Quarles, Spann compete for job of agriculture commissioner

Jean-Marie Lawson Spann, Ryan Quarles
In this photo combo of file images taken Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015, Kentucky agriculture commissioner candidates, Democrat Jean-Marie Lawson Spann, left, and Republican Ryan Quarles speak to the audience at the Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky. The two are vying in the Nov. 3 election to succeed first-term Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s candidates for agriculture commissioner tout their rural pedigrees as proof they understand the needs of farmers. Both want to boost exports, promote agriculture in schools, expand marketing of Kentucky-grown foods and nurture a budding hemp industry.

But sharp differences have emerged as Republican Ryan Quarles and Democrat Jean-Marie Lawson Spann compete for the job of running the Department of Agriculture in a state with a diversified farm economy. They are vying in the Nov. 3 election to succeed first-term Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who narrowly lost in this year’s GOP primary for governor.

Spann supports putting labels on genetically modified foods. People deserve to know what’s in their food, she said.

“Safe local food is a priority to them, and they want to know when the food has been genetically modified,” she said.

Quarles said Kentucky shouldn’t adopt its own labeling program, but instead should wait for a uniform national policy.

“What we don’t need is 50 different states having 50 different definitions of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) because it will cause confusion in the marketplace,” he said.

Differences also emerge on medical marijuana. Spann supports legalizing the treatment in Kentucky, under strict supervision of doctors. Twenty-three other states have legalized medical marijuana to help patients deal with several serious illnesses, she said.

“Families across the commonwealth struggle with epilepsy, cancer and glaucoma,” Spann said. “Parents should not have to move to one of these states to find a doctor to treat their child.”

Quarles called for a more cautious approach: “If there is legitimate benefit to medical marijuana, we need to have our medical community investigate it and put it through the same clinical trials as other potential drugs.”

Introducing medical marijuana could hurt development of a hemp industry, Quarles said. Hemp and marijuana are the same species, but hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high. Spann downplayed those concerns.

Hemp once was a common crop in Kentucky, and both candidates want to promote its reintroduction.

Both candidates grew up in rural Kentucky and come from families with long farming traditions.

Whoever wins will oversee an agency with a yearly state General Fund budget of nearly $17 million and about 225 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.

Quarles, 31, a state representative from Scott County, raised crops on his family’s central Kentucky farm to help pay for college, where he studied agricultural economics on his way to becoming a lawyer.

Spann, 38, said she learned to drive “everything that had a steering wheel” while growing up in a farm family in Barren County. She has spent years as an agribusiness executive and has hosted a long-running weekly radio show on farm issues.

Both candidates want to expand the Kentucky Proud program that seeks new markets for Kentucky products.

Quarles said he wants to help promote development of new crops, mentioning hops and canola as possibilities.

“I want to be a voice for rural issues that are not just about agriculture, but any issue that affects rural Kentucky,” he said.

Spann said she would open regional offices in eastern and western Kentucky.

Quarles had about $159,000 in campaign cash on hand heading into the final weeks before the election, while Spann had $111,125.

Spann has a new companion on many of her campaign trips — her newborn son Lee Lawson Spann. Spann gave birth in early July, and five days later she was back on the campaign trail giving speeches.

“If you want it done right, find a busy woman,” she said.

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