Q&A: Candidates for Agriculture Commissioner

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Kentucky Agriculture Report

There are seven candidates for the Commissioner of Agriculture: James Comer (R), Robert Farmer (D), Stewart Gritton (D), John Lackey (D), Rob Rothenburger (R), David Williams (D), and BD Wilson (D). The Kentucky Agriculture Report collected responses on key issues from all candidates but Democrat David Williams. Here are their responses based on the order provided.


What do you see as the role of the Agriculture Commissioner in the state?

COMER:First of all as commissioner of agriculture you are the leader of the agriculture industry in Kentucky. Also the spokesperson for agriculture in Kentucky. That is what I see as the biggest role in addition to the fact that you are CEO of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

ROTHENBURGER:I see the role of the agriculture commissioner in the state of Kentucky as being a true advocate for the farmer, consumer, and producer. I think he needs to be on the forefront. He needs to be out spreading the message about agriculture, the benefits of agriculture, and then also what are the trends that we see in agriculture and try to recruit more people to get into agriculture. We see all time that people say that agriculture is declining and that is very untrue, because of the fact that we are seeing agriculture revenues higher than they have ever been. We are reaching the $5 billion dollar point of revenue for agriculture, so there is definitely opportunity there. We are seeing a lot of diversification. I think the agriculture commissioner really needs to be the one out front advocating for the programs the department of agriculture has and for agriculture as a whole.

FARMER:First of all you have to supervise almost 300 people, and you have to supervise a budget of almost $30 million. That is taxpayer money you are responsible for which is a very sacred thing in my opinion, so you have to do it wisely. You've got to do the things that are mandated like inspect the gas pumps, scales, pesticides, and all the other things that you have to regulate. So once that is done then you are to be the chief marketing and promoter of Kentucky's agriculture. Therein I'm the only candidate with in-depth PR and marketing experience.

GRITTON:Honesty I think that the biggest role of the agriculture commissioner in Kentucky is being an advocate for agriculture and in particular farmers. You know farmers don't have the time to be in Frankfort or Washington dealing and following legislation that affects them. I think the agriculture commissioner should be an advocate for farmers, the surrogate if you would to argue on behalf of farmers, whether it be in the general assembly or in congress. Also to be the front person leading agriculture and representing farmers and their interest, which I think is a major part of being commissioner of agriculture.

LACKEY:Contrary to popular belief, the executive director of agricultural policy in the governor's office really has more power than the agriculture commissioner, but the commissioner certainly has a lot of influence because of the pulpit. But the money is coming from the Governor's office through the tobacco buyout. If you have a farmer in the position of agriculture commissioner you can do an awful lot influencing the agriculture board into partitioning the limited funds that are available out into places that will do the most good instead of to places that are politically beneficial to the Governor's office or the commissioner of agriculture's office. I think that has happened a lot.

Kentucky's agriculture economy has grown over the last ten years, what would you do as Commissioner to try to ensure that growth continued?

WILSON:I think the agriculture commissioner should be the leader for the whole agriculture community in the state. Whatever commodity it might be they should help everybody in the whole agriculture community, because we are one big family. I think they should take the lead on marketing all of our products in the state of Kentucky. I think they should be accessible and have forums and have people come in and gather information so the agriculture department can make an intelligent decision on the way the agriculture department should led.





Kentucky's agriculture economy has grown over the last ten years, what would you do as commissioner to try to ensure that growth continued?

COMER:I would continue to have more contact with the farm leaders across the state and see how the department can work as a partner with individual farmers and agriculture business leaders to grow and expand markets for Kentucky agriculture products. I have said that I believe that we have a great agriculture economy in Kentucky and we have a lot of rural communities in Kentucky that have been struggling. I believe we can revitalize our rural communities with agriculture. The opportunities in agriculture are unlimited there are so many growth areas in agriculture with respect to organic farming, biofuels, and I think Kentucky has the opportunity under the right leadership to attract a lot of large scale agriculture. Like large-scale dairy farming operations that will be looking to move from out west due to water and environmental issues. With the right leadership I think Kentucky could attract a lot of the large scale agriculture, without neglecting small farmers. I think the KY Proud program has been a huge success, and I think there are unlimited growth opportunities in Kentucky Proud. I think that the growth in the organic sector is enormous, I think there are growth opportunities in agritourism, I think there are a lot of potential in agriculture. I think we can continue to grow the agriculture economy at even a faster pace than it has grown the last eight years.

