- Associated Press - Thursday, May 7, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Two Kentucky lawmakers with deep family roots in farming are competing for the Republican nomination for state agriculture commissioner.

State Reps. Ryan Quarles and Richard Heath are touting their rural pedigrees while campaigning for the job of running the Department of Agriculture.

Quarles, 31, joined 4H and FFA while growing up on his family’s farm in Scott County in central Kentucky. He raised crops to help pay for college, where he studied agricultural economics on his way to becoming a lawyer. Heath, 59, took over his family’s farm in western Kentucky after high school, obtained an ag degree in college and managed Graves County Co-Op for years before starting a business that builds barns and other farm structures.

“I have 40 years of experience, and he hasn’t lived 40 years yet,” Heath said of his House colleague.

Quarles countered: “Elections are not about rewarding people for life experiences, they are about the future.”

The Republican nominee in the May 19 primary will run against Democrat Jean-Marie Lawson Spann, who is unopposed in the primary.

The current agriculture commissioner, James Comer, is running for the GOP nomination for governor.

The agriculture commissioner oversees an agency with a state General Fund budget of nearly $17 million and about 220 employees.

The office promotes Kentucky farms and oversees a number of regulatory functions, ranging from the sale of eggs to animal health to making sure gasoline pumps and grocery store scales are accurately calibrated.

Kentucky boasts a diversified farm sector that has been producing cash receipts of about $6 billion per year.

Both Republican candidates said they would work to expand the Kentucky Proud program that seeks new markets for Kentucky ag products. They vowed to fight proposed rules by the federal Environmental Protection Agency that they say would hurt farmers.

“Farmers are already conservation-oriented,” Quarles said. “It’s in their best interests to have a clean environment and healthy soils so they can pass the farm down to the next generation. We don’t need federal bureaucrats on the farm.”

The two rivals support the reintroduction of hemp to Kentucky agriculture.

Kentucky has been at the forefront of reviving the crop, prized for oils, seeds and fiber, since the federal farm bill started the crop’s limited comeback. It allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp pilot projects for research and development in states such as Kentucky that allow hemp growing.

Growing hemp without a federal permit was banned in 1970 because of its classification as a controlled substance related to marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are the same species, but hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.

“If you go back to the ‘60s when soybeans first came around, it took a while for the market to develop, to find out what all we could do with soybeans,” Heath said. “That’s where industrial hemp is now. We know what can be done with it; we know it has a lot of potential.”

Quarles pitches in on the farm run by his father and brother, and he has a law practice specializing in estate planning for farmers.

He said he would work to expand classroom initiatives to teach Kentucky students about the importance of agriculture as the source of their food. Both Quarles and Heath said they would try to boost export markets for Kentucky farm products.

The two lawmakers found themselves on opposite sides of a high-profile measure on the final day of this year’s legislative session.

Heath supported a bill to stabilize the state gas tax, while Quarles opposed it.

The compromise set a new minimum rate for the tax at 26 cents per gallon. That’s less than the rate of 27.6 cents per gallon at the time, but much more than a rate of 22.5 cents that would have taken effect in April under a law that adjusts the tax rate each quarter based on the price of gas.

Without the compromise, Heath said the pool of money to maintain rural roads and bridges would have declined significantly.

“We all want lower taxes,” he said. “But at the same time, I want to drive on roads that are not full of potholes. I want the farmers to be able to drive their loaded trucks across bridges that are not going to fall in. You have to man up and take the tough vote when it’s justified.”

Quarles said the measure fell short of fixing the problem.

“The gas tax formula is antiquated and it did not do enough for rural communities,” he said. “And as the next ag commissioner, I’ll be advocating for a new funding mechanism which helps fund rural roads.”

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