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Mr. Agriculture

Passion for ag leads Warren Beeler to national renown, mission for youth

Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel

“Slow and easy, one step at a time. You’ve got great control.” 

In a firm but encouraging voice, Warren Beeler coaches a teenager on the finer points of guiding a hog in the show ring. Though the Grayson County native has done this thousands of times, judging livestock shows in 42 states, he’s excited to see how the young farmer applies this impromptu lesson.

“I’ve watched kids grow into being responsible, good, selfless volunteers, leaders, parents,” Beeler says. “And I’m sold on it. I raised my kids in it.”

Since 2016, Beeler has led the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy as the executive director, yet his informal title, earned during a four-decade journey through all facets of farming, is even more impressive.

“Some people call me ‘Mr. Agriculture,’” Beeler concedes. “That’s what I eat, sleep and want to learn about.”

His tireless passion for agriculture started on his family’s dairy farm.

“My dad milked for 41 years, my mom was a stay-at-home mom and I was blessed to have parents that loved me enough to make me work and make me mind,” Beeler says. 

“Now, I’m not bragging because he’s one of my former students,” says retired Western Kentucky University professor Gordon Jones, “but Warren Beeler is the most popular pig judge in the country.”

It was Jones who put Beeler on the pig path, recommending the young WKU graduate for a job as a national field representative for swine breeding. Beeler hit the road, talking to five or six hog farmers a day and driving 100,000 miles each year. He somehow found the time to start the first national youth swine organization that developed into the largest youth livestock program in the country.

“We now have over 10,000 members of that organization,” Jones says. “They come together for shows, for academic events, and they network with each other. They learn tremendous leadership skills and that’s what Warren wanted to do.”

Toni Myers, an agriculture teacher at Locust Trace AgriScience Center, a career and technical high school in Lexington, agrees, “That’s where his heart is.” 

“I think for the farm to survive and for agriculture to prosper, we need these kids. We don’t want them seeing just the hard part of it or the risky part of it, we want them to see the reward part,” Myers says. “It’s a great way to raise your family. It’s a great way to interact with other people. And Warren brings that out.”

“It’s the kids that make the extra trip to the barn. Success is earned,” Beeler says. “As a judge, I can stand there and watch them come in, look them in the eye and see who believes they’ve been to the barn enough times to win. My dad said being lazy is worse than stealing. It’s the same thing. I just can’t stand lazy. I can’t stand it!”

It’s a lesson Beeler and his wife, DeeDee, practiced on the hog farm they operated in Caneyville for 20 years, applying his studies in genetics and breeding. He is recognized as one of the greatest swine geneticists in the United States and has produced some of the country’s finest breeding stock.

“I wasn’t in the pig business to scrape pens or for the stink. I was in the business of trying to make a good one,” Beeler says.

It is that wider, more sophisticated view of Kentucky agriculture that Beeler preaches to well over 200 audiences each year.

“It’s all the things that God put on this Earth that we have not figured out yet that makes it so intriguing,” he explains. 

Warren Beeler discusses selection and answers questions from 4-H and FFA members attending April’s Youth Swine Clinic.

Life’s challenges

The Beelers have continued to embrace the mysteries of life, even amid adversity. In 1991, their fifth child, Abby, was born with severe disabilities.

“We thought the world had ended; we were pitiful,” Beeler says. “She can’t walk or talk. She’s like an infant. But she loves me all the time, she doesn’t sass me. I don’t have to worry about who she’s running around with tonight. After 28 years, we may have made a perfect child.”

Abby’s sister, Molly Critchelow, says the family took her “everywhere we went. We learned early that kids were going to say things and people might look at us strange and that was our family and we had to be proud no matter what.”

In 2002, Warren and DeeDee’s oldest child, Emily, was on her way back to her dorm at the University of Louisville after spending the day with Abby in Caneyville when she was killed in a car crash in Bullitt County. 

“He’s done his best to overcome it, he and the family,” Jones says. “But what I think that’s allowed Warren to do, this has allowed Warren to, in many cases, show his empathy and his concern for the youth in this country and for families, and for how families work with their children.”

Beeler poured himself into his work as DeeDee grieved at home. Both realized they had no choice but to keep living.

“We had other children. We didn’t blame God. We weren’t mad at the person,” DeeDee says. “We tried to come to terms with it, tried to make something positive come out of a terrible situation. And tried to learn to appreciate things more—and it truly did help us appreciate the days, day at a time, a whole lot more than we had.”

Beeler gives a lesson in pig showing to Spike Johnston, 12, Leitchfield. Photo: Joe Imel

Career change

Adversity—the economic kind—also had come earlier to the family, in 1998 when hog prices plummeted to record lows, prompting Warren to leave hog farming and start his career all over again at 43 years old. 

“I was embarrassed. I was ashamed,” he says.

Beeler told then-Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Billy Ray Smith he would do anything to support his family. It was a humble start to what became Beeler’s true calling as an ambassador for Kentucky agriculture.

In accepting the 2018 Distinguished Rural Kentuckian Award from Kentucky Electric Cooperatives, Beeler questioned whether he deserved the co-ops’ highest honor, then used his moment in the spotlight to stress the values of Kentucky agriculture.

“You would be hard-pressed to find anybody that is a better advocate and spokesman for Kentucky agriculture,” says Richard Coffey, chair of the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at the University of Kentucky. “He is just a great ambassador for agriculture. I don’t think you can find anybody that is more deserving.”

“I love Kentucky,” Beeler says. “I think of Kentucky a little bit like I think of agriculture: that we have somewhat of a perception problem that we need to overcome. I believe that kids can be anything, do anything that they want to be. We’re just not proud enough.”

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