ROTHENBURGER:First of all we are seeing such a diversification in the agriculture community as the state continues to move away from tobacco. We want to continue to foster that diversity that is out there, we want to get that information out there, and we want to look at new avenues. When we look at the agriculture community we look at agritourism, we look vineyards throughout Kentucky, it is such a huge agritourism draw in this state and we need to foster and work with that. We have agribusiness opportunities. As you know most agriculture related jobs are small business, so we want to continue foster and work with those individuals too because that is where we are seeing huge growth is in the small business. We are going to work with Governor's Office of Agriculture Policy, Cabinet of Economic Development, and the Department of Local Government to continue to bring jobs into Kentucky in that agriculture related field. So we are not going to leave any stones uncovered. we are going to go out there to promote jobs, we are going to promote agriculture, and we are going to continue to grow the economy through the agriculture society.

FARMER:Again it is about marketing and public relations. You just have to continue to promote the value of Kentucky products and Kentucky grown products. As an example, tobacco. It is certainly a dying industry, but it is needed out there on a worldwide market. Where we used to sell our tobacco locally we can sell our tobacco globally now and look for the niche markets for certain products like that. It all boils down to marketing and that is what I would hang my hat on.

GRITTON:Again here it is one of those issues where you have to promote Kentucky. We have to stand up and tell the blight of the Kentucky farmer and what we stand for. I think it would come to a campaign to promote who we are and keep those products and sell those products as we move forward in whatever area we can, whether it is working with a joint state, national scene, or exports. We have to work through all of those areas and create markets for our products. That being said we are hearing that gross sales are expected to be five million dollars or more next year. I think that is important but I think it is more important that we look at strengthen the part of each dollar that is spent on food products that goes to the farmer. You know we not only have to look at total sales, but I think we also have to look at net income. No entity, whether it is dairy, tobacco, beef, small grains, will not survive if the bottom line is not improved and people can make a net profit. I think that we have to look very closely at that too when we are talking about strengthening agriculture.

LACKEY:That is a big questions and that involves a lot of things. I think we have got to do something to use the millions of dollars of good barns that were put up in anticipation that the tobacco program would last and now they are sitting there idle or virtually idle with good facilities. I would like to work with the Burley Coop about giving us that increase in buyers for burley. I think that Kentucky burley is the best. We can sell it but there are a very limited number of buyers right now, and with the demise of the program the prices have dropped dramatically, especially for the medium grade leaf. People don't want to get involved in tobacco because they would risk not having a buyer for their crop. We need to encourage the efforts by the burley coop to provide an alternative purchaser. I've always thought Kentucky ought to be a good, big producer of alfalfa. The problem in Kentucky is the weather is so unpredictable. We cannot leave high quality hay out on the ground long enough to cure. There are expensive pieces of equipment you can buy that can cut the curing time down from two and a half days to one day, but most farmers can't afford to purchase that equipment. I would like to have some machinery coops where we can buy expensive pieces of tethers, conditioners so that we can sell the alfalfa fast without losing a crop. I would like to see us have some machinery coops where we could encourage farmers to produce high quality hay that doesn't take as long to cure. The third thing I am looking at that I think is important is that we could use some of the tobacco buyout money to put in canneries around the state, so that the Kentucky Proud program can be used in cold weather months as well as producing months. If people can take their produce in and have it labeled and inspected with FDA quality inspection and save it as a canned or quick freeze product we can have a much larger Kentucky Proud program. Right now it is pretty much limited to farmers markets, but we need a way to preserve that produce and sell it in containers year round. I am intrigued by the small butcher in Garrard County, Marksbury Farm, now that ought to be encouraged in other places. There are probably other things, but here are three to start.

WILSON: Well I feel like that there are certain areas of the farming community that has been neglected. I think that some of the mainstays of the farming community such as cattle, tobacco, hay, corn and soybeans should be at the forefront. I also feel that the horse industry has been put on the back burner. My position will be that we need to bring the horse industry, which is the signature industry of the state of Kentucky, to the forefront.



