By BRUCE SCHREINER
Associated Press Writer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Richie Farmer's basketball playing days are long over but not forgotten among University of Kentucky faithful. That could have the former shooting guard in position to score big at the ballot box next month in his bid for a second term as state agriculture commissioner.
Farmer, a Republican who easily won election in 2003, is facing retired cable contractor David Lynn Williams, a Democrat from Glasgow, in the Nov. 6 election.
The winner will lead a state Agriculture Department with about 320 employees and wide-ranging responsibilities on and off the farm. The agency promotes Kentucky farm products and handles plenty of regulatory chores, such as checking gasoline pumps, supermarket scanners and amusement rides.
"This is the only department that touches the lives of every single Kentuckian every single day," said Farmer, whose term has coincided with the usual ups and downs in agriculture.
Cash receipts for Kentucky farmers topped $4 billion in two of the last three years, and the state's agricultural exports exceeded $1 billion in each of the last two years.
This year, some farmers are reeling from back-to-back weather setbacks - a spring freeze and summer drought that curtailed hay production and cut yields for corn, soybeans and wheat. The dry spell resulted in a federal disaster declaration for Kentucky, allowing producers to seek emergency loans to help offset losses.
Farmer says his department responded to the weather woes by keeping the White House and Congress informed of the hardships in Kentucky agriculture. The state agency also set up a hay hotline to help livestock producers find adequate feed supplies for the coming winter.
Farmer conceded that farmers are going through a tough stretch, but said, "The one thing that I've seen is that farmers are resilient people, and they will make it."
The native of Clay County in eastern Kentucky acknowledges that he didn't earn a living off the farm. He emphasizes that he earned a degree in agricultural economics and agribusiness management at UK. Farmer was a financial planner before becoming agriculture commissioner four years ago in his first run for elective office.
Farmer is still remembered statewide as a former Mr. Basketball in Kentucky and a guard on the 1991-92 UK team immortalized as the "Unforgettables." The Wildcats lost to Duke 104-103 in overtime in the NCAA East Regional finals in what is widely considered one of the greatest basketball games ever.
Farmer openly fosters his ties to UK basketball, long a unifying force for a diverse state. His campaign signs include pictures of a basketball hoop and a ball.
Scott Lasley, a political scientist at Western Kentucky University, said voters' familiarity with Farmer from his playing days gives him a built-in edge.
"It's a huge advantage, particularly for lower-level statewide races, where name recognition and fundraising aren't always the easiest things to do," Lasley said.
In making his pitch for re-election, Farmer stresses his efforts to expand "Kentucky Proud," a marketing campaign by the Agriculture Department to promote state-grown products. Participants include nearly 1,000 farmers, restaurants, processors, retailers and farmers' markets. The program generated $39 million in retail sales in 2006, and the 2007 figure is expected to be higher, despite the freeze and drought.
Farmer also points to progress by his department on the nonfarm front.
He said he won state funding for a new motor fuel and pesticide testing lab scheduled to begin testing gasoline in January. With the new $1.65 million facility, the state will be able to test 8,000 to 10,000 fuel samples a year, compared to 500 to 600 currently, Farmer said.
It also could generate money for Kentucky by doing fuel tests for other states, he said.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)