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ELECTION 2011: Agriculture Commissioner

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James Comer

James Comer

Republican candidate for Commissioner of Agriculture

 

1. Why are you seeking this office?

JC: I've been a lifelong farmer. I'm a fifth generation farmer. I love agriculture. I love farmers and farm communities, and I know I can make a difference and take agriculture to the next level.

 

2. What experiences and qualifications have prepared you to serve as commissioner of agriculture?

JC: Well, several, and I'm the only qualified candidate in the race. First of all, I have been involved in agriculture my entire life. I farm 2,000 acres in Monroe County. I have a degree in agriculture from Western Kentucky University. While I was at Western, I was the Kentucky state FFA president. I've been on the local Farm Bureau board, the Monroe County Farm Bureau Board, for 20 years. Been a director of a small, agricultural lender bank for 14 years.

I've been a Kentucky state representative for six terms and 11 years, specializing in agriculture issues. I've worked closely with the last two agriculture commissioners on handling their legislation and working on their regulations. So, I can start day one and hit the ground running in the agriculture department. I have credibility within the industry, within the ag industry. I'm supported by almost 100 percent of the farm leaders in every commodity in every county across the state.

My opponent has no farm experience, no agriculture experience, no business experience, and no credibility within the agriculture industry.

 

3. Where do you see the Master Settlement Agreement Fund in five or 10 years? How should those funds be used? And should the state continue to set aside 50 percent of those funds for the Agriculture Development Board?

JC: Yes, and it's important that we have an agriculture commissioner with credibility in the legislature and credibility in the industry because that pot of money is about the only pot of money left in Kentucky that benefits agriculture. And, there is such a demand to put money into Medicaid and other areas of the state budget that if we elect a weak ag commissioner or an uncredible commissioner like Robert Farmer, that money will immediately go into the Medicaid fund or some other fund and be taken away from the agriculture industry.

If I'm ag commissioner, that's gonna stay. We're going to continue to invest 50 percent of the Master Settlement funds in the agriculture industry. The ag commissioner serves as the co-chairman of the state ag development board. I will attend every meeting. I will take that role very seriously. I will not send someone else to attend meetings for myself. I will be there. I worked closely with the ag development fund over the last 11 years. I've been on ag development funds oversight committee, which is the committee that oversees that money. So, I'm very familiar with every project that's ever been allocated money and with ones that have been denied. I can start on day one and be a strong advocate for the farmers and for the tobacco settlement money being invested in agriculture.

 

4. The horse industry has been Kentucky's signature industry for decades, but it has had some struggles in recent years. What steps should the state take to promote this industry?

JC: Several. First of all, we should reform the tax code and treat equine breeders like any other type of farmer. For example, I'm a beef cattle farmer. When I go and buy feed and [recording unclear] supplies and fertilizer, I'm excluded from sales tax. However, a horse breeder would have to pay 6 percent sales tax. So, horse breeders aren't excluded from sales tax. That's the first step that the equine breeders need to be treated like every other farmer - grain farmer, cattle farmer, pork producer. They need to be treated like every other farmer with respect to the sales tax code.

Secondly, the equine industry needs to be included in the Kentucky Proud program, where they can have access to all the marketing ability and marketing money that comes with the Kentucky Proud program.

And third, I think that we need to sit down and have a serious discussion again, and try to leave the politics out, with respect to the expanded gaming issue. I believe that we've come to the point where the people need to decide on that issue one way or the other and do whatever we can to help the dwindling numbers in the equine industry.

 

5. What do you see as some of the biggest issues facing Kentucky's dairy farmers? And what should the state do to promote dairy across the state?

JC: One of the big issues that dairy farmers have are battles with the EPA and division of water. We need an ag commissioner with a farm background, that has experienced farming, experienced dealing with the EPA and division of water, and makes sure that the ag commissioner can side-by-side with the farmers and work with 'em and make sure that they are not being fined or penalized for doing a good job, which has happened to a lot of dairy farmers.

