TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY
By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer
State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer called his Wednesday visit to Barbourville “an informal agriculture-town hall meeting.” And despite the early morning hour and frosty weather, his turnout in Knox County was quite impressive.
A crowd of around 50 persons came by the Knox County Extension Office for the 8 a.m. session. Comer said the meeting gave him a chance to meet-and-greet with people and hear what they’re concerned about, as well as for him to tell what his department is doing to improve Kentuckians’ daily lives.
“My number one purpose is to help farm families. I see young farmers every day, and I think we’ve got an encouraging future. We’ve had an outstanding year with Kentucky agriculture. We’ll sell $6 million in farm products this year in Kentucky, up from $5 billion a year ago. For us to increase jobs, I see arm products and agriculture as a big player,” the former State Senator from Tompkinsville told the audience.
Comer then named the top crops in the state that have helped the state’s agriculture efforts, with poultry the number one crop, followed by horses. Traditional crops such as corn and soybeans, as well as beef cattle production were also high on the list.
He named several campaigns the Kentucky Department of Agriculture has had this year, including “Homegrown by Heroes,” which spotlights farm products produced by the state’s veterans; along with “Jobs for Vets,” which helps veterans with going into agriculture careers.
Comer noted the Hometown by Heroes program has been adopted by the Farmer Veteran Coalition, and has been adopted in all 50 states.
Another one was the “Farm to Campus Program,” which helps universities to buy more locally-grown and produced food for their students and staff. He said that program was an extension of the department’s signature “Kentucky Proud” campaign, which he said remains immensely successful.
“We’ll continue to grow the ‘Kentucky Proud’ brand,” said Comer, who was later complimented by a woman in the audience for expanding the program.
He added marketing the “Kentucky Proud” brand and other agricultural products in the state are one of three main jobs the state agriculture department does. The other two were the Office of the State Veterinarian, which protects the health and welfare of the state’s livestock, poultry and ag industries; and the Office of ‘Consumer and Environmental Protection, which handles food distribution, amusement rides, pest control and regulation of gas pumps through the Weights and Measures branch.
“We inspected every gas pump in the state within three months. Before that, it took two years,” Comer stated.
Citing cross-training of agriculture department employees, becoming more accountable to the public, and helping to save taxpayer dollars in the department’s operations, he cited the office as much more efficient since he took office in 2011.
“We’ve become transparent. Anything we do, from inspections to regulatory and promotional, is online at our website. Our employees have become more accountable, we’ve brought in good management, and almost all of our employees come from an agricultural background. … When we hire at the ag department, wee look for young people who come from agricultural backgrounds, work hard, and share our passion for agriculture and serve the state of Kentucky,” Comer pointed out.
While several questions were asked, Deanna Myers of the Knox-Whitley Animal Shelter told Comer the shelter was still struggling to raise funds after a fire completely destroyed the original shelter site on Nov. 29.
She asked if grant money was available.
“Our shelter serves four counties — Knox, Whitley, McCreary and Clay. We fall under the State Veterinarian Board of Examiners. We need about $200,000 at the moment,” said Myers, the shelter’s Director.
“We administer the animal shelter grant money. Problem is, we haven’t had any grant money. The last budget didn’t include any money for grants,” Comer replied.
He encouraged Myers to speak with State Senate President Bob Stivers (who’s district includes Knox and Clay counties) about including grant money for animal shelters in the new budget.
Added Comer, “I’m supposed to meet with Sen. Stivers next week and see if we can get something going on this.”
After the meeting, Myers commented, “We understand there’s processes and we’re going to do what we can. There’s other grants we can look into. But it’s out shelter and we have to step up to the plate. Commissioner Comer understands our problem. I think we just need to have Frankfort acknowledge our need.”
Before leaving to go to Pineville, Comer spent time talking individually with Myers and other Knox Countians at a relaxed, informal pace.
Wiley Brown of Barbourville, who owns a 1.200 acre farm, said he liked what he saw in Comer.
“I think he’s doing a good job. A lot of things have worked to our advantage. It’s benefitted the whole state, and the programs like ‘Kentucky Proud’ will be a big asset to help small farmers,” Brown mentioned.
Barbourville was the first stop on a tour that took Comer through four counties Wednesday. After the Knox County meeting, he traveled to Bell, Harlan, Leslie and Clay counties before the day ended.
“We had a huge crowd. a real good crowd, on short notice in Knox County today,” Comer said, smiling. “We have a good relationship with the rural counties. After today, we’ve been in 119 counties in Kentucky. We’ll finish all 120 counties when we go to Hancock County soon. This is the second straight year we’ve visited all the state’s counties.”