The ‘voice’ of Kentucky agriculture: Commissioner’s race takes a partisan turn

Republican Jonathan Shell is running against Biden. Democrat Sierra Enlow says Kentucky is ‘not as divided’ as people think.

By: - October 30, 2023 5:50 am

In the the late 19th century almost half the population lived on farms, like this one in Jessamine County, and needed a strong defender against the economic monopolies that bought and shipped their products. Now fewer than 2% of Americans live on farms but all Kentucky voters have a say in electing the “voice” of agriculture. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Jamie Lucke)

Any “red meat” in campaigns for commissioner of agriculture has usually pertained to Kentucky’s large beef herd — until now.

Jeffery Hall

Republican Jonathan Shell, a former state House floor leader, is dishing out political red meat in his quest for the office, vowing to fight “woke liberals,” serve as “guardian” to the “unborn” and “save” Kentucky from President Joe Biden.

And, for the first time ever, Planned Parenthood has endorsed a candidate — Democrat Sierra Enlow —  in the race to head Kentucky’s Department of Agriculture.

The race’s partisan tone strikes some as unfortunate, if not surprising given the current high degree of political polarization.

Scott Smith

“Agriculture has always attempted to stay above the fray of politics and partisanship,” said Jeffery Hall, who has helped shape farm policy for more than 30 years, including as the state executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency in Kentucky under President George W. Bush. Hall now serves as one of three board members overseeing the U.S. Farm Credit Administration.

“The primary focus of the agriculture commissioner should be agriculture,” said Hall. “It seems like more of the partisan, political issues are taking away from the real issues in agriculture, and that’s a shame.”

Scott Smith, retired dean of agriculture at the University of Kentucky, agrees. “In recent history, the race for agriculture commissioner has been more about who can be the best voice for all farmers and for ag advancement in Kentucky, less so about partisan politics.

Sierra Enlow

Birthdate: Nov. 27, 1987

City of residence: Louisville

Occupation:  Economic development consultant.

Website: Sierra Enlow for Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner 2023 

Quote: “What I’ve been telling everyone on the campaign trail is that you really need two things to be a successful commissioner of agriculture. You need production, agriculture experience, and you need business experience. And that’s what I’m looking forward to bringing to this office.”

“We should all be concerned if selection of a commissioner is to be decided primarily by their positions on divisive Republican vs. Democrat national issues, which are beyond the work of the Department of Agriculture in Kentucky,” said Smith.

The job 

The Department of Agriculture has 237 employees, a budget of  $87 million and an array of duties, some not directly related to farming, such as regulating gasoline pumps and amusement rides and licensing pesticide operators. 

The winner of the race will earn $148,109 annually and succeed Ryan Quarles, who has served the maximum two terms and finished second in the Republican primary for governor. Quarles will become president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System in January.

Quarles’ predecessor was Republican U.S. Rep. James Comer, who also fell short of winning the GOP nomination for governor but went on to win a seat in Congress in 2016. Comer now holds a high-profile position as chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, which is conducting an investigation aimed at impeaching Biden.

The post has also served as a springboard to federal prison for two commissioners convicted of corruption, Democrat Ward “Butch” Burnette and Republican Richie Farmer.

The office itself is a vestige of the late 19th century when almost half the population lived on farms and needed a strong defender against the economic monopolies that bought and shipped their products. In 1891, the new state Constitution created the office of commissioner of agriculture, labor and statistics.

Now fewer than 2% of Americans live on farms but all Kentucky voters have a say in electing the “voice” of agriculture.

The candidates

The two candidates in the Nov. 7 election describe themselves as “fifth generation farmers” and were born within days of each other almost 36 years ago.

Enlow grew up in Larue County, working from an early age in tobacco with her family. She has a master’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Kentucky and says she knew early on that she wanted to be ag commissioner. 

