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Farm subsidies key issue in Shelby

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By Todd Martin

While fighting for a key seat in the U.S. Senate,  Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Rand Paul met Thursday in Louisville at the Kentucky Farm Bureau's Measure the Candidate meeting.

Conway and Paul discussed a number of issues raised by KFB, including health care, free trade and immigration.

John Wills, vice president of the Shelby County Farm Bureau, said he was impressed with the candidates. The forum was open only to media and state directors, but Wills watched one of the several broadcasts during the weekend.

"Both candidates committed themselves to protecting agriculture and rural Kentucky, which would include Shelby County," Wills said. "I thought both candidates were impressive and answered the questions with considerable skill and knowledge."

Though  many topics were addressed during the two hour forum, the highlight of the meeting focused on farm subsidies.  

Paul, a ophthalmologist from Bowling Green, has attacked the USDA farm subsidy programs, saying they need reform to eliminate what he called "wasteful spending." And he added that with the federal government suffering from large debt that the money to fund these programs is no longer there.

Conway, the state's attorney general, on the other hand is behind the farm subsidy programs and trumpeted the programs' ability to help stabilize U.S. food prices and keep them low.

According to Environmental Working Group, which tracks farm subsidies across the country, Kentucky ranks 25th for farm subsidies, and 65 percent of farmers in the state do not collect subsidy payments.

Since 1995, Kentucky farmers have received a little more than $3 billion in subsidy payments, with 10 percent of farmers taking more than 80 percent of that total.

Wills said he believes both candidates are trying to learn more about agriculture to approach the election with better grounding.

"Everybody is aware of the statements Paul has made [about wasted subsidies and helping corporations], and I think Conway tried to pin him down on some of those topics, but he [Paul] seems to be reconsidering. He said he's learned a lot and will continue to learn whether he's elected Senator or not," Wills said.

Both candidates said they favored free-trade agreements, which would allow farmers to export more food. However, Conway said he would require those countries, with which agreements could be made, to meet minimum environmental and wage standards.

Shelby ranks 25th

While the national media focuses on who will fill the retiring Jim Bunning's seat, locally two candidates are facing many of the same issues on a statewide scale.

Shelby County ranks 25th out of Kentucky's 120 counties in subsidy payments, with $36.5 million paid to farmers since 1995. The two other counties in the 20th district, Spencer (64th with $12.7 million) and Bullitt (83rd, $5.8 million), are much further behind.

However, the 3-county total approximately $55 million, which is about 32 percent of that of Christian County, the No. 1 county in farm subsidies, has received over that same time. In fact, 14 counties received more than Shelby, Bullitt and Spencer counties combined, with six of them receiving more than $100 million.

Eaton, Hornback back subsidies

Democrat David Eaton and Republican Paul Hornback are vying for the retiring Gary Tapp's state senate seat, and they weighed in with support for the farmers.

"Farmers are a major part of our community, and I will stand by them and support them in anyway I can," Eaton said.

Hornback, who farms tobacco, corn and soybeans for a living, also supports farm subsidies, but he added that it needs to be cleaned up.

"Everybody benefits from those subsidies, from the farmer all the way to the consumer," Hornback said. "They help provide stability with farm programs and help stabilize food prices.

"But there are abuses in the system, just like there are in any system whether it's agriculture, education or transportation, and those have to be cleaned up."

Hornback, who has received about $278,000 in subsidies during the last 15 years, said he believes he has a better understanding of the programs than most because of his farming background.

"I realize what it means to farmers to have a safety net," he said. "I think it gives me more perspective to know what direct payments mean to farmers, and it helps with something that we have no control over and that's Mother Nature.

"Plus, it help stabilize the commodities market so there is little fluctuation in the supermarket."

Eaton added that the farming community is so important in Shelby County, that this help can not be forgotten.

"We have to make sure our farmers have what they need," Eaton said. "This is money they have been getting for years and need to operate. There's no reason it shouldn't continue."