Last week at the state fair in Louisville, the Kentucky Farm Bureau raffled off one very expensive ham and Chris Hartman held one very expensive protest.
Hartman, the director of the Kentucky Fairness Campaign, protests the breakfast every year, but it's only once every so often that he gets arrested. He had to hire a lawyer, go through arraignment and post bail.
"I would prefer not to do this," he said of his annual trek to protest at the breakfast, which marks the end of summer for numerous politicians and public figures. "But they claim to have a lock on Kentucky values when they don't."
Most people think of the Farm Bureau as an insurance company, which it is. But the group of 500,000 members strong across Kentucky is really a massive lobbying organization that advocates for farmers and agriculture, and tells a lot of legislators exactly how high to jump.
The Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation holds positions on nearly every bill that even remotely touches the agriculture sector to come up in Frankfort, and it also has a 100-page pamphlet of "policies," on a host of topics you'd expect, ranging from wetland preservation to tobacco and aquaculture.
Then there are some that might come as a surprise.
For example, on page 13, "The institution of marriage should only be recognized as the legal union of a man and a woman."
"We are opposed to any state-supported agency providing benefits to domestic partners."
And new this year: "We oppose any mandate that force school districts to provide transgender bathrooms."
Those policies are why Hartman protests the ham breakfast every year, rather than standing outside the conservative Family Foundation with signs. "The Family Foundation is upfront about who they are," he said. "The farm bureau is claiming to be something it's not. It's the fact they're being so subversive about it."
The Farm Bureau only has itself to thank for this uproar. Way back in 2004, a young Unitarian minister named Todd Eklof earned his main paycheck shooting video for the bureau in Louisville.
This was just after the 2004 election, when gay marriage had been used as a wedge in the national and local elections. Eklof was preaching one day at Clifton Unitarian Church in Louisville and announced he would stop performing marriages until it was available to everyone.
It made the news. Eklof said that shortly afterwards, he was reprimanded at work, and eventually fired. He went to the Fairness Campaign because Louisville already had a fairness ordinance and told the group about the Farm Bureau's policy pamphlet.
"What do those policies have to do with agriculture or farming?" he asked in a phone call from Washington, where he is now the minister at the Unitarian Church of Spokane. He later sued the farm bureau and settled. The terms are under seal.
But Eklof's question is the right one. The Farm Bureau says that delegates from all 120 counties put forward policy positions and the Board of Directors adopts those it feels will be "pertinent for the upcoming year."
In a statement, Farm Bureau officials said all policy positions are included for one reason: "Because our members decided that the issue is important to them and represents their rural values. We are proud to be the voice of agriculture and rural Kentucky. We discriminate against no one and we follow the law. Any assertions to the contrary are false."
Obviously, Todd Eklof would disagree about the discrimination part, and so would I. Working to deny someone health care because of their sexual orientation is discriminatory. Also, gay marriage is a federal law, so it makes even less sense for an agriculture lobby to oppose it.
Hartman thinks the federation tries to cover all the bases just to show its political might in Frankfort.
"If I'm a new legislator, I know the Farm Bureau is powerful and here's a pamphlet to show me how to toe the line," he said.
That the Farm Bureau feels the need to take a stand on gay marriage and gender-neutral bathrooms is depressing, but it's a good illustration of the urban-rural divide these days. I think farmers have bigger problems: tariffs that are costing them billions, climate change that's destroying their crops and high suicide rates. Interestingly, the KFB's policy book does say randomly that people on public benefits should be drug-tested, but it doesn't specifically mention tariffs or climate change.
But that's where both sides of the aisle are these days, arguing furiously over non-existent threats, whether it's gender-neutral bathrooms or the need for "safe spaces" on college campuses, at the same time the Amazon, which produces 6% of the world's oxygen, is LITERALLY burning down. And that's just this week.
Back here in Kentucky, we have many serious issues around agriculture and the Kentucky Farm Bureau is and continues to be an important partner in solving them. But worrying about how "alternative lifestyles" or teacher strikes or gay marriage might affect farming is a classic example of missing the point.