I believe that in Kentucky we have opportunity to recruit dairies from other states, that are being run out of other states because of growth and excessive regulations, like Illinois and California. I believe we have an opportunity to recruit a lot of those dairies, which would be huge, which could have huge economic impacts in our rural communities. However, our environmental laws are not dairy friendly in Kentucky. As ag commissioner, I want to make sure that we have an environmental plan that treats dairy farmers fairly.

 

6. Should ethanol subsidies continue to help with research and development of alternative fuels? How much should the development of ethanol on food prices for humans and feed prices for livestock be considered?

JC: I do not think the subsidies should continue. I do support ethanol production. I believe that in the future, however, ethanol will be produced from non-corn sources like sorghum and miccanthus [spelling?] grass and switchgrass. I do not believe that in the future there will be a very big investment in new corn ethanol plants. I believe it'll come from non-corn sources.

 

7. Given the budget issues facing the state, how important is it to continue funding for soil conservation efforts?

JC: Very important. The soil conservation project - I've been attacked because I have participated in some of those projects on my farm. Of course, my opponent's attacking me for being a farmer. He's a comedian from Louisville and knows nothing about farming. The soil conservation projects are great. They're cost-share projects. They're helping. We in agriculture want to be stewards of the soil, and we want to protect the environment and help wildlife habitat. And the soil conservation projects are great. They're cost-share. They help farmers do what they want to do, but at the same time, farmers are having to invest their own money in it, too. I think they are a great program, and I want to make sure those programs continue in the future.

We're faced with terrible budget challenges on the state and federal level, and I just hope people in Kentucky take this election very seriously and elect a good ag commissioner that can be well-spoken and have credibility within the industry.

 

8. What changes, if any, will you make to the management of the agriculture department?

JC: A lot. First of all, the morale is very low in the Department of Agriculture. I want to be an agriculture commissioner that's active, informed and accessible. I will be the first one to work every morning and the last one to leave. I will sit down with every division of the Department of Agriculture and talk to every employee and see what we can do. Before I take office, we're gonna reorganized the department and make it - we're gonna change the department with the times. Agriculture is a rapidly changing industry, and we need to keep up with the changes. There are areas of agriculture that are high growth areas that I don't think we are keeping up with the times. For example, organic farming, There's a huge demand for organically grown foods in Kentucky. I don't think we're meeting the demands in Kentucky by any stretch of the imagination. And I think it's a huge growth area that will help small farmers. I want to reorganize the department to where we're focused on helping small farmers grow foods organically and be able to market their foods as certified organic.

I just want to improve the morale and set the example of how a conservative, hard-working person can lead a government agency. I also want to make the Department of Agriculture's budget 100 percent budget transparent. I will list every expense online and every source of revenue online where the taxpayers will know where 100 percent of their tax dollars are coming from and going to.

 

9. One clear difference between the candidates in this race is experience on the farm. Is this essential to hold the office? Why or why not?

JC: Yes, it's essential. Billy Ray Smith, the former ag commissioner before Richie, who is the gold standard for ag commissioners, said it's a necessary experience. It's a prerequisite to the office. We wouldn't have an insurance commissioner with no insurance background. We wouldn't expect the mayor to hire a police commissioner with no law enforcement background. The same could be said for agriculture commissioners.

I can't imagine running for agriculture commission with no agricultural background. The only reason Robert Farmer ran for agriculture commissioner is because his name sounds like Richie Farmer. And he's trying to fool the voters. And he did in the primary, but I'm not going to let him do it in the fall. You cannot be the leader and the spokesman for the agriculture industry in Kentucky with no agriculture background, and he has none. His candidacy is a joke, and I hope that, again, the voters of Kentucky take this office very seriously. Don't look at political parties, but look at qualifications and vision. If they do, then I'll do exceptionally well on Election Day.

