Ky. Voices: Fertilizer loan sign of progress not state politics

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer 2012 Herald-Leader file photo

I stand with agriculture. I stand with coal. I believe both industries deserve the support of elected officials rather than job-killing overregulation.

And when Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, along with both Republican U.S. senators, joined with me to support the investment of tobacco-settlement dollars in a coal-related agribusiness, we put politics aside to support two of Kentucky's signature industries.

Charah's application for tobacco settlement money — not taxpayer dollars — was analyzed by Beshear's Office of Agricultural Policy and approved overwhelmingly by the Agricultural Finance Corp. board that I chair and that consists of mostly guberna torial appointees from all over the state with backgrounds in farming and business.

It's also worth noting that Kenny Burdine, an agricultural economist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, sits on the board and voted for the project. My office has an extremely close relationship with the UK College of Agriculture and its dean, Scott Smith, a close personal friend and mentor of mine.

Charah plans to convert up to 300,000 tons of gypsum from Louisville Gas & Electric's Mill Creek power plant into sulfur fertilizer that can be used on Kentucky soils.

The project was presented by the governor's agriculture officers as a sound investment that will generate jobs and income, and help farmers maximize their yields.

The project is also good for the environment because it takes a waste product from coal scrubbers and puts it to use for agriculture. Therefore it is not surprising that it received such overwhelming bipartisan support.

I have said I rely on "boots on the ground" in assessing which nutrients are important to my fellow farmers. They will tell you that sulfur is important to crop production. They will also tell you that tobacco, in particular, is hard on soils, and a tobacco plot deficient in sulfur will not do well. And tobacco is still pretty important to Kentucky because it generates more than $300 million in cash receipts to Kentucky farmers every year.

I also rely on science. I regularly have the soil on my own farm tested by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture through our local cooperative extension service office. Well, guess what? The tests on my own farm's soil showed a sulfur deficiency, so I applied a sulfur fertilizer.

No farmer I know, including myself, would go through the expense of applying a product that wasn't needed. Most farmers I know are tight as bark on a tree. They tell me they need products like the sulfur fertilizer Charah intends to offer.

Projects supported by tobacco settlement funds are discussed and voted on in meetings open to the public. I encourage anyone with an interest in these projects to attend and listen to the discussion, debate and decision-making process.

The previous agriculture commissioner rarely attended these meetings, so projects such as this one often received grants that largely went unnoticed. But times have changed.

In this case, the board approved a loan for Charah at 3.25 percent interest, meaning the board will make money off the deal, and the taxpayers risk no money at all.

I stand with agriculture. I stand with coal. And I did so here with a bipartisan group in the light of day. I know it's fun and games to assume everything is political, but let's not allow politics to keep us from progress for real businesses with real job potential for Kentucky.

Let's keep our eye on the ball.

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