Four compete for ag commissioner nominations

Published 2:31 pm Friday, May 12, 2023

This is the final installment in a series of down-ballot candidate breakdowns the Bowling Green Daily News will be publishing each day before the primary election on Tuesday, May 16.

Kentucky is one of only a dozen states that have elected agricultural commissioners. And in the commonwealth, it’s a big job.

The agricultural commissioner is responsible for expanding agricultural markets, increasing rural economic development and promoting programs like Kentucky Proud that market Kentucky agriculture throughout the state and beyond.

This year, there are Republican and Democratic primaries for the position. On the Republican side, Richard Heath and Jonathan Shell are vying for the nomination.

Heath has been a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives since 2013 and serves as the chairman of the House Agricultural Committee. He narrowly lost the primary to current Agricultural Commissioner Ryan Quarles in 2015.

Shell also has experience in the state legislature, serving in the House from 2013 to 2018 as the youngest state representative in Kentucky history, and eventually, the House’s majority leader.

Both were raised as farmers. Heath owns a barn-building business and Shell continues to work on his family’s fifth-generation farm.

On the Democratic side, there is Sierra Enlow and Mikael Malone.

Enlow, who grew up on a family farm in LaRue County, has a masters in agricultural economics from the University of Kentucky. She’s been an economic development manager for the city of Louisville and Greater Louisville Inc., as well as served on the Kentucky Association for Economic Development Board.

Malone has no political experience, but said he has a passion for Kentucky health and agriculture.

Why should you be the next agricultural commissioner?

Heath said his life experiences make him the best choice. He also worked with Quarles for seven years of his term from the legislative side, and has farmed all his life.

“I have both the farm background and the ag business background,” he said.

Shell said he realized the importance of agriculture to economic development while serving in the legislature and thinks Kentucky needs a “young, energetic fighter” in the position to fight against federal regulation.

Enlow said she’s been involved with the agriculture industry from a young age, growing up on a family farm, and brought that into her economic development career.

“Over the last few years, I’ve facilitated over a billion dollars in capital investment in Kentucky,” she said. “That’s really what your ag commissioner should be doing, is serving as your chief economic development officer for the state of Kentucky and helping connect farmers with new opportunities and drive growth for rural communities.”

Malone said his love of Kentucky is why he is running.

“My background gives me a little bit more of an interest in the health side of things, keeping things healthy, not only with all of our citizens and the livestock, but also with the earth itself and sustainability.”

What are 2-3 key parts of your platform? 

Heath’s first goal is to continue the programs Quarles oversaw during his term, like marketing program Kentucky Proud and the Kentucky Hunger Initiative, which builds public-private partnerships and food-distribution infrastructure to help farmers meet Kentuckians’ needs and reduce hunger.

He would also work to increase the number of farmers markets.

Second, Heath would gather feedback on how to take these and other programs “to the next level” from Kentuckians.

“I want to get input from the individuals who have boots on the ground, who work there every day, and try not to go into the office with preconceived ideas that I think this is what we need to do,” he said.

Shell has a three-point plan. First, he wants to bring more secondary agricultural jobs, like manufacturing and processing, to Kentucky so those jobs don’t need to be outsourced to other states. Specifically, he’d like to bring a beef processing plant to Kentucky.

Second, Shell would focus farm retail and bringing people closer to local farmers and food.

Third, he’d try to be a voice for rural Kentucky, especially one to “push back against a lot of the radical ideas that are coming out of Washington, D.C., now.”

“There’s a lot of regulations coming down through the EPA and other things that they’re trying to really transform and recreate agriculture in a negative way,” he said.

Enlow’s platform is based on increasing transparency within the Department of Agriculture and figuring out the best way to roll out medical marijuana so that it helps rural farmers. She said the rollout of industrial hemp by Republicans caused problems she wants to help the state avoid this time around with her economic development experience.

“We issued a lot of licenses. A lot of Kentucky farmers grew hemp as a crop. We encouraged them to do that,” she said. “We didn’t make sure that there was a market for that crop. So a lot of farmers were left on the hook for some pretty significant financial obligations because they had no market to send that to.”

If elected, Malone would work to legalize marijuana in all forms, remove flouride from the water and push back against big agribusiness and GMO crops.

Multiple studies have proven the safety and efficacy of flouride in drinking water, and there is no evidence that GMO crops are unsafe to eat solely due to their genetic modifications.

How do you distinguish yourself from your primary opponent? 

Heath: “Age and experience.” Heath said that experience and youth rarely come in the same package, and that he offers a breadth of experience from the agricultural, legislative and business worlds.

Shell: “I’m a fighter — young, energetic. I’ve been there. I’ve got the political experience. I’ve got the policy experience coming out of Frankfort. I fought for these values that we espouse here in Kentucky and the things that we need in order to really push forward as a state.”

Enlow: “I don’t think that there’s any comparison between myself and my primary opponent. I will say that there’s there’s a very distinct difference between someone who has the experience, training and drive to do well in this job and someone who’s just in this to see his name on the ballot.”

Malone: “She has a background in politics. I frankly don’t. … I’m not a politician. I’m just some guy. I’m not looking forward to a political career. I just really care about Kentucky and I care about agriculture, and I want to make a positive difference.”