Candid Conversation | Kentucky Ag Commissioner Jonathan Shell - Kentucky Farm Bureau

Candid Conversation | Kentucky Ag Commissioner Jonathan Shell

Posted on Dec 19, 2023

Candid Conversation presents a discussion about the topical issues related to Kentucky Farm Bureau (KFB) priorities, the agricultural industry, and rural communities, in a question-and-answer format. In an exclusive interview with KFB News, newly elected Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Jonathan Shell discusses his thoughts on the state’s ag industry and his vision for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

KFB: For those who may not know you, would you talk about your background in agriculture and government service?

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Jonathan Shell

JS: I've been a farmer my whole life and represent a fifth generation on our Garrard County farm. I grew up riding around with my dad and my granddad from tobacco patch to tobacco patch and feeding cattle. But we have done about everything you can do on the farm. In addition to raising tobacco, we also raised hemp. We background heifers, along with having a cow-calf operation. And we have on-farm greenhouses where we do hanging baskets and bedding plants, selling wholesale and retail. We've also got a pumpkin business that we started three years ago where we grow decorative and ornamental pumpkins and Jack-o-lanterns. And we put up several hundred rolls of hay a year for our cattle and then we raise corn for silage.

As most farmers know, it's hard to do one thing and make a living at it. You've got to be diversified on the farm and for those readers who are not familiar with agriculture, one of the most beneficial things in Kentucky is how diversified our ag community is. From farms with thousands of cattle to small operators who grow tomatoes in a greenhouse and sell them at their local farmer's market, we have all types of farms in this state.

Having grown up on the farm, all I've ever really known is just the hard work it takes and the local communities that are built around those farms. I learn

ed public service from my grandparents and father. My granddad and my grandmother were both on about every board that you could be on in Garrard County, whether it was the Farm Bureau board, the fire department board, or the local fair board. I was fortunate enough to watch not only how they worked to provide for their family, but how they worked to provide for the community.

In 2012 I ran for state representative and won in a primary and general election and came to Frankfort and started my service there. In 2016, I became the first Republican majority leader in the state of Kentucky and was able to pass some really good legislation helping not just farmers but the economic opportunities in the state of Kentucky. And now, I’m preparing to become the next Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner having won that office in the November general election. I’ll be sworn in on January 1, 2024.

KFB: What do you see as some of the more pressing issues facing Kentucky farm families today?

JS: Whenever I talk to our farm families, the answer varies in different parts of the state. But one consistent thing is the inflation that we're going through right now with the input cost in agriculture. Everything that we buy, we buy retail, and everything that we sell, we sell wholesale. The margins continue to get smaller and smaller on the farm and so we have to do more with less. It's something that we continually have to watch as we try and make sure we can have profitability on the farm.

An adequate workforce is another huge issue that we face. Every farm family and every farm business that I talk to says that they could nearly double their production if they could just find help to work on their farms for a reasonable price.

To me, that's also one of the things, as we look at longevity in agriculture, that we desperately need to work on, making sure that farm families don't have to sell off their farm too early because they don't have an heir, or they can't find people to come and work.

From a policy level, this is something that I'm interested in working with not only with Kentucky Farm Bureau but also with our legislature and other interested groups to find out how we can help, not only the workforce for the overall economy of the Commonwealth but specifically for agriculture and ag businesses.   

KFB: What are some of the state’s biggest advantages when it comes to the ag industry? 

JS: I think the diversity factor that we discussed earlier is one of the things, from a gross domestic product standpoint in agriculture. For instance, if our cattle markets are not doing as well as other sectors, we may have a poultry business or grain crops to lean on or vice versa.  And while we've got a diversified economy here in agriculture, our biggest advantage is our farmers.

We’ve got some of the best farmers in the world who live here in Kentucky. They are very advanced from a technological standpoint. They're very advanced from a conservation standpoint and a sustainability standpoint.

We also have some other great advantages including strong associations in the state from all of our commodity groups to Farm Bureau and others who are strong advocates for agriculture, not only on the local community level but statewide and nationally, as well, all to ensure that people understand what Kentucky agriculture looks like, what the needs are, and the difficulties that we face.

