Richie Farmer’s unbridled prodigality comes under the heading of old news, and yet the latest revelations of the former commissioner of agriculture’s big spending on an event that occurred four years ago still has the power to astonish. A recent Lexington Herald-Leader story used information compiled through an open-records request to fill in details from the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture meeting which Farmer hosted in 2008 as president of the group.
The frolic Farmer put together at Lexington’s Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa was, to say the least, a party to remember. At least 27 Department of Agriculture employees stayed in hotel rooms totaling more than $11,000, even though some of them lived close enough to Lexington to have saved the state a bucket of cash by sleeping at home. The convention rented facilities and services of the Kentucky Horse Park for a night, at $3,985, spent $2,000 on entertainment and served a Kentucky Proud dinner featuring native products at a catering cost of $13,000. Farmer saw to it that his fellow commissioners of agriculture received special treats. All started out with $325 carved cowboy hats and donated bottles of Alltech bourbon, followed up the next day with gift rifles and more free bourbon, this time Maker’s Mark. Farmer topped off that gift-giving binge with $50 knives engraved with his name. On another occasion, he presented the commissioners personalized boxes containing two cigars each, valued at $850, and 17 bottles of bourbon from Frankfort’s Buffalo Trace.
Altogether, the convention cost more than $208,000. Plans were to cover the expenses with private donations but Holly VonLuehrte, the department’s current general counsel, said at least $15,000 in state funds went toward paying the bills.
State Auditor Adam Edelen is reviewing the Farmer administration’s handling of these and other spending decisions. His report has not yet been released.
The incredible extravagance of a man whose whose political career suffered a setback with his defeat in last year’s race for lieutenant governor provides an easy target for criticism. Farmer’s self-indulgence is matched only by the inefficiency with which he covered his tracks afterwards. But as presumptuous as his conduct may have been, the commissioner was not without supporters. Other agriculture commissioners sent gushing letters of praise for his hospitality after the celebration was over.
So, what does this blowout reveal about the current state of an agricultural community built on the hard discipline of family farming but corrupted by the effects of urban sprawl and factory farming? Most of the convention donors, the Herald-Leader reported, were chemical and pesticide companies. Farmer sent prospective sponsors a letter promising to showcase the best of Kentucky and its agricultural products. Farm families struggling to maintain their ancestral lands and way of life might wonder just what benefits they really get from a Department of Agiculture that hosts high-priced affairs for government bureaucrats and industrialists hoping to influence policy-making decisions while more and more real farms disappear forever.
Playboy-politician Richie Farmer did not set in motion the socioeconomic forces that led to the decline and potential demise of family farming in this commonwealth. But he certainly knows how to throw one heck of a wake.