Congressman John Yarmuth protested the anti-LGBT policies of the Kentucky Farm Bureau outside of its annual Country Ham Breakfast | Photo by Joe Sonka
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, outside the Kentucky Farm Bureau Country Ham Breakfast | Photo by Joe Sonka

Keeping with the decades-old tradition of the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s annual Country Ham Breakfast, political leaders gave speeches addressing agricultural policy to an audience of over 1,000 at the state fair on Thursday.

Breaking that tradition this year was U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, who instead chose to join a protest outside the hall held by the Fairness Campaign, which for years has taken issue with the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s conservative policies regarding LGBT rights, such as its opposition to same-sex marriage.

KFB President Mark Haney defended such policies in his address at the breakfast for the first time — policies that also received the backing of Gov. Matt Bevin and Sen. Rand Paul in their speeches.

Along with Bevin and Paul, Sen. Mitch McConnell criticized government regulations that he says harm the livelihood of Kentucky farmers, in addition to providing a rare criticism of the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, which is opposed by the presidential nominees of both parties but supported by KFB as necessary to boost agriculture exports.

On agriculture regulations and free trade

Addressing the audience, Gov. Bevin praised the values and hard work of farmers, then plugged his new Red Tape Reduction initiative to cut state regulations by up to 30 percent. He suggested farmers submit to his office any agricultural regulation they believe is unnecessary and hinders their business.

Sen Paul began with a criticism he has lodged many times since first running for office, describing well-armed EPA agents descending on farms and giving arbitrary and unjust orders to comply with federal regulations. He received a big laugh from the audience when he recounted a story recently told to him by “a farmer in Bowling Green the other day,” in which an armed and rude EPA official went into the farmer’s field without his permission, only to be chased out by a bull.

Following that anecdote, Paul added: “For those of you who are literalists, that was made up. That was not literally true, but it serves a point and a purpose.”

Sen. McConnell launched directly into his familiar denunciation of President Barack Obama, particularly the “regulatory stranglehold” his administration and EPA have had on agriculture. He said he hoped the next president would roll back such regulations on farmers and rural communities, adding a description of the Obama administration as “very urban-oriented.”

McConnell has been an unwavering supporter of free trade agreements during his 32 years in the Senate, noting his rare agreement with Obama on the recent passage of legislation giving the president fast-track authority on such trade deals. While saying he hopes America “stays in the trading business,” he alluded to the presidential campaigns of the past year by saying free trade deals have become “rather toxic these days” among the public. McConnell recently announced that the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement would not receive a vote in the Senate this year because it does not have the votes to pass.

TPP is strongly supported by the Kentucky Farm Bureau and American Farm Bureau, who say it will open up new markets for agricultural exports. However, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton recently announced her opposition to the deal, and Republican nominee Donald Trump has made his vehement opposition to TPP — and past trade deals supported by both McConnell and Clinton — one of the cornerstones of his campaign.

Despite McConnell’s long history of supporting free trade deals, he said on Thursday that TPP “has some serious flaws.” Noting that TPP could still be approved by the Senate next year, he said it “can be massaged and changed.”

McConnell also touted his move to block Obama’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee to fill the vacancy left by the late Justice Antonio Scalia, noting the importance of that institution during the next presidential administration. Though McConnell has endorsed Trump for president — largely because he trusts him to appoint more conservative Supreme Court justices than Clinton — he did not mention either candidate in his speech.

For and against KFB’s conservative policies

Outside of the breakfast — wearing an orange shirt reading “No Hate in Our State” along with other Fairness Campaign protesters — Congressman Yarmuth told IL he has for several years privately voiced his criticism to KFB about their stated policy positions opposing same-sex marriage and the teaching of “alternative lifestyles” in public schools, calling them divisive and having no relation to agriculture. When KFB officials met with him in Washington in February, he told them if they kept such policies — particularly given same-sex marriage is now legal — he would join the protest outside instead of attending the breakfast.

“Why get involved in these emotional social issues that have no relation to farming and alienate people who would otherwise be supportive of your agricultural agenda?” asked Yarmuth.

Unlike past years in which the Fairness Campaign has protested, KFB President Mark Haney directly addressed those criticisms and defended their policies, saying the Farm Bureau is a grassroots democratic organization and its policies “reflect our membership in Kentucky’s rural communities.”

“To be clear, Kentucky Farm Bureau does not discriminate,” said Haney. “We follow the law. To be very clear, we do not apologize for our democratic grassroots process and principles, which have served our nation very well for a long time and this organization for 97 years.”

In his speech, Gov. Bevin mocked the protesters, sarcastically saying that they “don’t like ham.”

Sen. Rand Paul
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky

Sen. Paul was much more explicit in defending KFB’s policies, saying it is important for their members to uphold the “traditions of marriage” and “traditions of church.”

