Comer sowing ideas for growing E. Ky. economy

February 23, 2014 

While what he's offering is more appetizer than main course, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is doing good work just by shining a spotlight on farming's potential in Eastern Kentucky and highlighting some successes.

It took coal's crash to finally spur serious talk — and maybe even action — on economic development in the mountains.

But many Eastern Kentucky counties don't have a coal industry and never did, though residents might have commuted to coal jobs. In those places, the tobacco buyout almost 10 years ago probably inflicted more economic pain than coal's many busts.

Jackson County, for example, lost $3 million in agriculture production from 1997 to 2007, declining from $9.3 million before the tobacco program's demise to $6.3 million post-buyout.

Those numbers are tiny compared to Kentucky's $6 billion in farm sales. But several million dollars can make a real difference in a poor place of 13,000 people — and certainly would make a difference on the almost 700 Jackson County farms, average size a little more than 100 acres. Likewise, in Carter County, where the value of ag production dropped from $9.3 million in 1997 to $7.8 million in 2007, the last year for which county data are available.

The land is still there, even if nothing can replace the financial certainty that the tobacco program brought small farms. And there are still people on the land who have the skills and the cultural DNA to plant and harvest crops — if only there was a market.

Building that market would benefit more than the potential growers. Increasing the demand for wholesome local food and putting it on more plates would help tackle one of Eastern Kentucky's costliest problems — abysmal public health and a battery of preventable disabling diseases.

Comer is keen to make more school cafeterias buyers of local food through the Farm to School program. He wants to start Future Farmers of America chapters in every high school and bring his Junior Chef competition to more students, giving them a chance to learn about all aspects of food and develop a taste for the good stuff.

Comer also is expanding the Kentucky Proud marketing promotion to include an Appalachia Proud label identifying mountain products.

Of the five hemp pilot projects he announced, Eastern Kentucky will get the one that's growing cannabinoids for possible medical use.

Comer went to Knott County to unveil his ideas last week. Regrettably his visit had the trappings of a partisan political event, featuring Republican U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.

Comer, often touted as a GOP candidate for governor, made a point of including some Democrats in the event. But coming on the heels of the remarkably unifying Shaping Our Appalachian Region gathering in Pikeville, Comer, who is feuding with SOAR co-founder Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, runs the risk of marginalizing himself and his ideas by appearing a little too opportunistic.

Alas, Comer offers no major funding to put behind his ideas, except a proposal to send 100 percent of coal severance tax revenue to coal counties. Efficiencies in government are his only plan for filling the $150 million hole this would shoot in a state budget that's already undergone $1.6 billion in cuts — all of which amounts to pandering that can't be taken seriously.

Those criticisms notwithstanding, Comer should keep throwing out ideas and see what sprouts.

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