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ELECTION 2011: Its Farmer vs. a farmer in race for agriculture commissioner

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Candidates say they differ in background, aspirations

By Stephen Lega
Landmark News Service

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One candidate to be Kentucky’s Commissioner of Agriculture has done stand-up comedy. His opponent thinks his campaign is a joke.

The Democratic candidate, Robert “Bob” Farmer of Louisville operates his own marketing firm, in addition to his occasional comedy performances. James Comer of Monroe County, the Republican candidate, is a farmer who has also served as a state representative.

Comer owns a 2,000-acre farm in Monroe County, served as the state president of the Future Farmers of America while he was a student at Western Kentucky University (where he studied agriculture) and has served on the Monroe County Farm Bureau Board for 20 years. He considers farm experience a prerequisite for the commissioner of agriculture.

“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,” he said. “The same could be said for agriculture commissioners.”

Farmer said the position should really be called “commissioner of regulations and agricultural promotion.” He said the commissioner oversees nearly 300 employees and a nearly $30 million budget. He also said that a majority of the department’s employees have nothing to do with farming, but instead are involved in things like inspecting gas pumps, scales, and rides at fairs.

“My opponent thinks it’s a contest about who’s the best farmer, and who knows the most about farming,” Farmer said. “And I say no, it’s not about who’s the best farmer, but who’s best for the farmers.”

James Comer

Comer, 38, is a fifth-generation farmer from Tompkinsville, and he has served as the state representative in the 53rd District for 11 years. In the legislature, he has served on the agriculture committee and the Tobacco Settlement Agreement Oversight Committee.

“I can start day one and hit the ground running in the agriculture department,” Comer said. “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.”

Comer said he is committed to keeping 50 percent of the tobacco settlement money dedicated to the Agriculture Development Board. He also said the commissioner serves as co-chair of that board, and that is a job he will take seriously.

“I will attend every meeting ... I will not send someone else to attend meetings for myself,” he said. “I will be there.”

To boost the horse industry, Comer wants horse breeders to receive the same sales tax exemptions that he receives as a cattle producer.

“That’s the first step, that the equine breeders need to be treated like every other farmer,” he said.

Comer added that he would also like to include the horse industry in the Kentucky Proud program, and a decision needs to be made regarding expanded gaming.

“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,” Comer said.

Dairy farmers are constantly dealing with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Division of Water, according to Comer, but he wants to work side-by-side with the farmers to make sure they aren’t being penalized for their hard work.

He also said Kentucky could be in a position to recruit dairies that are being driven out of other states due to their regulations, but that will mean making changes to Kentucky’s laws.

“Our environmental laws are not dairy friendly in Kentucky,” Comer said. “As ag commissioner, I want to make sure that we have an environmental plan that treats dairy farmers fairly.

While ethanol has been promoted as an alternative to petroleum fuel, Comer said he does not support continuing corn subsidies for ethanol. He supports ethanol research and development, but he believes it will come from non-corn sources in the future.

Comer noted that the morale in the Department of Agriculture is low. He hopes to change that by being a commissioner who is “active, informed and accessible”.

He plans to sit down with each division of the department and look for ways to reorganize the department to better reflect the constant changes within agriculture.

“There are areas of agriculture that are high growth areas that I don’t think we are keeping up with the times,” Comer said. “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.”

He added that he wants to show that a conservative, hard-working person can lead a government agency. He added that he wants to make the department’s 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,” Comer said.

Robert “Bob” Farmer

Farmer, 61, has owned his own marketing firm for 30 years, and he wants to put his experience and skills to work for the people of Kentucky.

Farmer reiterated that much of the commissioner’s work involves managing people and money, overseeing regulations and making sure inspections are taking place. After that, he said the commissioner is the chief marketing agent and spokesperson, advocate and lobbyist for Kentucky agriculture.

“That’s where my experience comes in,” Farmer said. “All I’ve done all my life is manage people and done marketing. So, that’s my qualification.”