Another advantage is strong FFA and 4-H organizations which help to lessen the worry about the future of agriculture because these amazing young people want to make the ag industry better and be of service to their communities.

KFB: As you take the helm of the KDA, what do you see as your most important initiatives?

JS: For me, some of the most important things include wanting to take a snapshot of what our industry looks like right now as a whole. By that I mean, what do we have from an infrastructure standpoint in the state for the commodities that we produce on the market side. Then start looking at what are the advantages that we have and what are disadvantages we have. For instance, as the row crop industry keeps moving further and further east, what do we need to do in making sure our farmers east of Interstate 65 have the resources available for them to get their crops to market. We've got a lot of farmers now who are traveling several hours to get their crops to a place where they can sell.

Another thing relates to large-scale processing facilities for animal markets in the state. It continues to be something that's going to be a priority for me.

Also, I would like to look at our infrastructure beyond the farm gate and see how we can create rural economic development with secondary manufacturing in agriculture to get more of a value-added product.

Instead of sending as many raw commodity products on barges and trucks out of the state, how can we refine those and add value to them in the state so that we're sending finished products out for people to be able to consume. I think that that makes us more profitable on the farm and creates more competition worldwide.

Also, in looking at our local communities and places that need food daily such as hospitals, jail systems, nursing homes, and school districts to name a few, working with partnerships, we can hopefully get more locally grown foods from Kentucky farmers inside of these facilities.

I look at food as something that can help fix a lot of issues that we face from a workforce standpoint and a health standpoint. The healthier we are, the stronger we are as a state.

KFB: How do you feel about the future of the ag industry in Kentucky, at this point?

JS: I'm very optimistic about the future that we have. We’ve got such a great foundation that's been created from legacies past, from farmers and advocates, and people who have been in the positions to have helped build this industry up.

My goal as Commissioner of Agriculture is to build upon those foundations to help take us to a new level of excellence, and a new level of economic viability in Kentucky. When I think about the future of agriculture and what that means, it revolves around respecting the legacy that people have left behind and also helping create an opportunity for those who are coming to create that legacy for themselves in the future.

To me, it starts with FFA, 4-H, and our young people. It starts around recognizing that people are struggling right now in this economy with the inflation that we are facing. It evolves around making sure that these farmers and ag businesses and rural communities have the resources to be able to connect to the consumer.

KFB: How important are relationships with organizations like Farm Bureau to the well-being of agriculture in this state?

JS: To me, relationships are one of the most important things related to the agriculture industry. It doesn't matter if you're the smartest person, or if you've got the best ideas. What matters is whether you've got the relationships that you can build to get the job done.

That's why it's so important to be able to have relationships not only with organizations like Farm Bureau and our commodity groups but also with actual farmers who are doing this work daily and can tell you if an idea is going to work on the farm or not. If you don't have the relationships to understand the practical nature of the theories that you're trying to put together, you're going to make more mistakes in the long run.

KFB: If you have a message for farm families, what would that be?

JS: I understand the struggles. I'm not saying that I'm going to be able to fix all of them, but I know what we face in agriculture and as farm families. From health insurance, to input costs, to making sure that you've got a place for childcare for your kids, and how important education is.

We have to be able to make money on the farm, but we also have to make time to go to be with our families. If there's a family who wants to farm or if there's a farm family who wants to continue to farm, I want them to be able to do that. I want them to be able to make money and provide a living and to have a future leaving a legacy for the next generation.

KFB: What about your message to those far removed from the farm or who don’t have any connection to the ag industry?

JS: The more of a connection that we can have with the consumer from a direct farm-to-table atmosphere, the more educated that consumer is going to be, and the more profitable we're going to be as farmers.

The thing that I would want people outside of agriculture to understand is don't believe everything that you see and hear on social media or in some news reports. Just like with every other industry, there are people out there who are specifically trying to cut us down.

Every farmer that I know understands that next year is more important than this year. That the animal they're taking care of is their lifeline to their profitability and their future. Every piece of grain and soil that's on their farm is the lifeline of their next year and to the future of their farm and for their family.

Know that we're doing everything that we can to protect our animals and everything that we can to protect this ground that has sustained us in the past and will continue to do so for generations to come.


Post a Comment

Required Field