“They don’t apologize for it, it’s in their (policy) manual,” said Paul. “I get a manual from them every year and when I read it I say ‘hooray.’ We’ve got to have tolerance on both sides. The other side just wants to tell us we have to give up on everything we believe in. What about the other side tolerating Christians who believe in traditional beliefs?”

Democrat Jim Gray — the mayor of Lexington who is running against Paul for Senate this fall and is openly gay — told WFPL before the breakfast that he thinks “the Farm Bureau needs to adjust and adapt to the times, and that means adjusting their policies.”

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer attended and spoke at the breakfast, telling IL it important to welcome the attendees to the city and express how important Kentucky farmers are to local food and food tourism. Fischer says he did not join the protest or ask KFB to change its policies because “it’s not my position to tell an organization what they should do. But they know what my beliefs are, which is no discrimination against anybody.”

Fischer hosted a meeting in his office last week between Haney and Fairness Campaign director Chris Hartman so that the two sides could “begin a dialogue,” but Hartman told IL that “not much came of it at all.”

“We will stop having these actions when KFB changes their policies,” said Hartman, whose organization was joined in protest by the ACLU and Jefferson County Teachers Association, who oppose other KFB policies against the unionization of public employees and farm workers and in support of the death penalty. “We’ll support them once they have extricated themselves from these discriminatory policies that have nothing to do with insurance.”

At last year’s ham breakfast, Kentucky State Police arrested Hartman and two others when they stood up in silent protest at their tables. He noted that this year’s tickets included new fine print warning that attendees could be ejected for “misconduct” or failure to comply with orders; after having multiple officers hover next to their table on Thursday, Hartman said he and other protesters opted to walk out instead of facing more arrests.

Hartman suggests KFB would actually reverse their recent decline in membership if they changed their policies, which he says are adopted without transparency and not publicized to members.

“I can tell you that John Doe Farm Bureau insurance holder doesn’t have a clue how to go about changing the policies that he doesn’t even know about,”said Hartman. “Because their members have no idea that they’ve bought into discrimination. Could the policies be changed theoretically? I think yes. Is the KFB leadership in any place where they’re going to facilitate that change to happen? Absolutely not. They’re intractable.”

State Sen. Alvarado on Trump’s immigration stance

State Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester — who raised his profile after being invited to speak at the Republican National Convention — recounted his recent visit to Trump Tower to speak with Trump about his immigration policy. Since that meeting, Trump’s language has “softened” in certain interviews.

While the Farm Bureau is not hardline on immigration policy — advocating reform that allows immigrants to gain legal status and work in agriculture — over the last year Trump has built his campaign around building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and deporting all 12 million undocumented immigrants.

State Sen. Alvarado
State Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester

Alvarado told IL he is on the Trump campaign’s Hispanic advisory council, which met with Trump last weekend to discuss immigration policy. He described Trump as being very inquisitive during the 90-minute meeting, saying the candidate indicated he is “very open-minded” about immigration policy. Trump’s rhetoric appeared to shift in several interviews following that meeting, implying he might only focus on deporting undocumented immigrants who have committed violent crimes, allowing others to have legal status. Though Trump has not explicitly indicated he will shift his position, if he does so his policy would mirror many of his defeated Republican opponents whose stances he criticized.

In the meeting, Alavardo said, Trump emphasized that he “wants to be tough, fair, but humane,” and while he is “very adamant about following the law” and wants to build a wall, “he also talks about putting a big door on that wall to allow easier access for legal immigration into the country… he understands there are a lot of people in line already waiting, and he wants to make it easier for them.”

Declining to credit this meeting as the cause of any shift in Trump’s stance on immigration, Alvarado said his own view is that violent criminals should be thrown out, but he does not support breaking up the family of immigrants who have behaved themselves and pay restitution.

“If you’ve got people here illegally who have committed a violent crime, I think they should be deported… we don’t want them in this country, and I think the Hispanic community agrees with that,” said Alvarado. “People who are doing their best that come in here illegally, I don’t like that they cut in line and they’ve committed a crime. But for me I’d like to see some kind of documentation – find out who they are and why they’re here. You don’t give them citizenship necessarily, you give them maybe a work visa to allow them to stay. They have to maybe pay their fines and back taxes for being here and taking advantage of our system. But something along those lines to keep those families in tact would be my preference.”

Asked if such an immigration policy position — minus a clear path to citizenship — is similar to that of Obama and Clinton, Alvarado said he was not familiar with the president’s stance, but that Clinton “wants open borders.”

“That’s what (Clinton) says,” said Alvarado. “Now, she has videos from 30 years ago where she had a different opinion. But her thing today is to put illegals up on stage at the DNC and talk about ‘just keep it open, whoever wants to come in can come in.’ There’s no wall that she wants, she doesn’t want any of that now.”

[dc_ad size="9"] [dc_ad size="10"]
Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]