October 23, 2007

Hi-ho the dairy ... oh, who cares? What the agriculture commissioner does and why you should care about him

David Lynn WilliamsKentucky’s Department of Agriculture is the quiet kid who never gets asked to play.The office of agriculture commissioner isn’t usually employed as a weapon in the bellicose partisan battle for votes. Ironically, agricultural policy doesn’t serve as fodder in the average dinner table debate, and is becoming less so as fewer young Kentuckians choose farming as a way of life. Yet the department regulates an industry that brings more than $4 billion in revenue to Kentucky each year. “We probably don’t get as much attention as we deserve, but that’s our own fault in agriculture,” said David Neville, who lost the May Democratic Party nomination to David Lynn Williams. A farmer himself, Neville said his colleagues stay so busy with the day-to-day preoccupation of the farm business that they generally don’t take the time to let the rest of us know exactly what’s going on out there in the fields. “A lot of rural folks and folks in agriculture think it’s bragging if we’re talking about ourselves,” he said. “So we tend to be quite humble and don’t ring our own bell too much.” Farmers are quick to express their appreciation for somebody taking an interest in their work. “Thanks for noticing,” most all say, one way or another. Kentucky tops most states in obesity rates, yet our capacity for food consumption seems to be inversely related to our understanding of food production. And as growth (read: sprawl) increases the amount of urbanized area in the state, it is remarkably easy to disregard the fact that just over half the land in Kentucky — more than 25 million acres — is devoted to agriculture.But who really cares about the Department of Agriculture? That’s hard to say, but probably not enough people. Who should care? That’s easy.Drivers, shoppers and general fun-lovers should care. If you’re a member of one of these three groups, you could spend a good portion of your day depending on KDA, since the department’s duties reach inexplicably into several seemingly unrelated categories. Department spokesperson Ted Sloan said he’s not sure why, but as the department grew, various issues came under its purview.KDA carries out duties you might expect, such as shining lights through eggs to check for impurities before they make their way into your breakfast omelet. It regulates the greens in your lunch salad, the steak on your dinner plate and the tobacco in your after-dinner cigarette, plus the pesticides that keep your smokes and salad bug-free in the fields. But it is also responsible for inspecting the price scanners at the grocery stores where you buy all that food, not to mention where you bought your dining room table, or the pants you have to loosen a bit after all that steak and veggies. Scanners in every store, in every town, are inspected annually, Sloan said. It’s like the KDA is there every time you make a purchase.“Everything,” he said, “clothes, schoolbooks, CDs, you name it, whatever.”This is the Bluegrass, so there’s a smashing-good chance you employ some sort of gasoline-dependent motor vehicle to cart your new goodies home. Meanwhile, you might not have known that the friendly folks at the KDA make sure the gas pump is accurate and you’re paying for as much gas as it says you’re paying for. They also check the quality of the gasoline for impurities and make sure it matches the octane listed on the pump. With oil prices floating above $80 a barrel, it’s nice to know we’ll have somebody when the gasoline bootleggers inevitably try to profit off the final days of the fuel frenzy. A $1.65 million testing facility to be finished in January will be handy in keeping those shysters at bay, and will go nicely with the state-of-the-art laboratory in Frankfort that’s used to test the accuracy of commercial scales. You’ve probably spent a weekend with KDA if you’ve visited a Kentucky amusement park or taken a twirl on something or other at the State Fair. The department inspects the rides for safety. It is investigating the incident at Kentucky Kingdom this summer, where a girl’s feet were severed on a ride. That’s not exactly bailing hay.By most accounts, the race for agriculture commissioner won’t be the most competitive this year, but voters should still tune in. Both the Republican and Democratic candidates have gotten where they are largely due to name recognition. Incumbent commissioner Richie Farmer’s hoops acumen, both at the University of Kentucky and at Clay County High before, when he was named Kentucky’s “Mr. Basketball” in 1988, undoubtedly helped carry him to this office, and to re-election — even 20  years later.It is also said — even by members of his own party — that Democratic candidate David Lynn Williams might also have won the primary because he has the same name as the current popular senate president, who’s from the other party. While it’s party policy not to support one candidate over another, and to stand behind Democrats in general elections, the party doesn’t seem to put much faith in Williams. The 69-year-old has some progressive ideas for how he would run the KDA, but he’s also voiced some weird, rather extreme views in past interviews. Williams, who speaks through a voice box that can make him difficult to understand by phone, tends to share his views via his campaign manager Adam Smith. “He wants to promote organic, locally grown, non-genetically modified food products because he thinks that would save energy,” Smith said. Williams would also like to move KDA away from a gasoline-fueled fleet, setting an example for other state agencies. Williams isn’t receiving support from the party, but prides himself on being outside the box. Having run for offices