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Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer visited with local farmers and business leaders Friday during a “meet and greet” gathering at the Trimble County Extension Office.
In introductory remarks, Comer said that since he has only been in office a little over five months, “we’re trying to travel around to all 120 counties. We usually stop in the Extension office and invite the local leadership in the ag community. I wanted to say a few things we’re trying to do at the Department of Ag, and we’re also trying to seek input about things we could do better at the Department of Ag or things I could do better as ag commissioner.”
Comer and staff members Steve Kelly, department budget director; and Cory Bridges, the department’s most recent hire; visited Owen, Gallatin, Carroll and Trimble counties Friday and ended the evening at a horse show in Anderson County.
Comer greeted local state representative Rick Rand, a longtime friend from their days of serving together in the Kentucky General Assembly.
“You are very well represented in Frankfort,” Comer said. “It’s good to have the chairman of the Appropriations Committee here. Let me say that Rick Rand is very well respected in Frankfort—one of the most respected members of the General Assembly. To be chairman of the appropriations committee is as high as it gets. It’s on the same level in my book as the Speaker of the House. I was a peon on his committee for a few years and I appreciated serving on his committee. I learned a lot from Rick. He knows the budget inside and out and he has your best interests at heart.”
Comer said he tries to be in his Frankfort office three days a week and spends two days a week on the road promoting agriculture and meeting with people in the ag community.
“The Department of Ag is a big state agency,” he said. “Not only do we market agriculture and the Kentucky Proud program we also have a big regulatory responsibility.”
The department regulates fuel pumps, amusement rides, inspect eggs in the grocery store, regulate the scales and the scanners in the grocery stores, the scales at the stockyards and tobacco warehouses and the pawn shops “where you sell your gold—all that stuff’s regulated through the department so we have a very diverse agency,” he said.
He and his team at the department are trying to work hard with small farmers and big farmers, Comer said.
“Trimble County has a good mix and is a very rich agriculture community and I appreciate that,” he said. “A couple of the programs I wanted to tell you about that we’re working with, we’re working with our Farm to School Program trying to connect local producers with our school systems.”
The department has a coordinator who is trying to help the school systems sign contracts with local producers to where they can sell produce in the schools.
“We think we can play a role in (reducing) childhood obesity because a lot of the school systems don’t have access to fresh, healthy, locally-grown produce. We’re trying to work with charitable groups to increase infrastructure for the school systems where they can have more storage capacity to freeze food. A lot of the school systems can’t buy a lot of local produce because they don’t have the freezer space. They don’t have the cooking equipment to prepare produce, They’re more geared towards deep-fried foods because it’s easier to fix and quicker. Unfortunately, it’s not as healthy so we’re trying to change that.
“That helps farmers, too, because we need markets for our products,” Comer said. “We have a lot of unutilized and underutilized land in Kentucky that we think, due to the very large ‘buy local’ movement that we can help small farmers get started in producing fruits and vegetables for school systems and, of course, for the farmers’ markets. We have the farmers’ market program in the department.”
The Department of Agriculture is also working on a large scale with commodity groups to try to increase exports of soybeans, corn for Kentucky’s big farmers.
“One thing we’re talking with our legislators and county judges and economic development people about is I believe we can enhance and revitalize a lot of rural communities like this one and the one where I’m from if we refocus our rural economic efforts around agriculture,” Comer said. “I think we can have more agribusinesses in the state that manufacture farm products. I think we can have more food processors in Kentucky. I think we can have more biofuel refineries if we work together and think outside of the box. That helps farmers and it increases jobs in Kentucky, which is what we need.”