Kentucky Agriculture Leaders to High School Students: We Need You for Ag Innovation

Jul 14, 2017

How many were impacted by agriculture every day? Everyone raised their hand.
Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS

Three of Kentucky’s top agriculture leaders recently offered ‘food for thought’ to 350 of the commonwealth’s top high school students. 

kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles, Governor's Office of Agricultural Policy Executive Director Warren Beeler and Kentucky Farm Bureau CEO David Beck offered leadership advice to Governor’s Scholars students at Murray State University. The summer residential program is aimed at building the state’s next generation of civic and economic leaders.

MSU Dean of the Hutson School of Agriculture Tony Brannon moderated the forum. To kick things off he asked the students how many were interested in agriculture as a career? A handful of students raised their hands. He then asked how many were impacted by agriculture every day? The whole room raised their hands.

Citing Kentucky writer Wendell Berry, ag commissioner Ryan Quarles says the act of eating is participating in an agricultural act. He says Kentucky needs a crop of young people getting interested in the industry.

Ag Commissioner Ryan Quarles speaks to Governor's Scholars students at Murray State.
Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS

“It’s my vision to make Kentucky the go-to place for emerging ag innovation, for ag technology. There’s a lot of millennials leaving Silicon Valley to come to the Midwest and the southern states to make investments in agriculture.”

Quarles and the others say the future of ag relies on robotics, engineers, chemists, logistics analysts and marketers. He described some of Kentucky's ag discoveries including a recent vaccine for a pandemic.

"It’s here in Kentucky, where we took a tobacco plant, a crop that my family grew to pay the bills - I imagine some of your all’s did, too - We took an unlikely tobacco plant and turned it into a vaccine that cures Ebola. That happened just a couple of years ago in west Africa. And I was in the lab that did it just as recently as yesterday.”

State ag policy executive director Warren Beeler says the ag industry needs environmental engineers and people who can think out of the box to solve the problems facing the future, like global soil management issues and a population growth to eight or nine billion by 2050, for which he says we'd need 70 percent more production than what we have today.

“You know what scares me in this job I have? Am I smart enough? Am I open minded enough to see agriculture as its changing and walking through the door.”

Beeler described novel greenhouse projects in the mountains of eastern Kentucky that want to produce lettuce without insects, weeds or fluctuations in lighting. He says GPS tools are being used to determine soil quality and control tractors.

“You don’t double a spot,  you don’t waste a spot. Managing nutrients as they lay in the field. This is agriculture. This is science. We need scientists. We need people who understand how these things work.”

Ag can produce more with less, he says, through innovations in genetics and engineering, like cows that can milk themselves through devices around their necks connected to computers in the barn.

“If Bessie doesn’t come in, it texts you on the phone: Go get Bessie. [Laughter] Bessie hasn’t been in. Anybody interested in robotics in this room? Anybody interested in computers in this room? Then you need to understand, that’s agriculture.”

He says plants like chia have been found to hydrate soldiers in Afghanistan and tannins in sumac are being used in health food. Hemp, he says, is emerging as an industry that can produce a variety of things from water filters and batteries to dashboards and side panels on cars.

Each speaker offered leadership advice, described their career struggles and triumphs and urged the group of students to follow their passions, earn success through hard work, learn from their failures and become good listeners.

“Teachers are the most important people in the world because every generation has to learn everything over again," Beeler said.

After the lecture, dozens of Kentucky's brightest high school students flocked to the stage to introduce themselves to the speakers and learn more.

Students surround Ag Commissioner Ryan Quarles
Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS