Women are running for office in record numbers this fall. In Kentucky, four such candidates cite their agricultural backgrounds as an influence on their desire to seek elected office. All have grown tobacco, but they come from different regions and are more diverse in party and politics than one might imagine in a traditionally “red” state.
Rose Ross Elder is hoping to earn a city council seat in Murray on November 6 in a nonpartisan race. She believes “personal responsibility includes a responsibility to the community and to the land.” She credits her farm background with instilling the core values she lives by. A retired math teacher, wife, and mother of three, she hopes to bridge divisive issues like a recent payroll tax that seems to pit county residents against city residents.
Her father, Robert Ross — a sixth-generation farmer in Calloway County, whose ancestor received a land grant for service in the Revolutionary War — and her mother, Frances, raised their 10 children on 200 acres near Dexter.
“Daddy was a good farmer, a careful farmer,” says Elder. “Physical safety was as important as mastery of tools and machinery. He taught us that a good harvest is a direct result of your personal efforts.”
The Rosses raised tobacco, soybeans, corn, hogs, chickens, milk cows, horses, and vegetables. “A small farm is a very healthy place physically and psychologically,” Elder says. They ate pastured meat and homegrown vegetables long before that diet was recognized for health benefits.
“With 10 children you can imagine the challenge to feed everybody, every day. I learned compromise and teamwork at home. Yet Mama made sure there was always a place at the table for anyone who stopped by.” When her father died, he left the farm in trust to all 10 children.
Because girls weren’t allowed to join FFA until 1969, Elder became an athlete. She used the cultipacker discs for weight-training and ran wind-sprints on the farm road. She earned Honorable Mention on the All-State Kentucky Girls Basketball team and won an athletic scholarship to Division I university Texas Tech.
Elder sees Murray and Calloway County as a generous and kind community that lacks confidence and trust in local government. (Murray is the county seat of rural Calloway County, which is in the Jackson Purchase, the far-western portion of the state bounded by the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee rivers.) Independent and thrifty, she has refused campaign contributions. She believes her blend of farm values, community service, analytical and people skills, and her experience that “teamwork leads to results” is the best value she offers voters.
“Daddy taught us that if we were kind to the horses, we would get kindness back. I expect that works with people, too,” Elder says.
If elected, farmer Jessica Elliott, 33, of Mercer County will be the youngest property valuation administrator (PVA) in Kentucky. (Mercer is a rural county located in Central Kentucky.)
She’s passed the state PVA test and has spent the past two years working as both a farm and residential appraiser. She and husband, Steve, own two farms totaling 250 acres and lease an additional 350 for cattle, sheep, and hay. This is the first year they haven’t planted tobacco, something their 8-year old daughter Josie regrets. “She loved setting it and misses it,” Jessica says.
Her girls are involved in the farm work. “When I was 35 weeks pregnant with Gracie (now 3), Josie and I packed 5-gallon buckets to feed my 60 baby Holstein calves, making four or five trips each night. I did that every day right up until my C-section,” Jessica says.
Her work on the farm led her to seek her appraiser’s certification and then elected office. “I’ve heard from farmers that they want to be treated fairly on their appraisals and that’s what I like about PVA,” she says. “An appraiser uses facts and actual sales, not what a Realtor says something is worth. An appraiser has no investment with what happens to the property.”
The current market is good for those selling land as “there are not enough sellers and that is driving the prices up,” in Mercer County in particular. Elliott’s advice to farmers who are buying or selling land: “It all comes down to good soil and location. If it’s tillable, crop or pasture land, you’ll get a fair price.”
As to being young, the secretary of the local Republican Party says, “I hope I’m encouraging others to come forward. It’s pretty special to have people think enough of you to vote for you.”
In 1988, newly elected representative Robin Webb took part in the negotiations leading to agriculture’s ground-breaking legislation, HB 611, which established the Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund following an agreement with tobacco manufacturers.
“Tobacco paid my way through college and it was a way to give back,” Webb, an attorney and farmer, says. She is proud of the bill and its enduring effects as a model for diversification in agriculture. “One result is that Kentucky now has the largest cattle herd east of the Mississippi,” she says.
Growing up, Webb worked livestock with her father, dehorning cattle, bottle-feeding calves, and showing cattle, horses, and pigs in 4H. Her grandfather, a cattle stockman, “plowed with a mule.” Webb learned to work long hours, relish the physical challenges, and pay attention to the details, habits that have served her well in her professional life.
Today she sees the major challenges facing agriculture as the demise of local dairies, the increasing erosion of Fourth Amendment property rights by well-funded, well-orchestrated animal rights groups, and inaccurate labeling of food at the national level.
There are solutions to these problems. “The dairy crisis is a travesty,” she says, that will need federal and global policies to correct. A constitutionalist, Webb advocates educating lawmakers and voters about the disruptive legislation proposed by animal rights groups. “When an animal is granted human rights, humans have lost theirs. We were given dominion over animals in the Bible, and that’s the way it should be.”
Webb carefully reads all proposed bills for the broadest interpretation of such laws to ensure that legislation is exact in its meaning. “Kentucky has a cultural heritage of hunting, fishing, and agriculture. We should preserve it.”
Webb is a Democrat who consistently earns an A+ from the NRA.
Food labeling and food stuffs such as fake meat (meat grown by replicating meat cells) are becoming problems for traditional agriculture. “Why can something grown in a petri dish be labeled meat? Why is almond milk allowed to be called milk? There are no teats on an almond,” Webb says. “I call it nut juice.”
Diligence is required to guard against the misuse of these new technologies and to protect livestock security, Webb says. “Policy, education, and enforcement of laws will keep agriculture recognizable for now and in the future.”
As a child, Regina worked alongside her family, “setting, suckering off, and stripping tobacco,” though her father was very particular and wouldn’t let her grade it. Their crop was air-cured. “We could tell what kind of crop we’d made based on what we got for Christmas,” she says. She is glad to have learned the relationship between sweat equity and sales early as well as understanding that in farming, there are factors beyond a farmer’s control in production and price.
Her district in the hills of Eastern Kentucky supported small tobacco bases (part of the now defunct federal tobacco quota system) and large family gardens for generations. “I’m grateful I grew up in a time where the family sat down to dinner and ate what we raised, vegetables, pork, and beef . . . and talked without cell phones. In my family, we shared the extra food with others who needed it.” Now, the capital a young farmer needs is astronomical and it’s too hard to make a living, meet loan obligations and put back enough to cover for the lean years. Add the uncertainty of climate change, and “it is a terrifying profession for young people to consider.”
Without the discipline and lessons of farming, many people turn to drugs. Huff would like to implement a program where addicts released from jail are relocated and taught skills to keep them from the environment that fostered the addiction in the first place.
Her background also makes her sensitive to issues of immigration and agriculture’s dependence on migrant workers to do the work family members used to. She believes in strong borders but supports laws that recognize the need for immigrant labor.
“I have a servant’s heart,” Huff says, regarding her approach to representing her constituents. The Republican worked for 25 years as a special education teacher at Whitley County Middle School and now has “43,000 bosses but only one vote.” She calls herself “politically incorrect” in that, “I say what I mean and I mean what I say” and “I don’t follow the herd.”
An avid supporter of the farm-to-table movement, which puts local food into schools and food banks, Huff welcomes ideas for more growth in this this sector. “I am accessible, accountable, and transparent,” she says. “I have deep appreciation for having been raised on a small family farm.”
Lynn Pruett is a field reporter for The Farmer’s Pride. She and her fiancé raise a commercial sheep flock of 600 in Salvisa, Kentucky, and market lamb weekly to stores in Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
This article is reprinted with permission from The Farmer’s Pride, a Kentucky publication published in Adair County that covers farm news statewide.