Real diversity in agriculture; bill could cut out promising upstarts

Since 2000, Kentucky has poured $300 million into retooling the state's farm economy. A University of Kentucky study found that some of the state's most beneficial investments have been in horticulture, vineyards, an orchard/cider-making operation and a ham producer.

The legislature's decision to put half of Kentucky's revenue from the tobacco settlement into diversifying the rural economy has been vindicated by an explosion of interest in locally produced foods and high-quality artisanal farm products.

Now there is a fear that the voices of these new farm interests will be drowned out on the state Board of Agriculture if the Kentucky Farm Bureau has its way.

The Farm Bureau is pushing House Bill 205 as a way to broaden "production agriculture representation" on the board that advises the state agriculture commissioner and regulates animal health.

The bill would enlarge the board from 11 to 14 voting members and lock in one seat for the Farm Bureau and seven seats for "organizations that represent the agricultural commodities with the greatest cash receipts."

At present that would be poultry, horses, corn, soybeans, cattle, tobacco and dairy.

There would also be two members from groups that don't make the top-seven money-makers and a veterinarian. The governor would gain a seat on the board. Continuing to serve would be the agriculture commissioner and UK's agriculture dean.

If the goal truly is to broaden representation, someone other than the Farm Bureau and Rep. Tom McKee, House Agriculture and Small Business chairman, should have been part of drafting HB 205.

The Community Farm Alliance, which represents small farmers and was taken by surprise by the proposal, is understandably suspicious.

The measure zipped through McKee's committee without a proper vetting. A number of questions should be answered before it is allowed to advance for a House vote: What purpose would be served by Balkanizing the Board of Agriculture by commodity?

How would ensconcing powerful business interests on a state regulatory board serve the public interest? How would ties be broken on a board with an even number of voting members? What's wrong with the current appointment process?

It's not like the big commodity organizations are hurting or lack clout. While much of the economy is in the tank, agriculture is flourishing, pumped up by exports. Kentucky's net farm income is predicted to be about $1.3 billion for 2010.

There's no emergency. Lawmakers should not rush through a bill that could muffle some of Kentucky's down-on-the farm success stories.