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Kentucky Politicians Talk Tariffs At Annual Ham Breakfast

Ryland Barton

Tariffs took center stage at the annual Kentucky Farm Bureau Ham Breakfast on Thursday as about 1,500 farmers and politicos gathered to hear speeches and watch a prize country ham get auctioned off for $2.8 million.

The annual event is an opportunity for Kentucky politicians to weigh in on issues specific to agriculture and also raises money for charity (the winning bid for this year’s ham broke the previous record of $2 million, set in 2014).

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles didn’t specifically mention tariffs, but hinted at them, saying he wanted to work to “increase market access.”

“In an era of uncertainty over international trade, the truth is this: Kentucky needs international trade, but more importantly, the rest of the world needs Kentucky agriculture,” Quarles said.

Kentucky farmers have already begun to feel the effects of retaliatory tariffs after the Trump Administration announced its own tariffs on goods imported from China, Canada, Mexico and the European Union.

Soybean growers have been hit especially hard after China imposed a 25 percent tariff on all U.S. crops. Last year China bought about a third of the U.S. soybean crop. Kentucky’s largest agricultural export is soybeans.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said the tariffs threaten farming communities.

“I believe in capitalism, I believe in the free market and I believe also in making sure that our global trading partners treat us fairly. Sometimes that’s tough. But I also believe that our Kentucky farmers should not have to be collateral damage in a trade war,” Fischer said.

Bourbon has also been targeted by retaliatory tariffs and Kentucky distillers have worried that a drawn-out trade war could slow down growth in the state’s signature industry.

Gov. Matt Bevin has downplayed the anxiety over tariffs. On Thursday, he said that farmers understand that they work in a “cyclical industry.”

“There’s times when it’s up, there’s times when it’s down, there’s times when it’s in between,” Bevin said. “There’s a lot of unknowns, there’s so many things beyond your control.”

The tariffs also benefit some industries in Kentucky. On Wednesday, Bevin joined U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to celebrate the expansion of an aluminum mill in Hawesville, which the company attributes to Trump’s tariffs on foreign aluminum and steel.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Email Ryland at
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