at multiple levels of state and local government, he once switched to the Republican Party mainly as a joke to irk party leaders, who subsequently had two candidates with the same name running for office. He also wants to make sure people know he favors greater diversity in the department, hiring practices devoid of political motivation, and supports benefits for the partners of gay and lesbian state employees. He also frowns on Farmer’s acceptance of $1,000 in campaign contributions from Monsanto, a company that pushes the use of genetically-modified crops all over the world, included corn that reportedly caused illness to agricultural workers in California.Multiple interview requests over two weeks never yielded a response from the commissioner, but his one-page campaign Web site (www.richiefarmer.net), festooned with cartoon basketballs, says he will continue to support efforts at marketing Kentucky-made products and efforts toward consumer protection. Even if other voters are a little slow on the uptake regarding the Department of Agriculture’s importance, farmers are poised and ready with a host of issues they’d like to see addressed by the next commissioner. The hottest issue right now is an electronic animal identification system, which until recently wasn’t much of a concern to KDA. Farmers claim the U.S. Department of Agriculture is offering states grants to implement its failed National Animal Identification System, which was initially proposed as mandatory, but shrank to a voluntary system in the face of widespread opposition. Farmers say NAIS language has found its way into animal health regulations, which are currently being revised for the first time since the 1940s. The three-part system starts with premise identification, then animal identification by radio frequency tags embedded in the animals. The tags would then be used to track animal births, deaths and sales, information farmers would have report to the state within a day.Meade County farmer Adam Barr, who sells food at Louisville farmer’s markets and delivers food to 15 area families who’ve signed up to buy his produce for the season, said his vote for commissioner is riding on this issue, and he’s not alone. “Small farmers can’t afford that type of burden,” he said. “It’s already hard enough that most farmers have a full-time job in order to keep on farming.“And say a coyote comes and takes a couple of birds; he’s not going to take the tag out and just leave it there nicely for me. So I’ve got to go through every one of the animals to find out which ones were taken, and do that within 24 hours.”He is also paying close attention to how the department treats small farmers like himself, who make up the vast majority of agricultural producers in the state.“The reality of it is, when they put this program in place, it’s going to benefit those large-scale agricultural facilities,” he said. He is angry that small farmers must tag every one of their cows, chickens and pigs, while large companies will be able to use a single tag for groups of animals that are born and bred together in the same lot. He said it is part of a trend where larger, more industrial farms in Kentucky receive preferential treatment, including a disproportionate amount of the federal money intended to help Kentucky move away from a tobacco-dependent agricultural economy. He also says young people could use a little help getting into the farming business. “I’ve got a ton of friends looking to get into agriculture, but land and financing are a big issue,” said the 27-year-old.That’s one area where Neville would like to see improvement. “We give lip service to this a lot, but I don’t think we’re walking the walk,” he said. “4-H or (Future Farmers of America) are great, but how does a young guy who’s 24, finished with college and has worked a couple years, how does he transition into farming?” Number crunchers ought to be interested in the opportunities for increased revenue at the KDA. Although neither of the two current candidates has mentioned it, Neville and others in the past have talked about the potential for increased exports to other countries. The commissioner before Farmer, Billy Ray Smith, signed an export deal with Cuba that now languishes, if it is even still valid. A more deliberate focus on agro-tourism might also bring in some cash. Proud farmers believe there’s money in showing off Kentucky’s 13.8 million acres of farmland (84,000 farms) to outsiders, and highlighting rural communities as unique geographic and cultural assets. Despite greater participation in the Kentucky Proud program — the department’s effort to market farm products, especially in urban areas, online and in some stores — many involved think more could be done to help farmers increase sales. Farmers reaching out to urban areas to help address food security issues see opportunities to maintain and even increase their income by connecting directly with a customer base in need. Foodies and environmentalists have been hip to the “buy local” message for some time, and want to see more effort from state government to help make that happen. Regardless, KDA’s next commissioner will have to answer to a public that is slowly but surely beginning to grasp the interconnectedness between agriculture and a host of other issues affecting daily life. The department has not seen many drastic changes over the years, but now might be the time for that, as its vast, weird areas of coverage touch issues people care about beyond the abstract “plight of the farmer.” When we finally make the connection that gas, roller coasters, bug spray, tourists and price checks on aisle 9 all relate to one state office, the Department of Agriculture may finally get its day in the spotlight. Contact the writer at jennifer@leoweekly.com