Like Comer, Farmer also wants to continue designating 50 percent of the tobacco settlement fund for the Agriculture Development Board. He said those funds have helped make Kentucky the largest cattle-producing state east of the Mississippi and helped the rise of poultry farming in Kentucky.

“We’re in a real transition period, and we want to guard that money carefully and make sure it’s wisely administered,” he said.

Farmer would like to extend the sales tax exemption enjoyed by livestock farmers to the horse industry and continue the thoroughbred breeders incentive program. He added that he wants to use his marketing expertise to benefit the horse industry. He also said the state needs to uphold Kentucky’s reputation for producing the best thoroughbreds.

“They’re better than thoroughbreds that are bred in Florida or Texas or California. That’s a marketing thing and we want to keep that going,” Farmer said.

Turning to another segment of the ag industry, Farmer said dairy farming might be the hardest job in agriculture. He said he’s not sure if there is anything the Department of Agriculture can do about retail pricing of dairy products, but he wants to work to improve the net farm income across the state.

“We can lobby and advocate the best we can for Kentucky’s dairy farmers,” Farmer said.

With regard to ethanol, Farmer said corn subsidies for ethanol research and development should continue. However, he also said there are a lot of other alternative fuels that may not affect corn prices the way ethanol does.

Farmer said alternative fuels are one of the priorities he is emphasizing in his campaign.

“Kentucky has really sort of stood back on that. We really haven’t been forceful in that area, and we need to get forceful in the alternative fuels industry,” he said.

With regard to the management of the department, Farmer said he would be making changes. He said he could not say what those changes would be other than that he would run the department like a business. That means conducting an audit to see where and how money has been spent.

If elected, his first step may be symbolic of a change is leadership.

“The first thing we’re going to do is sell Richie Farmer’s luxury SUV. I’m not ever going to sit in it,” Farmer said. “I’m gonna sell that thing and drive my own car.”

Other issues

Both candidates expressed support for industrial hemp in Kentucky, although Farmer said he would require hemp growers to purchase an annual permit and submit to a background check.

Both stressed the importance of continuing agriculture education across the state. Comer said ag literacy needs to be a priority, and he also encouraged anyone who knows an ag educator to ask who they are supporting in this race.

Farmer said he would like to get ag education into places it hasn’t been before. He said he would borrow an idea from First Lady Jane Beshear and plant gardens next to elementary schools, where the students could work the gardens themselves and see the benefits of their work.

On another matter, Farmer said he wants to open at least four regional offices of the Department of Agriculture. He said the number one goal of the department would be rural economic development.

Comer considers that a bad idea because there won’t be any money to support those offices.

Differences

Comer reiterated the difference in farm experience between himself and his opponent.

“I have as much experience and ag background as anyone who’s ever sought the office of ag commissioner,” he said. “My opponent has the least amount of experience and background of anyone who’s ever been a major nominee for ag commissioner.”

Farmer noted that he is a national spokesman for the Farmer’s Almanac, which he said shows he knows something about farming. At the same time he said having a little farm experience could even be a hindrance.

“Nobody has all the experience,” Farmer said. “If you’ve got some experience you come in for and against certain commodities. And I’m not like that at all.”

He stressed that farming is a business, and he has been a successful businessman.

Comer encouraged people to watch the KET debate (available at www.ket.org). He also said he hopes voters take the race seriously and do not just vote straight ticket on their ballots.

“This race is a defining moment for the ag industry,” he said. “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.”

Farmer, on the other hand, said ag experience isn’t the only difference between the two candidates. He said he has no aspirations for another office, but called Comer a career politician. He added if Comer is elected, he’s likely to be running for another office in the near future.

Farmer said he won’t do that.

“Four years from now, if people like me, I’ll run again for this office, but I’m not running for another office,” Farmer said. “I’m not trying to boost my political career or become governor or senator, congressman or whatever.”