One of the rising stars in state politics brought his message of ascendent agriculture to Danville on Friday for the Rotary Club's regular meeting at the Danville Country Club.
Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer reserved a portion of his comments to the Rotarians to deliver some promising news about a partnership with the nation's largest retailer. Comer said he met with Walmart officials in Somerset this week about putting some Kentucky Proud products on the shelves.
In an interview following his talk, Comer said the program, started about a decade ago, has been successful enough that some revenue could be used to help subsidize the shelf space. The idea, though, is to show the demand for locally grown products is strong enough to warrant contracts between stores and farmers.
Comer said once smaller farming operations and those who make products like cheese or organic meats get connected with markets closer to home, they will become more vital. He said finding markets for rural producers was a critical step to sustaining agriculture in a state once dominated by tobacco, which has continued to diminish as a cash crop since the federal buyout in 2004.
Because both crops and livestock are often sent to other states for processing, Comer said there is big potential for those kinds of operations throughout the state.
Comer also addressed a crop that many believe is the real answer to filling the void left by the decline of tobacco: industrial hemp. While answering an audience member who wondered if they would live to see the return of a crop native to the state, Comer said he has championed legislation that would allow hemp to be grown.
Despite skepticism caused by hemp's psychotropic cousin marijuana, Comer said the plant could be regulated by requiring farmers to register the locations and size of their crop with the state. He said the concerns of law enforcement about using hemp to disguise pot plants in the field are misguided because hemp actually kills the illegal cannabis plant if the two cross pollinate.
While quoting statistics about the graying of the state's agricultural community — the average age of principal farm operators is 56 — the fresh-faced Comer made a point of referring to members of the Boyle County High School chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA) in the audience. Comer, 39, said it was important to create opportunities for young people in agriculture.
Ruth Ann Myers, a rising senior at Boyle County High School and the regional vice president for FFA, said Comer's example as a working farmer and former FFA leader are inspirational.
“It is really great have someone who has reached the place he’s reached recognize us,” Myers said. “He talked about how he was a regional officer and so am I. It is cool to see what someone like him in FFA can grow up to be.”
The commissioner remains mindful of the stain left on the office following a scathing audit report of his predecessor Richie Farmer. Comer openly cooperated with an audit that found widespread instances of questionable spending, mismanagement and a bizarre misuse of state property during which Farmer hunted deer from the passenger seat of a state vehicle while a subordinate drove.
Comer offered the fact his schedule and activities Friday were well documented as an example of the departure from the previous administration. In addition to increasing both financial and operational transparency, Comer said he was working on improving communication.
Morale was low after he took office, but Comer said he has taken steps to make sure everyone knows their job and is accountable. Part of that includes making sure everyone in the department is knowledgeable about their budget, something that wasn't the case under Farmer.
Comer also has reached out to the heads of the many agencies his department regulates.