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Alex Barnett, County Judge/ Executive and Hemp Farmer, Harrison County, Cynthiana, Kentucky

Feature | Cynthiana, Kentucky | 08 February 2022
Alex Barnett knew he wanted to be a farmer following in the footsteps of his forefathers. After completing his education at Cornell University, he returned home to be an eighth generation farmer in his family. ILO Photos/ John Isaac.
It’s just after 3pm on a warm September day in Cynthiana, Kentucky where we meet Alex Barnett, County Judge and Executive at the Harrison County Fiscal Court. As we arrive, he is officiating a wedding for a young couple.

“I am an eighth generation farmer here in Harrison County Kentucky. I serve as the County Judge Executive in my day job and I farm after work and on weekends,” Barnett proudly shares. “Both keep me very busy and there are not enough hours in the day to do it all!”

“Farming is my number-one job! I’m a farmer and I'm lucky enough to be the County judge in Kentucky,” he humbly mentions.

Although he does not have a law degree and is not a criminal or civil court judge, Judge Barnett carries the title of Judge and County Executive and can officiate weddings. “I'm basically the mayor of the county,” he says. “I spend all the tax dollars, I don't have court, and I don't have a law degree. I'm just an old farmer that the good people of Harrison trust to spend their tax dollars for a while,” he says smiling broadly.

In addition to being a farmer, Barnett serves as Harrison County Judge Executive which is equivalent to being the county Mayor. He was elected by the local community to allocate their tax dollars for projects and sometimes to officiate weddings. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
When he was growing up, Judge Barnett says that he knew he always wanted to be a farmer. So after graduating from Cornell University, with degrees in Agricultural Economics, Farm Management and Finance, all of which he says, “fit very well,” Barnett came back to Kentucky and farm with this father.

“I came home and farmed with my father who was an agronomist from University of Kentucky. And he would tell us what we needed to do, and I would tell him why we couldn't afford to do it. So his agronomist degree and my economist degree would kind of battle each other every day,” he says with a nostalgic smile.

For over a century Barnett’s family have farmed tobacco, and recently began farming hemp which has been authorised under the U.S. Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018. “Although we have been farming tobacco for over 100 years, I think we can see the end. Our tobacco production has gone from 120-130 acres to between 25-30 acres, so it’s in its declining years,” he says soberly.

“Hopefully hemp can replace tobacco. We use a lot of the same equipment, and we use a lot of the same labor, so it really meshes up well and helps replace the lost income from tobacco,” he notes while adding that the crop is a growing part of the economy on the agricultural side as compared to the medical component.”

His hope is that farming hemp will help sustain the farm for many more generations to come and keep the state’s farm economy strong enough to support future generations. “As I mentioned before, I’m the eighth generation, my son is the ninth, and now my little grandson who already loves being on the farm and playing with his toy tractors is the tenth, and I hope they can all remain on the farm, as well as for generations after.”

After being a tobacco farmer for over a century, Barnett’s family have recently begun to grow hemp as allowed under the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018. Guest workers on H-2A visas help with the labour intensive work of farming the hemp for about seven months before returning to their home countries. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
Producing the hemp crop, Barnett explains is extremely hard and laborious work, and it’s often hard to find people to work. In order to hire workers, Judge Barnett relies heavily on employing guest workers. “All of our hard laborers are guest workers on the H-2A visa,” he states. “We’ve tried to get local workers but there is no interest. So these guest workers come here mainly from Mexico and work super hard for about seven months and then go back home to their families.”

While the agriculture part of Kentucky’s economy is currently struggling mainly due to tobacco, Barnett underscores that the economy as a whole is quite strong.

“We’ve got more jobs right now in this area and across the state,” he says. “And on your way over to see me you passed 3M’s plant, and that’s the largest employer in Harrison County. Every single post it note in the world is made in that building,” he responds with pride.

When asked what his gift is, Barnett pauses and says, “Getting along with everybody. That’s what got me to where I am in my leadership roles and has allowed me to bring people together and to be a compromiser.”

This is the gift that has enabled him to be a successful farmer, county judge and wedding officiator, bringing happiness and joy to many.