Farm markets, beef processors continue to grow in wake of coronavirus, committee told

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Interim Ag Committee members listen during Thursday’s discussion.
Ag Commissioner Dr. Ryan Quarles answers a question.

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – Most of the state’s crops are in “fair to good” condition, the hemp industry continues to grow, farmer’s markets are seeing unprecedented growth and use as a result of the coronavirus and the state’s meat processors are running at 90 percent capacity.

That was the rundown today from state Agriculture Commissioner Dr. Ryan Quarles and some other farm experts to the General Assembly’s Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture.

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“The weather is always local,” Quarles told committee members, repeating an old adage in the farm business.

“The fields are either too west or too dry,” he continued, referring to current conditions across the state.

Quarles gave committee members a quick rundown on some major industry categories in a two hour session that sometimes turned partisan.

Of the state’s 160 farmers markets, Quarles said, “They are bustling right now,” driven by new customers who are looking for fresh meat and produce and don’t want to run the risks of grocery store crowds or deal with shortages that sometimes have plagued chain stores.

“Our state meat processors are running at 90 percent capacity or better,” Quarles added, noting they too have benefited from the coronavirus fears.

In addition, a $1 million state fund will help some of them act on expansion plans.

The state’s Kentucky Proud program, which promotes state-based companies and products, is up to 8,000 members now and growing, specially as the pandemic has forced more people to become entrepreneurs.

And as many as 900 farmers will grow 15,000 acres of hemp this year as the number of hemp-related companies in the state continues to grow at a rate of about 10 percent a year.

Quarles also said he is working with state revenue rulemakers to compromise on fees for home food processors and entrepreneurs. Those fees currently are $120 but there is a move to raise some to as much as $2,400.

“These people can’t afford something like that. We are trying to work with the Cabinet to make it reasonable,” Quarles said.

“We need to make getting into these kinds of businesses easier,” he continued, noting revenue rulemakers also are considering fee increases on food banks and grain elevators.

State Sen. Paul Hornback, chairman of the committee, praised Quarles for his role in a lawsuit in Scott County fighting Gov. Andy Beshear’s coronavirus mandates. He also questioned the governor’s new agritech advisory committee and effort to make the state the nation’s agritech capital.

“I’m not sure how getting some folks from Denmark to build a greenhouse to grow tomatoes…I am disappointed…that competes against our farmers who have been here,” Hornback, a Republican, said, adding most of the people Beshear appointed to the advisory committee appear to be “political minds.”

When asked, Quarles admitted he was given little notice about the press conference Beshear held announcing his effort.

“Four minutes” before it was being held, he said of when he was contacted.

And while he said he wished more farm voices, such as the Kentucky Farm Bureau, were included in the effort, he side-stepped being dragged down the rabbit hole of being critical of Beshear and his program.

“I look forward to working with it in a positive way,” said Quarles, who started his own agritech study effort last year.

Hornback also suggested Beshear was trying to micromanage the State Fair Board by trying to change its contract just a year after it made a rare profit.

In closing Quarles promised the committee the State Fair in late August will be a “great one” eve if it is different. Because many county fairs have been canceled, the state is encouraging people who normally would participate there to bring their exhibits to Louisville.

As one suggestion, a committee member asked if the large farm equipment that traditionnaly is displayed can carry price tags to show combines cost more than $300,000 and tractors more than $100,000.

“So city folks can know what farmers have to pay for their equipment,” the legislator advised.