By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — The state’s agriculture sector has seen a year of possible record farm cash receipts, record drought conditions and record grain prices – and it has all happened under the watchful eye of Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.
Just one year ago, he began his tenure as the new commissioner after a long election campaign. But Comer, a lifelong farmer and 11-year veteran of Kentucky’s House of Representatives, was no stranger to the political life.
He also knew he would be taking over an office left in disarray by former Commissioner Richie Farmer and if he won, he would likely be the only Republican among an all-Democratic team of constitutional officers headed up by a popular Democratic governor. But win he did, and in a big way.
“I felt like I could win the race if I had the support of the ag industry,” he said of his decision to run for office. “I thought I could do more leading an agency than being a minority member of the House of Representatives.”
As his first year draws to an end, Comer said many positive strides have been made to make the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) more efficient and as transparent as it can be. Making the office transparent began by authorizing a complete audit of the department only days after he took office. The audit, conducted by Auditor of Public Accounts Adam Edelen, released its findings last April.
“The report paints a clear picture of an administration that had no qualms about treating taxpayer resources as its own,” Edelen said in a statement, referring to the Farmer administration.
Comer has been on a mission since to regain the confidence of taxpayers and expand the agriculture industry and show how important it is to the overall economy of the state. As part of that mission, he visited every county in the state within his first year.
“I think (agriculture) is the major industry and I think people have realized, in looking ahead, the state has got to create more jobs, and what sector can you invest in that’s going to stay in Kentucky and not worry about going overseas? It’s agriculture,” he said.
Growing ag statewide
Comer added Kentucky has the room to grow its agriculture industry significantly, from the standpoint of businesses such as ag processors and food processors, for instance. “We are nowhere near capacity in production in Kentucky,” he said.
Comer feels more people see the value of agriculture to the state’s economy and how valuable processing facilities could be to rural areas all across the state. He also said urban areas are becoming hubs for buying local foods, something again that will create job opportunities and new markets for farmers who are finding a niche in farmers’ markets and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs – both popular in urban areas.
“You have, in Louisville and Lexington, this huge buy local movement, where people want to know where their food comes from. It’s important to them to keep their local dollars in their local communities and support their local farmers,” he said.
With that in mind, another priority for Comer has been to continue to grow the Kentucky Proud marketing program and do so by placing those farmers and producers involved in the program in the spotlight when it comes to advertising it.
Industrial hemp has been another huge initiative of the Comer administration. He said it could mean jobs for the state if farmers were once again allowed to grow the crop. Comer has spent much of this year spreading the word and gaining support.
In fact, just last month the Kentucky Hemp Commission met for the first time in a decade, bringing together key players from various sectors to help advance the proposal. He said more than what it could do for the farmers, would be the manufacturing jobs created by the multiple uses hemp has, from plastics used in the automotive industry to paper products and textiles, to name a few.
Agritourism is another part of the ag picture Comer said is growing. He noted people like those destinations and want their children to experience it and know where their food comes from.
For his next year, Comer would like to see an expansion of businesses such as livestock and orchards in eastern Kentucky.
There is an initiative that will be rolled out in January called Home Grown by Heroes, to inform consumers about veterans who are part of the Kentucky Proud program so they may support those veteran farmers.
“We have two military bases in Kentucky and National Guard Units all over the state. (The soldiers) are being deployed every minute and what has happened is when they come back, the unemployment rate among our military people is significantly higher than the average Kentuckian,” Comer said.
“Our National Guard’s unemployment rate is high because they are getting deployed all the time. So, they are having a hard time, and we want to give a special program to the ones that farm, so their products stand out.”
Another KDA program called Eat to Win has and will feature even more famous Kentuckians going to schools and visiting groups of young people to tell them about healthy foods. The Plate it Up program will also continue its development of recipes using Kentucky Proud products.
More agriculture processing facilities are set to break ground in 2013, as well. Not only will these create jobs, but will contract directly with local farmers, said Comer.
A huge urban agriculture initiative will also be announced next year that focuses on Lexington and Louisville. Comer also wants to increase the capacity schools have to store locally grown products.
He is excited about the ag industry and would give himself an A- as a grade for his first year in office, but resting on his laurels is not something he expects to do anytime soon.
“We spent 2012 restructuring the department, being efficient and hopefully improving the reputation of KDA. Next year we will focus on big-ticket policy. We’ve got a lot of good projects we’re going to unveil in 2013,” he said.
“There’s an opportunity in agriculture for large-scale farmers, mid-size farmers and very small farmers right now that we’ve never seen before. It’s a good time to be in agriculture.”
To learn more about the KDA, go online to www.kyagr.com