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The 143rd Fancy Farm picnic is right around the corner. Here’s what to expect this year.

A crowd of people gathered at Fancy Farm, holding signs for Charles Booker.
Lily Burris
/
WKMS
The 143rd Fancy Farm picnic is this weekend.

Politicians will make their pitches Saturday to a crowd of thousands gathered in the rural western Kentucky community of Fancy Farm for the 143rd edition of its annual picnic.

The event that began in 1880 with a few families from the local parish gathering for a picnic has grown to accommodate over 10,000 who gather for the one-of-a-kind occasion in Kentucky politics.

Steven Elder, the picnic’s political chairman, said that the event grew in the 19th and 20th centuries as families who had moved away from the area used it as a homecoming celebration each year. Sometimes local politicians would make an informal appearance to hobnob in the growing crowd, but, by the 1930s, the annual fundraiser held at St. Jerome’s Catholic Church had become an unofficial kick-off for Kentucky politicians’ campaigns.

These days, campaigns for statewide office kick off well before August, but incumbents and political hopefuls alike flock to Fancy Farm each year to make speeches, jokes and zingers at their opponents. Each speaker gets between two and eight minutes and, for contested seats, a coin flip determines who speaks first.

“It's a throwback to the old days of stump speaking where you would have a politician actually get up on a stump and give their spiel as to why you should elect them,” Elder said. “We tried to hold on to that tradition, keep that tradition alive.”

Berry Craig, a local historian and a professor emeritus at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, said what started off as amiable roasts of opponents has turned “nasty” in recent years. But even though Craig said he swore off Fancy Farm in 2019, he’s coming back again this year.

He said what used to be an opportunity to stand on the same stage (or, way back when, on the back of a flat-bed truck) as a political rival and shake hands has turned into demagoguery. But in some ways, Craig said, that’s a reflection of American politics.

“To me, Fancy Farm has become the symbol of American politics,” Craig said. “It's just madness. But it's the only system we've got. I'm just ready for some civility.”

Politicians slated to speak this year

This will be the first year since 2019 that Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear is scheduled at Fancy Farm – making this his first appearance since becoming governor. Both he and Lieutenant Gov. Jacqueline Coleman are slated to speak, as well as their GOP rivals in the upcoming gubernatorial election — Attorney General Daniel Cameron and his newly chosen running mate, Sen. Robby Mills of Henderson.

J. Tyler Franklin
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WFPL

Kentucky Venues CEO and president David Beck who formerly headed the Kentucky Farm Bureau will emcee the event. Beck is also a native of Western Kentucky.

Elder said Beck will be responsible for introducing the candidates and politicians. Booing and heckling are all standard at the event, but Elder said the master of ceremonies will make sure the crowd doesn’t get too rowdy.

The following are slated to speak alongside the gubernatorial candidates:

  • Jonathan Shell (R), Agriculture Commissioner candidate
  • Sierra Enlow (D), Agriculture Commissioner candidate
  • Russell Coleman (R), Attorney General candidate
  • State Rep. Pam Stevenson (D), Attorney General candidate
  • Secretary of State Michael Adams (R), running for reelection
  • Buddy Wheatley (D), Secretary of State candidate
  • Mark Metcalf (R), Treasurer candidate
  • Michael Bowman (D), Treasurer candidate
  • Treasurer Allison Ball (R), Auditor candidate
  • Kim Reeder (D), Auditor candidate
  • U.S. Rep. James Comer (R)
  • Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles (R)
  • Auditor Mike Harmon (R)
  • State Sen. Jason Howell (R)
  • State Rep. Richard Heath (R)

Neither of Kentucky’s U.S. senators have agreed to make an appearance yet. Elder said he is hopeful Sen. Mitch McConnell will show up, although his invitation is still pending.

“Mitch McConnell has always supported Fancy Farm, and if they're in recess, which they are now, he's always made it a point to come in,” Elder said. “I have all the high hopes that we'll see Senator McConnell on that stage again, this year.”

Concerns surrounding the 81-year-old McConnell’s health arose after he froze mid sentence and appeared unable to speak for roughly 30 seconds at a news conference last week. He said he was “fine” when reporters asked him about the episode.

Elder said this will be the first year since the pandemic where both Democrats and Republicans will have major candidates to root for on the Fancy Farm stage. Elder predicted roughly 10,000 people to come to this year’s event — although he said he’s hoping for as many as 20,000 attendees.

A whole lot of tradition – and meat

The Fancy Farm picnic is awash with traditions and lore, like the lighting-struck Old Oak Political Tree, nicknamed the Lyin’ Tree. But perhaps the custom most people associate with the Fancy Farm Picnic is barbecue – and lots of it. According to Elder, around 19,000 pounds of mutton and pork are cooked in a shed on the premises in a traditional barbeque pit.

“Western Kentucky really is the only part of the state where you can have traditional barbecue,” Craig said. “Politicians in Kentucky early on discovered that the way to voters' hearts was through the voters' stomach.”

Elder said the same families that began cooking and distributing the barbecue in 1880 are still involved today.

“My family is part of the original folks that started Fancy Farm and the Fancy Farm picnic,” Elder said. “The Elders always ran — and we still do today — the meat stand. If you buy a pound of barbecue, you're likely to run into several Elders at that booth.”

Craig said that, at its core, the picnic is still a church and family affair. People come from all over for the event, some for the politics, but many for the community.

“Some of them wouldn't give you two cents for the political speaking. A lot of them will come after the speaking and get barbecue and take it back,” Craig said. “Fancy Farm is not a political thing to them. It's a homecoming.”

Copyright 2023 WKMS. To see more, visit WKMS.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.