Comer touts strong state ag economy
After eight weeks on the job, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer told Thursday’s Rooster Booster crowd that he is focused primarily on three goals. And one involves talking to elected officials and other economic development leaders in rural communities about making agriculture a key role in those efforts.
Comer’s speech was before about 300 people attending the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce’s monthly breakfast at Owensboro Christian Church’s community room.
Comer, a Republican, was the only member of his party to win statewide election in November.
The commissioner said the strong agriculture economy is a bright spot in an otherwise challenging economy.
“Commodities prices are at record levels,” Comer said. “Corn, wheat and cattle prices are the highest in my lifetime ... But some say we may have a bubble since what goes up always comes down.”
Comer’s biggest concern is “excessive federal regulation.”
He cited the impact of enforcement of the Endangered Species Act in the San Joaquin Valley in summer 2009 that worsened drought conditions by diverting water from farmers — to protect a small bait fish, the delta smelt. That also increased unemployment in the region, he said. But then later, it was determined that water pumps probably were not the culprits in killing the fish. Instead, it probably was predatory fish and waste-water plants, Comer said.
Regulators also are showing up in Kentucky. But Kentucky and its farmers take seriously protecting the environment, he said.
“So, I’m going on the offensive. We spend too much time defending ourselves. I want to tell about the good things we do and the role we play in feeding our local communities, states and the world,” Comer said.
The offense plan involves a “pro-business approach in the way we regulate the market” and by speaking to groups, especially nonagriculture groups, he said.
Often young people get negative messages about agriculture, the former Kentucky FFA president said.
“I want to increase agriculture literacy. A lot of our young people don’t know where eggs and milk come from,” Comer said.
Comer also compared his department — “the largest regulating agency in the state” — in size and budget to 16 years ago saying it has shrunk while other departments have increased. Today, the ag department has a $28.5 million budget and 250 employees compared to a $40 million budget and 400 employees 16 years ago.
The ag department regulates everything from scales at livestock markets to amusement rides, “bouncy houses for kids” and eggs, he said. It also has a marketing division that works with those selling commodities, the Kentucky Proud Program and the state’s farmers markets.
Comer has two other goals in addition to his everyday focus and goal of asking rural communities to refocus their economic development efforts around agriculture. He is working to expand markets for Kentucky farmers including those working with livestock, timber, grapes (wine), and to increase the name identification for individuals in the Kentucky Proud Program.
Comer said he believes that Kentucky’s $5 billion agriculture industry can get to $10 billion in the next decade.
His third goal is transparency.
“My first week in office I called for an audit,” Comer said. “I believe every agency ought to be audited from time to time. I want to be transparent. I want you to go online and see where every bit of the revenue goes and comes from.”
The breakfast was sponsored by Cape Air and the Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport.
Stacey Ross, Cape Air’s Midwest marking manager, told the crowd that her company wants to be part of the community. It has established a ticket office downtown at The Creme Coffee Shop and at all of their Midwest markets. She also told the business crowd that Cape Air can be a good fit for business and family trips with three daily flights to St. Louis at $49 each way.
Airport board member Brenda Clayton highlighted capital projects and activities at the airport, including the final step in the expansion of the 8,000-foot runway — relocating the instrument landing technology — and the $2.1 million terminal expansion project.
“If there is one takeaway from this, it would be that I hope you spread the word to fly out of Owensboro,” Clayton said. “You can get to St. Louis, and then you can get anywhere.” And flying to Las Vegas from Owensboro via Allegiant Air opens up numerous western destinations, she said.
The chamber also launched its new “smartphone” app — GoChamber2Go and gave away an iPad at the breakfast’s end. Bill Hodskins of Kentucky Farm Bureau on Kentucky 54 won the iPad when his name was randomly chosen from a list of people who had downloaded the app.
Joy Campbell, 691-7299, email@example.com