Kentucky has lost about 10,000 farms and nearly a million acres of farmland in the past 12 years, and that concerns Robert Haley Conway.
“Farmers are struggling right now,” the Democratic candidate for commissioner of agriculture said during a visit to the Nelson County Fairgrounds for the annual Ag Day farm-to-table breakfast.
He said there are only about 75,000 farms left in the state, and we’re losing them rapidly because most younger generations who might be interested in farming just can’t make it work.
“It’s hard for a young person to buy a farm and pay it off, let alone try to make a living off of it and raise a family,” he said.
“Farming is very capital-intensive. We need to find new revenue streams and access to money,” he said. “Banks have tightened up lending. We need to find more access to working capital. And we need to get more young people involved in agriculture.”
Conway is 63 years old, and said the average age of a farmer in Kentucky isn’t a lot younger than that.
“If we don’t do something quick, who’s going to be feeding us in 20 years?” he asked.
Conway’s situation is a more fortunate than that of many farm families. They farm in Scott County, which is also the home of his Republican opponent, Commissioner Ryan Quarles.
The Democrat’s farm has been in his family since 1780, and they operate his wife’s family’s farm, which they’ve had for 150 years.
Conway said the youngest of his four sons wants to continue farming. He played on the University of Louisville’s 2013 Sugar Bowl championship team, but then transferred to the University of Kentucky to earn an agriculture degree and told his dad he wants to continue the family tradition. He’s the family’s ninth-generation farmer.
After the breakfast Saturday, Conway visited several farm-related businesses in and around Bardstown to talk with people about agriculture and ask for their votes.
“I got into the race because the Democratic Party still cares about farms in Kentucky, and rural Kentucky, and I definitely do,” he said.
He said that since February, he’s mostly been going around to rural parts of the state and talking to people.
Asked what the commissioner of agriculture can do about the decline of family farming in Kentucky, Conway said he can do quite a bit.
“The first thing you can do is have the discussion about it. Put the value back into family farming,” he said.
“If we don’t have those conversations now, the time is going to get away from us,” he said.
One discussion people need to be having, he said, is about cannabis. Both he and Quarles are in favor of industrial hemp, which Kentuckians can now legally grow with a license. The big demand now for high-quality hemp is for CBD oil, which is becoming popular as a natural remedy for many ailments.
Hemp is currently only about 1 percent of Kentucky’s $5.7 billion agricultural economy, but it is growing fast.
Where he and Quarles differ, Conway said, is on whether to allow Kentucky to grow marijuana as a prescription medicine. Conway said he strongly favors it; Quarles has said he supports more research on the issue and will follow the legislature’s lead.
“It’s a moral issue, not a political issue,” Conway said.
He said eight members of his family have had cancer, including his mother and himself, and both of his grandmothers died of it. Marijuana is reputed to help alleviate some of the unpleasant side effects of cancer chemotherapy.
“Anything we can do to make life a little bit better for people out there, why not do it?” he said.
In a panel discussion on KET the night of the primary election, Al Cross, a former political reporter for the Courier Journal and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism, said Conway seemed to be saying he also favors legal recreational marijuana and that someone should ask him that question.
“I heard that,” Conway said, smiling, when asked. “He may not be far off. But the truth of the matter is we need to walk before we can run. We need to crawl before we can walk. Let’s get medical marijuana; that’s what’s most important.”