2010 marked the 10th anniversary of the KADF. The commissioner serves as vice chair of that board. There has been some discussion recently that the county funds are being used more as a subsidy than to really encourage innovation on the farm.Do you agree?

COMER:I believe that the county funds encourage innovation on the farm, obviously different counties have different visions. Some counties have really spent their money more wisely than others. As a conservative I believe in as much local control as possible, and I really believe that all and all the local money has really made a huge impact on the agriculture infrastructure in our state. As Commissioner the members of the state board and I think a county is not using their money as wisely and as innovative as possible I would like to go in an meet with their local board to encourage them to work toward a vision of where they want to see their local agriculture economy to look like. I think that is one thing the next Commissioner can do is improve repriore with the local Agriculture Development Councils. As Commissioner I will attend the state agriculture development board meetings, there will not be a surrogate there, I will be there. As far as the recent discussion on fertilizer, that was the state board that approved fertilizer as a cost share item in CAIP. I would not have voted for that if I were on the board, but I'm a consensus builder. I think we have a quality Agriculture Development Board, I've been on the tobacco settlement oversight committee from the beginning, so I have worked with every member of the state board over the past ten years. Just because I might have one difference of opinion with them doesn't mean that they were wrong, I just think there are more innovative ways to invest that money even though I know putting extra fertilizer on fields sure helps.

ROTHENBURGER:First of all I think the reason why we have local agriculture development councils is because those individuals that serve on the local level really know what is needed in their communities. I think that once again we don't want to go in and tell these local boards, we don't want to restrict them so much that we are taking it out of their hands and we are controlling it on the state level. I am a firm believer of local control of those funds. I think the individuals that serve on those boards are very involved in their communities and they know what is best on the use of their funds. As for the bull program we are continuing to improve the genetics in our beef cattle operations. I have talked to several farmers throughout the state and they have utilized those funds to the fullest extent to increase and improve their genetics and beef cattle operations. I'm 100% behind that side of it that we need to continue our genetics in any way possible. As for fencing, it may not be so much diversification, but it is helping the farmer meet some other federal guidelines, notable the clean water act. So our farmers are utilizing these funds to meet those federal, state and local guidelines. If they did not have these funds they may not necessarily have the resources to meet the requirements. The last thing we want to do is impose unfunded mandates on our farmers without giving them a resource to meet these regulations. If we don't we will eventually push them out of business and we want people to continue to operate in the agriculture sector.

FARMER:To some degree yes. However the people getting those funds are not welfare recipients. They are hardworking people that are used to working for what they get. Then again I think of the old thing give a person a fish and feed them for a day. Teach them to fish and feed them for a lifetime. I think education is extremely important in the grassroots from the 4-H level on up. Education is extremely important in developing new products and marketing those new products too. I would use ever available source I had to start at the grassroots level on how to make the most of what we have.

GRITTON:I don't particular view it as a subsidy. You know on the recent issue of fertilizer, I would have probably come down on the side of including fertilizer because there is no sense on the local level of approving to buy seed, clover, soil tests, and lime if you are not going to allow the fertilizer to be part of that equation. Somebody is given money for seed and lime and they aren't putting fertilizer on if the soil tests are requiring that, I think it is a total loss at that point. The bull program has done a lot for Kentucky, and just because we have bought bulls for the last three or four years doesn't mean that we don't need to continue to improve genetics, it is a valuable program at the local level to get new genetics into our cattle in Kentucky. Any money that we spend to help farmers increase sales is I think is absolutely valuable.

LACKEY:Subsidy is a word you don't want to use, but assistance in getting started with the new program is the same as a subsidy. It just depends on how you spin it. I don't think there is anything wrong with the program. Some of the assistances that are being offered, such as starting small grape producing operations and fruit producing operation has been money that has been pretty much wasted. I have been the recipient of a small grant to improve my cattle handling facility and I have enlarged my corral, without that assistance I probably would not have done it. It has been a real help with my cattle operation. Some of them are good and some of them are not so good. I think we have pretty much exhausted the bull program, but it helps the young farmers getting started to get a good genetic cross with a new bull and there is nothing wrong with that. For the most part it has been handled pretty well as least in Madison County.