 

10. How will the Dept. of Agriculture encourage agriculture education if you are elected?

JC: I will make ag literacy a priority. I'm a product of agriculture education. I was the state FFA president. I'm very involved with ag teachers around the state. If you know an ag teacher, ask 'em who they're supporting for ag commissioner. I want to work closely with all the ag education teachers at the high school level and the college level. I want to work with the ag-in-the-classroom program to make sure our students understand where their food is coming from.

I'm afraid our students are seeing the commercials from the Humane Society and stuff on TV and getting the impression that farmers aren't taking care of their animals, when they are. It's important to agriculture that the ag commissioner can go around and use the bully pulpit of the office to talk about the good things we're doing in agriculture. We spend too much time in defense in agriculture, trying to defend what we've done when we need leaders out there on the offensive, telling about the good things we're doing in agriculture. And I'll do that.

Again, if you don't have any experience in agriculture or you don't have any knowledge in agriculture, you can't go around and be a spokesman for the industry. So, I think that, again, back to experience, it's necessary. It's very necessary.

And I'd invite everyone to watch the KET debate that we had about two weeks ago. It was a 57-minute debate, and it was about the issues. There we were side-by-side. If anybody's undecided, I hope and pray they watch that KET debate on the Kentucky Education Television website.

 

11. Production of industrial hemp is an issue that has been raised during the campaign as well. Do you favor or oppose allowing industrial hemp to be grown in Kentucky? Why or why not?

JC: I favor industrial hemp. I favor looking at all types of new crops that can be grown in Kentucky. The good thing about industrial hemp is, like soybean, you can make a lot of things out of it. And I think, obviously, industrial hemp would grow well in our soil and our climates. You can produce ethanol out of industrial hemp a lot more efficiently than you can out of corn. You can also - if we were allowed to grow industrial hemp in Kentucky, we could incorporate that with manufacturing facilities all the state that could take the industrial hemp and make products for the automobile industry. There's so many products that can be made. You could make a dash product out of industrial hemp. That would expand markets for Kentucky farmers, but it would also create jobs in rural communities, so I think that would be a huge economic development tool to be able to grow industrial hemp in Kentucky. So I do favor that.

And hopefully people will realize that industrial hemp is not marijuana, and it cannot be used as a drug. It's just from the same plant family. There's a lot of false stereotypes about industrial hemp. So, if we're

going to grow industrial hemp in the state of Kentucky, we're going to have to have an ag commissioner that can educate the public that this is not a drug. This is in no way, shape or form like marijuana.

 

12. How important is the Kentucky Proud Program, and what, if any, changes would you make to that program?

JC: It's very important. It's been a huge success story over the last eight years. I will make that all the Kentucky products that have the Kentucky Proud logo are 100 percent produced in Kentucky. But, I just want to continue to make it grow and prosper.

 

13. What other issues would you like voters to consider?

JC: I hope voters take five minutes to look at the experience, qualifications and vision of each candidate. I have as much experience and ag background as anyone who's ever sought the office of ag commissioner. My opponent has the least amount of experience and background of anyone who's ever been a major nominee for ag commissioner.

I have some plans and vision for the future, and so far the only thing my opponent has come out with is he's going to open four regional offices around the state, which is the dumbest thing I ever heard because there's not going to be any money. If he won, the Department of Agriculture would look like the treasurer's office because he's done nothing but offend people in the general assembly. He's offended everyone in eastern Kentucky with his comic act where he makes fun of people in eastern Kentucky. He doesn't realize that the leadership in the general assembly - Stumbo, Williams, Robert Stivers, Rocky Atkins - they're all from eastern Kentucky. And they don't think his jokes are funny.

I'm fighting for agriculture. This race is a defining moment for the ag industry. There's never been a race where 100 percent of the leaders in the agriculture community are supporting a candidate like they are me in this race for ag commissioner because they want a serious ag commissioner. And I'm the person.

I just hope people, number one, know that I'm not running against Richie Farmer and, number two, take this office very seriously and don't straight ticket vote.

 

14. Is there anything else you would like voters to know about you?

JC: No. I just have a passion for agriculture. I really sincerely believe I can make a difference for farm families all across Kentucky.