She has worked in economic development in government as well as the nonprofit and private sectors. She helped start a Kentucky chapter of the New Leaders Council which trains and promotes young progressive leaders. She has worked in Kentucky Democratic political campaigns. She’s now a self-employed consultant who helps companies with site selection and negotiations for tax incentives and advises local governments.

Jonathan Shell

Jonathan Shell

Birth date: Dec. 1, 1987

City of residence: Lancaster

Occupation: Shell Farms and Greenhouses

Website: Jonathan Shell Agriculture Commissioner 

“I think we’ve got extremely great potential in agriculture in this state. We have the best days ahead of us. The technologies that we’re utilizing, the people that we have, the farmers that farm the ground every single day are exceptional. … And I can’t wait to get my hands on the department so that we can do something special for this state.”


Shell and his father run cow-calf and greenhouse operations in Garrard County. Shell says in recent years pumpkins have become his favorite crop to grow. He earned a bachelor of science in agriculture from Eastern Kentucky University. 

Shell has refused invitations for joint appearances with Enlow, including on KET’s “Kentucky Tonight,” but both candidates participated in a Kentucky Farm Bureau “Meet the Candidate” forum on Oct. 10.

During the forum, Shell promised to be “a fighter” and touted the political friendships he has made since becoming the youngest ever House member at 24. Shell in 2012 won the seat vacated by Republican Lonnie Napier who retired after 27 years.

Shell quickly stood out as a rising star. Frustrated by the then-minority Republicans’ inability to push through conservative priorities such as right to work and anti-abortion laws, Shell recruited House candidates and headed the House GOP’s campaign committee. He was rewarded for the 70,000 miles he put on his vehicle when Republicans in 2016 took the House for the first time in 100 years, electing Shell their floor leader. 

“And we changed this state forever,” he told the Farm Bureau forum. “All the successes that we’re seeing now economically” resulted, he said, from actions by the legislature’s Republican supermajority. 

In a surprise upset, Shell was unseated in 2018 when he narrowly lost a Republican primary to R. Travis Brenda, a  schoolteacher from Rockcastle County.

In 2020, Shell served as chairman of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s reelection campaign. 

Republican Jonathan Shell as seen in one of his campaign ads. (Screenshot)

Farm Bureau forum

When asked by Farm Bureau members how he would advocate for ag department funding and other priorities, Shell touted his friendships with lawmakers. “I can tell you that they’re going to take my phone calls. They’re going to take my meetings, and we’re going to have a great working relationship. I talked to the leaders of the House and the Senate almost on a daily basis, still today. Most of those members are friends of mine.” 

Enlow told the Farm Bureau forum that agriculture needs bipartisan support especially when the executive branch is under a Democratic governor to “build cross agency collaboration.”  

She said one of her top priorities would be increasing pay for ag department staff. “We’re in a space right now where we’re asking people to work for under $30,000 a year and to work for what is equivalently not a livable wage. … It’s not giving us a competitive advantage of attracting talent to the Department of Agriculture,” she said, nor will it help the department replace a coming “wave” of retirees. 

A concern on the minds of the Farm Bureau questioners was how to protect both private property rights and prime farmland, especially as industrial-scale solar energy developers are looking for sites in rural Kentucky.

Enlow recommended “good community conversations” years in advance of industry locating in an area, zoning that protects farmland and steering solar developments away from prime farmland onto more marginal land.

Shell said he wants to remove the pressure to sell or lease land by making farming more profitable. “Private property rights is one of the most American things that we have,” said Shell. “I mean, it’s one of the things that separates us from the rest of the world is that we are actually able to own things in America. And I think that it’s one of the inherent things that we need to make sure that we’re protecting on a daily basis.” 

Not surprisingly, the challenge of increasing farm profits by adding value to agricultural products was on the minds of Farm Bureau members.

Enlow said the “space from the farm gate into the corporate supply chain” is where her experience negotiating with corporate executives would serve farmers. She pointed to hemp as an example of public officials promoting a crop to farmers without having processors or retailers in place, and as a result farmers lost investments in hemp production. 

