August 27, 2003 | By: Haven Miller
LOUISVILLE, Ky.

When the auction gavel closed out this year’s Country Ham Breakfast at the Kentucky State Fair, history was made.  The grand champion ham from Finchville Farms fetched a record-setting $250,000, more than double the highest price ever paid.

But to think of the Kentucky Country Ham Breakfast as just an auction is like thinking of the Super Bowl as just a football game. 

During its 40-year history, the breakfast has evolved into arguably Kentucky’s premiere farm-city event, a time-honored tradition that brings together under one roof U.S. senators and representatives, the governor, the agriculture commissioner, state legislators, rural and urban officials, agribusiness leaders, agriculture deans and associates, farmers, Cooperative Extension agents and news media.

“The ham breakfast is unique because it brings rural and urban people together with our elected officials, and our featured speakers provide updates on farm legislation and issues important to Kentucky agriculture,” said David Beck, executive vice president of Kentucky Farm Bureau, the organization that sponsors the breakfast.  “We partner with the Kentucky State Fair Board, the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and the Kentucky Ham Producers Association to make it a very successful event.”

Today’s Country Ham Breakfast holds little resemblance to its early beginnings.

“The very first one in 1963 wasn’t a breakfast or an auction, it was a way of getting ham producers together. Then a year later it was decided they ought to sell the ham, so in cooperation with the fair the ham breakfast was started,” said James D. Kemp, retired meats researcher and former faculty member in the UK College of Agriculture’s department of animal sciences. 

Kemp, who is one of the people credited with founding the breakfast, conducted much of the early research on quick aging of country hams. He and UK Extension meats specialist York Varney envisioned the breakfast as a way to draw attention to Kentucky’s country ham industry.

“Those two guys really got it started by encouraging ham producers to enter the contest, and Kemp and Varney also judged the hams and did a lot of other things to promote the industry,” said Jack Crowner, veteran farm broadcaster and celebrated Country Ham Breakfast auctioneer.

“I remember the first one very well,” said Crowner.  “We met in the old Savarin Restaurant at the fairgrounds and there were probably only about 60 people there. I sold that first ham for eight dollars a pound and, holy cow, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

Over the years, through the stewardship of Kentucky Farm Bureau, the Ham Breakfast grew larger and larger, and moved from the East Wing to Freedom Hall, and eventually to the South Wing where it’s held now. 

Crowner, who’s never missed a breakfast in its 40 year history, said it’s gratifying to see the event evolve and become what it is today.

“It’s hard to believe we’ve gone from a few people to an event that feeds about 1700 for breakfast, but that’s what we’ve done,” he said.

The breakfast has produced many exciting moments, but the 2003 event may have set a standard that’s hard to beat.

“The price this year paid by Brown-Forman is certainly an all-time record with those dollars going back into the purchaser’s charity,” said Beck.  “That kind of excitement is why the breakfast frequently receives state, national and even international media coverage, and that means media exposure for a great Kentucky product and our state’s agriculture industry as a whole.”

“The breakfast receives support from people all over the state and represents all phases of Kentucky agriculture, and it’s been great for that purpose,” said Kemp.