By Michael Broihier
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer visited Lincoln County last week as part of a statewide effort to promote the opportunity for those renewing their farm license plates to make a ten dollar donation to the Agricultural Program Trust Fund (see article below) that will provide direct benefit to the children and farmers of Lincoln County but had time to talk about his plans for agriculture development in Kentucky.
Tompkinsville in Monroe County, was the only Republican to win a statewide seat in last year’s general election, soundly defeating Robert Farmer. Comer comes from a family of farmers and runs his own 950-acre beef cattle operation, he is also a WKU graduate.
Comer addressed one of the big questions on local farmers minds as summer approaches, the price of gas. “The price of fuel directly effects our agricultural economy,” Comer said. “Any time you plow, spray, harvest or take your product to market you’re burning gas.”
Comer said his department is committed to developing non-grain related forms of alternative energy. “The percentage of corn you can use for ethanol is capped,” he said, explaining that there are other opportunities for Kentucky farmers to produce alternative fuels, noting that sorghum, a traditional Kentucky product, is a good alternative to grain for producing alternative fuels.
The commissioner also said that hemp, another traditional Kentucky product, has tremendous possibilities.
“We’re committed to hemp,” Comer said about legislation that is passing through Frankfort to lift the ban on growing industrial hemp in Kentucky. Comer said that in addition to pressing hemp oil for biodiesel, it can be burned as biomass for energy production and used for clothing and other products. Comer said that he envisions hemp grown in Kentucky being used for making car interiors. “Hemp is best suited for use in auto parts like dashboards. I see hemp being grown in Kentucky being used in cars manufactured in Kentucky,” he said.
Comer also spoke about the impact of the local foods movement on Kentucky’s agriculture. “People in Kentucky want to buy locally grown, fresh meat and produce,” Comer said. Comer said that his department has been working with Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer to connect producers and consumers through encouraging retailers to buy local. Comer’s been speaking to consumer groups around the state about the subject and send buying local is a new trend in food consumption that has a large impact on local economies.
“This niche is a big opportunity for Kentucky farmers,” he said.
When asked, Comer said that he didn’t know why the Farm Service Agency didn’t participate in a program to guarantee refinancing on farms. Many farmer’s are land rich but cash poor and a refinance at today’s historically low rates could provide rural communities with a huge influx of cash. “Tell me about it,” Comer said. “One of the biggest problems we farmers have is access to credit.”
One of the programs Comer said that does not get enough attention is the Kentucky Agricultural Finance Corporation (KAFC) which provides low cost loans to beginning farmers and established farmers that want to diversify or add infrastructure to their farms.
“It’s one of the things we’re going to push,” Comer said.