Two challengers for Agriculture Commissioner square off in televised debate

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - A marketing strategist and a farmer running for Kentucky's elected position of agriculture commissioner questioned one another's qualifications for the job in a televised debate Monday night.

Democrat Robert Farmer and Republican James Comer repeatedly exchanged verbal barbs in the hour-long debate broadcast statewide by Kentucky Educational Television.

Farmer, who runs a marketing firm in Louisville, insisted that his 30 years of experience in that field make him the better choice because he knows how to market Kentucky grown products. Comer, a lifelong farmer, said Kentuckians need to choose him because he understands the state's agricultural industry.

"It's not about who's the best farmer," Farmer contended said when questioned about his qualifications to head the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. "It's about who's best for the farmer."

"You wouldn't hire an attorney with no law degree," Comer countered.

Comer said Farmer lacks the agricultural background to understand issues facing the state's farmers. Farmer accused Comer, who has served more than a decade in the state legislature, of being a professional politician who wants to use the job as a stepping stone to a higher office.

The two candidates differed on their support for federal subsides. Comer called for an end to the subsidies. Farmer said they should continue.

On a potentially divisive issue, both candidates said Kentucky farmers should be allowed to grow industrial hemp.

"It's a fabulous product," Farmer said.

"I think industrial hemp has potential," Comer added.

Most Kentucky politicians have traditionally considered industrial hemp politically radioactive because of fears that voters might somehow leap to the conclusion that they're also pro-marijuana.

Industrial hemp, a cousin to marijuana, is used to make textiles, paper, lotion, cosmetics and other products. Though it contains only trace amounts of the mind-altering chemical tetrahydrocannabinol that makes marijuana intoxicating, it remains illegal in the U.S.

Kentucky has an ideal climate for hemp production and, during World War II, was a leading grower of the plant that produces strong fibers that was using in fabrics, ropes and other materials for the military. Law enforcements authorities have discouraged hemp production, fearing it could be used to camouflage marijuana.

Comer also criticized Farmer during the debate for making disparaging remarks about residents of Kentucky's mountain region.

Farmer had created a dustup for telling jokes that some of the state's Appalachian residents considered offensive. The Comer campaign posted some of Farmer's comments from a comedy skit on the Internet.

Farmer joked that in eastern Kentucky "cars are on blocks and houses are on wheels." He said the FBI would not investigate cases there because "all the DNA is alike and there ain't no dental records."

Farmer accused the Comer campaign of spinning the comments to make them offense, though he didn't deny making them.

Farmer used the statewide TV appearance to apologize again making the comments, just as he had done a couple of months ago when they first were made public.

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