is important to realize that Kentucky is part of the global economy and that current corn prices are determined by what’s going on around the world, such as the drought in Australia. “It’s important to realize we are inter-connected already and so why not be aggressive about it?”
He also touched on labor issues.
“Just yesterday, a new labor bill was passed by Congressman Goodlatte out of Virginia, which is essentially creates a third type of visa,” he said. “The bill moves the administration of the H2A program over to the Department of Agriculture, obviously a better organization that understands farmers.”
Barren County producers were given an opportunity to ask questions following Quarles’ talk.
H.H. Barlow of Cave City asked about the labor bill.
Quarles had stated that the labor bill passed by a narrow margin with a vote of 17-16.
“On this immigration issue, you said 17 to 16, what is the big, why did 16 people oppose it?” Barlow said.
Quarles replied that he thinks it is due to the razor thin margins in the U.S. House of Representatives with Republicans verses Democrats.
“I wish and I advocate for there to be a non-partisan attitude in agriculture. We simply do not need to inject partisan politics in farming and agriculture,” Quarles said. “We are 1 percent of the population. Farmers are one percent of the population. We are already such a small minority, it does not do us good to divide ourselves politically as well.”
Joe Michael Moore of Finney indicated he would like to see less of the negative hype about genetically modified organisms.
“They need to understand that GMO is not their enemy, because there are many lives being saved on a daily basis because bacteria has been genetically modified to produce insulin,” Moore said.
The negative press regarding GMOs is something that has been blown out of proportion, he said.
Quarles said he tries to reminds people that GMOs are what feeds the world. He pointed out that a seedless watermelon is a GMO product.
“When we tell stories like that people start nodding their heads,” he said, adding that KDA does its best to talk about the importance of GMOs and how it is the “humanitarian thing to raise what science can produce.”
Moore also asked why there can’t be a Kentucky beef product sold at local grocery stores.
Quarles stated KDA has a few projects in the works, including one that places Kentucky Proud beef into Kroger supermarkets before Christmas.
He concluded the meeting by inviting producers to contact him or anyone at KDA if they have additional questions.