WILSON:I feel like they have used the funds wisely. Myself being a former owner/operator of the stockyards and in the cattle business, the genetics and breeding cattle was in pretty bad shape about 15 to 20 years ago. These programs have really helped the quality of the livestock, and helped the prices of the livestock because of the quality. I don't really see it as subsidizing some people. You can call it whatever you want to, you can call it subsiding or you can just call it grant programs. I feel like that tobacco money was set aside for farmers and the way the legislation was set up the counties did get to take a portion of the money and use it the way they felt like their enhance the farming community as a whole.


What do you hope to achieve for Kentucky if you are elected as Commissioner of Agriculture?

COMER:Well I want to be an active, informed and accessible commissioner. At the end of my four years people can look back and say with his leadership the Kentucky Department of Agriculture had a much better working relationship with the commodity organizations in Kentucky and with the agriculture business leaders in Kentucky which resulted in increased markets being obtained for Kentucky agriculture products, which helped revitalized a lot of rural communities with advanced agriculture which created a lot of jobs for Kentuckians and which increased overall net farm income in Kentucky. . I love agriculture and I believe in the future of agriculture and I would be extremely honored to serve the agriculture industry as its next commissioner.

ROTHENBURGER:In short the best things I would like to achieve for agriculture and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture is raise the level of awareness of what the department of agriculture is and what it can do for you as a consumer, producer, and farmer in Kentucky. I want to raise the level of visibility of the office, and I want people to know that they are going to have a strong leader and advocate for agriculture in Kentucky. 

FARMER:First of all let me say I'm the only candidate running of the seven that has never run for office. I'm a real non-politician, a political novice so to speak. I'm also old enough that I don't have an agenda, I'm not using this as a stepping stone, I don't want to move up the ladder, I'm not trying to make a name for myself. What I want to do is the very best job I can do for Kentucky running that department and spending the taxpayer's money just like it was my own money. I will probably be pretty fragile, it is going to be different than most politicians, but I have no agenda other than to help farmers of Kentucky promote Kentucky agriculture and do the very best job I can do. When it is all said and done I want people to say that I was a really good agriculture commissioner. 

GRITTON:I hope to achieve success in being accessible. I hope when it is all said and done that we worked to the best of our ability and as hard as we could to promote agriculture. There are so many different areas that need help and attention, but when it is all said and done they say the administration worked hard to make it better for Kentucky farmers. We created a better business climate and made our friends in the urban areas realize who Kentucky farmers are and the great importance of agriculture to this state. Helped them realize it affects every person in the state of Kentucky. When they look at the gas pumps when they fill up their cars they will see the sticker that says the gas pump is accurate, the product that is in it is the quality that it says it is, and if they buy a head of cabbage at the grocery store they know those scanners are checked for accuracy so they are getting what they pay for. Really to promote that Kentucky agriculture is not just about farmers. Farmers are my passion but the general public needs to know that agriculture affects each and every one of them. I hope each of those things will be accomplished. We work with the young people of Kentucky and our livestock programs are tremendous because that is the future we are cultivating. So I would just love to be recognized for achievement for being up front and being there and working hard for Kentucky farmers.

LACKEY:Well I would like to instill vitality and family farm lifestyle. We don't make enough money on the farm to be full-time farmers for the most part. If you have 160 acres, unless it is flat and you've inherited machinery, you can't make a living on that. We've got to encourage people to go into farming because it is a good way to live. I would like to be able to enhance the income for Kentucky's farmers by going back to production of things like alfalfa. I would like to be able to encourage production in the niche industries, such as the fruit and grape production in the state, which are hard to do because we don't have the seed money, I am hoping I can work with Governor's Office of Agriculture Policy executive director and the Secretary of Agriculture to get more money to the small farm, but I'm realistic enough to know when that money is not available. It is the opportunity to be in the bully pulpit to address with articulation the benefits of coming from the soil. I'm a Jeffersonian democrat and my idea as both a lawyer and farmer is that I would like to see us have an immigration out to the land again. We might not be able to pull it off, but I would like to see it happen again.

WILSON: Basically to make sure that everybody that wants to stay in farming or start a business in farming has all the tools and skills they need at their disposal. The agriculture department can help them make sure they have that opportunity to make a living.