The Breeders’ Cup Forum: Kentucky Ag Commissioner James Comer
For those Republicans in the horse industry looking for a politician they can get behind 100%, Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer more than fits the bill. His 11 years in the Kentucky House of Representatives prepped Comer for his new job overseeing the agriculture industries of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and in last year’s election he was the single largest vote getter of any politician on the ballot in 2011. His outspoken support for expanded gaming and industrial hemp shows he does not lack for courage of his convictions. We asked the newly-minted Commissioner a few questions about the state of the horse industry, why the Republican Party has taken such a hardline stance on expanded gaming and what his plans are for the future.
How do you define your job as Kentucky’s Commissioner of Agriculture? What is it you try to accomplish for Kentucky agriculture every day?
Most people don’t realize that the Department of Agriculture touches them in some way every day. Our department regulates everything from the scanners at the grocery stores to the scales at the stockyards. Our Kentucky Proud Program helps find new markets for Kentucky producers and businesses that grow, raise, or process farm products. The department’s Office of the State Veterinarian regulates the health and well-being of Kentucky’s livestock industries and works to eradicate infectious and communicable diseases.
It is my job as the Commissioner of Agriculture to ensure that these programs serve the best interests of the agriculture community and operate effectively even in an extremely difficult economic climate. To that end, I travel from Paducah to Pikeville listening to the concerns of every agriculture commodity group while continuing to increase agricultural literacy among our urban consumers. Being a farmer myself, I understand this is a 24-hour, 7-day a week job. You will never hear someone question the work ethic of this administration.
How would you describe your leadership style?
It is my goal to be a strong but humble public servant. I hope my employees would tell you that I listen as well as I speak and that when I do speak, I tell the truth. In this partisan and acidic political environment, bold leaders who take tough stands on controversial issues are hard to find. When I take such a stand, I think about the people of the Commonwealth rather than the politics of Frankfort.
What does Kentucky’s horse industry mean to you as a Kentuckian?
They are one in the same. Horses and farmland define our Commonwealth. I cannot imagine our state without our signature industry, which we all enjoy at Derby time but often take for granted every other day of the year. I cannot understand those who would sit in fancy box seats at the Derby and then divorce themselves from the very people who make this signature event the greatest 2 minutes in sports.
Only recently has the equine industry been included in the Kentucky Proud program. Why do you think it took so long for an essential part of Kentucky’s agricultural landscape to be included in the program?
I believe that the horse industry is the most politicized commodity group we have in Kentucky. It becomes a bargaining chip during every election season and every legislative session. That is probably much of the reason the horse industry has been treated like a step-child of agriculture. Not on my watch. I want to embrace the horse industry and treat it just as we would our beef cattle industry. I will not keep Kentucky’s signature industry at arm’s length when so many other commodity groups rely heavily upon its success. Hay farmers, grain farmers, fuel suppliers, farm equipment dealers…when Kentucky’s horse industry hurts…the entire agriculture community feels that pain.
You’ve come out very strongly in favor of expanded gaming at Kentucky racetracks. This seems to be antithetical to the Republican Party of Kentucky’s stance on the issue. Is this a difficult stance for you to take politically?
I think it’s important to note that most Kentuckians and most Republicans want the opportunity to vote on expanded gaming. I don’t like to make this issue a partisan one. There were a lot of Republican senators that stood up for the horse industry and agriculture families. The question is whether elected leaders of both parties will finally put the fate of Kentucky in the hands of Kentuckians. I voiced strong support for the horse industry during my campaign and was honored to receive more votes than any other candidate on the ballot. Republicans, Democrats, Independents and those who identify themselves as members of the “tea party” heard our message and voted with us overwhelmingly.
Why do you believe so many Republican officeholders in Kentucky have taken such a hardline stance against expanded gaming?
I appreciate meaningful dialogue and respectful conversation on this topic. But what I cannot stand is hypocrisy. When an elected official who enjoys Keeneland in the springtime and Turfway in the fall rises to give a floor speech on the evils of the horse industry … I cringe. I don’t think it is fair to tag just Republicans on this issue. Democrats are just as culpable for treating the horse industry like a political football.
According to your website, you also support the growth of industrial hemp in the state. Why take this kind of controversial stance? Is hemp a politically viable solution for Kentucky?
There is so much misinformation and false stereotypes that accompany this issue. Industrial hemp would have an enormous economic impact for farmers who have been told they must be innovative and must diversify to survive. It is an incredibly profitable crop for our neighbors in Canada, where there is a manufacturing base for industrial hemp. When we cut off what could be a viable alternative to tobacco for Kentucky farmers for no good reason whatsoever … I’m baffled. Again … this is an issue that holds overwhelming support with the people … the question is when will the politicians listen?
What would you say to those Republicans in Kentucky’s horse industry who feel their party has left them out to dry on issues of importance to the survival of its signature industry?
Help is on the way!
First, we have good news to share. Cash receipts to Kentucky farmers exceeded $5 billion for the first time in 2011. Some of our success can be attributed to large-scale outside forces such as increasing exports and greater demand for row crops. Other positive developments include the rapid growth of Kentucky’s poultry industry and the investment of more than $360 million of tobacco settlement funds into agricultural diversification projects. Credit goes to Kentucky’s smart and innovative farmers who moved quickly to diversify their operations. One of our greatest achievements at the Department of Agriculture is the Kentucky Proud farm marketing program, which helps find new markets for Kentucky producers and businesses that grow, raise, or process farm products.
But Kentucky agriculture still faces serious challenges. Our signature equine industry, which accounts for up to 100,000 jobs, is under attack from other states. The horse industry, once first in sales among the livestock commodities, is now fourth. Additionally, the skyrocketing costs of feed, fuel, fertilizer, and other inputs are erasing most, if not all, of our farmers’ income. The average age of a farmer is going up, and young people who don’t grow up on a family farm can’t get the capital they need to get into farming.
We must act quickly and decisively to confront these challenges. Our equine industry needs the opportunity to compete with other states that are offering new revenue sources that trump our racing purses and breeder incentives. Additionally, we must always be seeking new markets – both domestic and foreign – for Kentucky farm products. My office continues to push for stronger partnerships between our rural farmers and their urban consumers. We must also enable our young people to get the education and the capital they need to start a career in farming. Most importantly, we must make agriculture a key component of a rural economic development strategy that will enable small communities throughout Kentucky to grow and prosper. To that end…our work continues!