The state Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer is winding down his year-long tour of all 120 counties in Kentucky.
This week, he visited Boyd, Carter and Greenup counties stopping by schools, the Marathon Catlettsburg Refinery, Carter County’s new UK Cooperative Extension office and Imel’s Greenhouse.
Comer also dropped by The Independent to discuss his state-wide tour and his ideas for growing agriculture in eastern Kentucky, an area hit particularly hard by the tobacco buyout of the 1990s.
“I love agriculture. I love politics and state government. I really enjoy it, and I love meeting people of Kentucky and traveling around the state,” he said.
The former state representative noted he understands how frustrating it can be for constituents in corners of the state far from Frankfort that are not often visited by high-ranking state officials and have trouble getting in direct contact with them. “I wanted to change that,” he said.
Comer said he also wanted to visit every county in an effort to improve the Department of Agriculture’s public image and dispel the “cloud of suspicion hanging over the office” in the wake of the scandals surrounding his predecessor, Richie Farmer.
He said he has been “cleaning house” at the agency since he took office in January, turning over about 20 percent of the staff, including 33 merit employees. “We have cleaned that place up,” he said.
In addition to talking with local agriculture officials and organizations, Comer has been sharing many of his ideas to expand opportunities here as well as promoting existing Kentucky Department of Agriculture programs.
“We are always eager to find different types of agriculture in the mountains,” said Comer. “When you look at agriculture in Kentucky, the overwhelming majority of it is from Lexington west. I believe there is an opportunity to really grow agriculture in the mountains.”
Among his ideas for boosting agriculture in this part of the state is the production of food crops from small tracts of land. “Small tract land, I believe is the future of fruit and vegetable production in Kentucky,” he said.
“An acre of land produces a lot of food. You don’t produce very much food in this area. You import it all,” said Comer, “I believe people would pay the same and maybe more for locally produced food. The problem is people have the mindset ‘You can’t do that here.’”
He said through the agency’s partnership with the University of Kentucky, it wants to survey and test farmers’ land to develop a best practice plan for each. The agency is also working to develop local markets for produce and trying to connect farmers and buyers, including local school systems.
Comer said there will never be one thing that will replace the tobacco industry in eastern Kentucky. Instead, it will be a combination of small, speciality crops and livestock chosen because they do well in mountainous terrain.
Among the ideas Comer is pushing in the eastern portion of the state are: cultivated ginseng, industrial hemp, herbs, fruit orchards, adventure tourism, hydroponic and traditional greenhouses and agritourism.
Trees, he said, grow well on hilly, mountainous land. Hybrid varieties of fruit trees grow quickly and can produce in as little as three years. “If you are wanting to get started, the technology is there with the hybrids that you could get started planting those fruit trees and building infrastructure for orchards in eastern Kentucky,” said Comer.
“Ginseng grows well on this type land. We’re trying to work with an outside investor to come in and have a ginseng manufacturing facility in eastern Kentucky. That is a joint venture we are working on with economic development. If that would come in there would be an opportunity to have a lot of cultivated ginseng in this part of the state,” he said.
Industrial hemp is also well suited for cultivation in eastern Kentucky, as a high yield, low maintenance crop.
His push to legalize industrial hemp in Kentucky has gained a lot of attention in recent weeks with four members of Kentucky’s U.S. congressional delegation announcing support of it. However, many leading farm organizations, including the Kentucky Farm Bureau, have not announced their position to date.
Comer said he is confident industrial hemp will become legal.
“We are the only industrialized nation in the world that does not allow the growth of industrialized hemp,” he said. “We’re buying stuff every day made with hemp that is imported from other countries. We should be growing this in Kentucky to help the farmers, but more than anything we should be manufacturing it in Kentucky, and that would create jobs,” he said.
His office is already working with three companies who want to build facilities in Kentucky and partner with farmers to process industrial hemp for a variety of uses from paper and textiles to cosmetics.
CARRIE STAMBAUGH can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2653.