Democrat Sierra Enlow speaks during the 26th annual Mike Miller Bean Dinner on Friday, Aug. 4, 2023, part of Fancy Farm weekend events. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Austin Anthony)

She also said she would work to bring employers to rural Kentucky to provide off-farm wages that help support family farms.

Shell said Kentucky’s cattle industry needs “a large-scale processor” and more regionalization of processors and that the Agricultural Development Fund should be modernized to work toward “getting cattle under roof” to be finished. He also advocated increasing grain storage facilities for row crops.

“We need to get closer from the farm gate to the food plate with our consumers.” He cautioned against “economic development for economic development’s sake,” saying new factories are making it harder for existing businesses to find workers. “Every business in America that I’ve talked to and in Kentucky says that they could nearly double their output if they could just get the employees to be able to show up to work, be clean on a drug test; most of them have stopped drug testing. And that’s the world that we’re living in today.”

Tobacco settlement dollars

The agriculture commissioner became more important to the future of Kentucky farming in 2021 when the Republican-controlled legislature moved oversight of tobacco master settlement dollars designated for agriculture from the governor’s office to the Department of Agriculture. 

The settlement with cigarette manufacturers has brought more than $2 billion to Kentucky in yearly installments since 1999; half of the settlement money goes to the Agricultural Development Fund which provides grants and loans for diversification and infrastructure. 

The funding decisions are made by two boards who are now appointed by the commissioner of agriculture. 

Asked what changes they envision for the fund, Shell said it’s time to develop another 20-year plan to “see in what direction that we may want to take Kentucky agriculture into the future.” 

Enlow said “investing in new technologies to help our farmers meet the next generation of agriculture” should be a priority, including “contained and controlled” environments for agriculture. 

She also said she wants to “help support diversity in agriculture in different ways” by increasing transparency and helping new and young farmers understand the fund’s processes for gaining access to capital.

Money and media

Shell’s campaign has outraised Enlow’s. He reported raising and spending $500,000 in the Republican primary against state Rep. Richard Heath, chairman of the Kentucky House Agriculture Committee. For the general election, Shell reports receipts of $284,864.

Enlow raised $33,567 for the primary and $172,852  for the general election. In addition, Enlow reports in-kind contributions, most from the Kentucky Democratic Party, of $227,867. She points out that she has received financial support from many more individuals, making smaller donations, than Shell.

Shell’s campaign recently announced a “robust statewide media buy” including two television ads. 

Enlow said she’s relying on digital platforms to get out her message because the “saturation” will be higher, especially as the governor’s race takes up so much TV time.

Shell did not agree to an interview with the Lantern.

Enlow told the Lantern that despite her opponent’s fundraising advantage, her campaign is competitive and that Shell’s nationalizing the race could backfire.  “The commissioner’s job is not to fight Biden. It’s to make sure the office fights for Kentuckians.” 

She also said “Kentucky is not necessarily as divided as people think it is.”

Tamarra Wieder, Kentucky state director for the Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, told the Lantern that the organization decided to endorse in the agriculture commissioner’s race for the first time because of concerns about access to health care in rural Kentucky, especially reproductive care and birth control. Seventy-three of the state’s 120 counties have no OB-GYN, she said. Planned Parenthood has challenged Kentucky’s near-total ban on abortion in court.

Shell is endorsed by anti-abortion groups Kentucky Right to Life and Northern Kentucky Right to Life. 

Enlow said she shares Planned Parenthood’s concern about limited access to medical care in rural Kentucky and appreciates its efforts to fill gaps. “When I accepted the endorsement I knew how committed they are to health care in Kentucky and serving populations that are typically underserved.”


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Jamie Lucke
Jamie Lucke

Jamie Lucke has more than 40 years of experience as a journalist. Her editorials for the Lexington Herald-Leader won Walker Stone, Sigma Delta Chi and Green Eyeshade awards. She is a graduate of the University of Kentucky.