Election 2023: The race for agricultural commissioner

Published 2:11 pm Tuesday, October 10, 2023

While governor candidates Andy Beshear and Daniel Cameron may be dominating your air waves, their race is not the only one on the ballot this November.

The down ballot races include state auditor, treasurer, attorney general, secretary of state and agricultural commissioner.

Kentucky is one of few states to have an elected agricultural commissioner, due to the outsized impact the agriculture industry has on the Commonwealth.

The commissioner is responsible for:

  • setting agricultural policy;
  • expanding agricultural markets;
  • regulating the industry;
  • increasing rural economic development; and
  • promoting programs like Kentucky Proud that market Kentucky agriculture throughout the state and beyond

Republican Jonathan Shell and Democrat Sierra Enlow won their respective primary races in May, and now face off in November.

What experience do they have?

Shell is a fifth-generation farmer and a former state legislator. He served in the House from 2013 to 2018 as the then-youngest state representative in Kentucky history. He eventually became the first Republican House Majority Leader.

Enlow also grew up on a farm, beginning to work on her family’s tobacco patch in LaRue County at age 5, she said. She earned her masters in agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky.

Her career has included work as an economic development manager for the city of Louisville and Greater Louisville Inc., as well as a stint on the Kentucky Association for Economic Development Board.

Over the past several years, Enlow said she’s facilitated over a billion dollars in capital investment in Kentucky.

Both answered a few questions about their platform ahead of Election Day.

Why are they running?

Shell said he’s running because he thinks he’s the best prepared person to preserve and grow Kentucky agriculture for future generations, in spite of “attacks from Washington.”

“Agriculture is the backbone of our state’s economy,” Shell said.

“Our signature industries — horses and bourbon — are agriculture based. Our culture, our communities, and many generations of Kentucky families have ties to agriculture. This is who we are, and I am so proud to be part of that legacy.”

Shell said the relationships he’s built in the agribusiness community through his public service background will be a boon to the Agriculture Department.

Enlow said she’s had her eye on this job since she was in FFA as a kid. She wants to combine the two skills she says are necessary to be a successful agricultural commissioner —production agriculture experience and business experience.

“What we need for our Kentucky farmers is not just the opportunity to continue to grow their operations, but have better opportunities to sell and market Kentucky crops and products,” she said.

“… My job isn’t to tell people how to farm but it is going to be to help those farmers get their product from the farm gate into the corporate supply chains.”

Enlow’s Platform

What happens in the agriculture department impacts all Kentuckians, not just farmers, Enlow said.

She wants to ensure that the agricultural commissioner and other agriculture organizations have a seat at the table when solving problems for both the agriculture industry and other industries.

“When we talk about workforce issues, we talk about logistics and transportation issues, we’re not often including agriculture in those conversations, just in general across the state, whether that’s at the state chamber or local chambers (of commerce),” Enlow said.

“Having an agriculture commissioner who’s really active and vocal about being included into those conversations means that we get better results for every one.”

Creating efficient and successful agricultural supply chains is another key part of her platform.

Sierra Enlow

Enlow said that one of the problems with the hemp rollout, as well as other new crops the state rolls out, is that the state encourages farmers to grow these crops without thinking about the markets that are available for them.

It’s like pacing your racehorse to match the race you’re running, she said.

“So we have to think about if we’re putting this many licenses out and telling this many farmers to grow, do we have the capacity on the manufacturing side and on the processing side, and then do we have the capacity on the retail side to match that?” Enlow said.

Practically, this would include attracting the “right” types of processors to Kentucky, matching production to their capabilities and attracting markets both inside and outside of the state for new crops.

With the upcoming medical marijuana rollout, Enlow thinks she can do better.

Finally, Enlow wants to drive growth in rural areas.

“We’ve got a lot of opportunities to continue to attract food processing and manufacturing plants to rural Kentucky,” she said. “And we want to make sure that those are good jobs with benefits and have good opportunities for those rural communities.”

Good rural jobs would give people an opportunity to return to their communities, keeping family farms active, Enlow said.

Shell’s Platform

Federal bureaucrats are “waging a war on farmers just like they did to coal miners,” Shell said.

One of his main campaign promises is to fight back against what he said is federal regulatory “overreach,” like the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent attempt to expand its regulation power over the Waters of the United States.

Shell said the proposed WOTUS rule, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, would have empowered the EPA to regulate ditches, ponds and puddles on farmers’ property, making it harder to grow crops and raise livestock.

Jonathan Shell

“Growers and producers know what’s best for their farms and the land; they don’t need folks in Washington cubicles telling them what to do,” he said.

“We are stewards of the land and know how to feed America. I hear this all the time from farmers. Their message to government is simply: please stay out of our way so we can do what we do best, feed America.”

Shell’s second goal is to bring more secondary agriculture jobs, like manufacturing and processing industries that farmers rely on, to Kentucky. For example, he wants to bring a beef processing plant to the Commonwealth.

He plans to leverage his longstanding relationships with the General Assembly, agriculture associations, universities and decision-makers to achieve this.

Third, Shell said during the primary season that he would focus on farm retail, bringing people closer to their local farmers and food.

How do they distinguish themselves from their opponent?

Enlow said that she has something Shell doesn’t.

“It goes back to that you need two things to be a good Commissioner of Agriculture — you need production agricultural experience and you need business experience, and Jonathan really only has that production experience,” she said.

Shell thinks he has a different edge on Enlow — experience, values and ability to do the job.

“I’m a farmer and have been a policymaker,” he said.

“I’m a common sense conservative who can work with the legislature to get things done. My opponent lacks my experience and will have zero chance of working with the General Assembly to do much of anything.”