Ed Lane: How did it feel to receive the most votes cast for a statewide candidate in the Nov. 8, 2007, general election?
Richie Farmer: It was a huge honor and something in the political arena that was new to me. What I knew about politics other than voting, I learned during my own campaigns and during the time that I have served as the commissioner of agriculture.
As I said during my last interview with The Lane Report (August 2004), I had to learn a lot and learn it quickly. All and all, it’s been a learning experience; I’ve grown a lot as a man and as a commissioner. We’ve accomplished a lot and it’s exciting and I can tell you there is never a dull moment. That’s for sure.
EL: Why did you receive such a strong endorsement from the voters?
RF: A lot of people talk about the fact that I played basketball at UK, and they say that’s why I received so many votes. Basketball is very popular and means a lot to the people in Kentucky. That’s a given. Being part of the most beloved team and having my jersey retired in Rupp Arena is something I never thought would happen. Being a former UK player was an obvious advantage.
I also think I was re-elected because I did a good job. A lot of people may or may not know that I graduated from UK with a double major in agriculture (economics and business management). Kentucky agriculture has thrived under my direction. For the first time in Kentucky, farm gate cash receipts exceeded $4 billion – three out of the last four years. If I had said that would be the case four years ago, especially with tobacco going through the buyout, people would have said “you are crazy.” The department has done some good things with the Kentucky Proud campaign and it’s actively marketed our farmers’ crops. There’s a lot to be said for that.
EL: During your last four years as commissioner of agriculture, what are two of the most important things you learned?
RF: Working at the pace of state government is one of the things you have to get accustomed to. It’s frustrating because it takes so long to get anything done. You can see things that everybody agrees along the way need to be done. The process it has to go through takes six months; that is tough.
The fact that some of our leaders may not want to see something get done, just for political reasons, is discouraging. I’ve often said that I wish I could register politically as “K” for Kentucky. I believe that’s what politics is really all about – trying to do what’s right for the people and moving Kentucky forward. When people get elected, it’s their job to put political issues aside and do what’s right for the people. That’s what I’ve really tried to do.
EL: As we move into the last half of 2008, what issues are going to be critical to Kentucky’s agribusiness community?
RF: At $4 a gallon for gas, operating costs for farmers obviously are going to go up. No matter what facet of agribusiness you are in, gas prices alone are going to figure into everybody’s bottom line. To be quite honest with you, I don’t know what the end result will be for farmers.
The Department of Agriculture just came through this budget session, and we’re still trying to determine exactly what the total impact of the budget cuts are going to be. The KDA is losing people, so our teams are trying to provide the same services with less personnel. That’s a challenge.
EL: How will petroleum costs impact costs in grocery stores and restaurants?
RF: Food costs will be escalating because products have to be transported and that cost has to be passed along to consumers in order for farmers to stay in business.
Increases will vary in different places. The agriculture business in the United States has always prided itself on providing the most abundant, safest and affordable food supply in the world. Operating cost escalations are seriously challenging our ability to maintain our leadership. It’s getting harder and harder for farmers to be profitable, especially with escalating (production imput) prices.
There’s also urban sprawl, with developers knocking on the doors and making offers on prime farm land all the time. The average age of farmers, especially in Kentucky, is 58 to 59 years old. It’s getting easier for farmers to say that selling the farm wouldn’t be a bad idea because they’re getting close to retirement.
We have some serious issues facing agriculture in Kentucky and the country. Fertilizer and diesel fuel costs are significantly higher so the cost of producing food will be higher. At this point, it’s hard to know exactly what the total impact is going to be.
EL: Will the state be increasing its financial support for the Kentucky Proud campaign in order to boost sales and revenues for Kentucky’s farmers and agricultural businesses during this tough economic environment?
RF: The funding for the Kentucky Proud program comes from grants from the Ag Development Board, which receives tobacco settlement funds. The board designated the Department of Agriculture to be the marketing arm for the diversification effort. Kentucky Proud has been a success story of the highest magnitude. When I took over the program and changed it into Kentucky Proud, there were about 35 participants in the program; today we have more that 1,300 participants.
KDA received a $2 million grant for FY 07 and FY 08 – a million dollars per year for two years. I got coaches Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith to be Kentucky Proud spokespersons. Our marketing goal was to get Kentucky farm products on grocery store shelves, and we’ve been able to do that. In 2006, with a $1 million investment, $38 million worth of Kentucky Proud products were sold through retailers. In 2007, that number grew to better than $80 million. So in a two-year period, in excess of $120 million worth of Kentucky Proud products were sold.
The ag grant is set up as a 50-50 match on advertising. KDA is in the process of going to the board for another grant to continue because we’ve just recruited some new retailers. We’re anticipating in 2008 that Kentucky Proud sales will far exceed $100 million.
EL: Will the Kentucky Distillers Association join the Kentucky Proud program? Its participation would promote Kentucky and make worldwide consumers aware that Kentucky is the home of Bourbon.
RF: The distillers have joined; that happened a few months ago. Bourbon is one of the products Kentucky is known for and is a significant agricultural industry here in Kentucky. Kentucky’s distillers are now apart of the Kentucky Proud program and will be displaying the logo on bottle labels.
EL: There has been strong growth in vineyards and wineries in Kentucky. How do you see this industry’s future growth?
RF: Kentucky’s got a great wine council and the industry is working together more closely. Many of Kentucky’s wineries offer really good wine, and KDA is now in the process of developing some quality control measures and an independent council that will judge the wines. Only the ones that pass the council’s test will be able to participate in the program. We are trying to make sure the best wines in Kentucky are in the Kentucky Proud program.
EL: What are the benefits of Kentucky Proud products for Kentuckians?
RF: In today’s times, food safety issues are important to consumers. Just recently the tomato/jalapeño pepper (contamination) issue came up. That’s a prime example of the value of buying local and from people you know, so you will get fresher and safer products. In my opinion, it just makes a lot of sense to support our local economies first.
A good example is the Kentucky Derby. When I first became commissioner, Kentucky products were not promoted at the Kentucky Derby. Now Churchill Downs buys about $500,000 in Kentucky Proud products annually from Kentucky farmers.
KDA is helping create markets for farmers. We’ve done some things with state parks and I’m interested in getting Kentucky Proud products in high schools, colleges, institutions and prison systems. If food service operations are going to buy food, then why not buy it from Kentucky first?
When you buy Kentucky Proud you are helping a fellow Kentuckians make a living. And that’s just a win-win for everybody. When a Kentucky farmer makes money, he’s going to put that money right back into the local economy.
EL: Do you think the Kentucky Proud program will be your greatest legacy to the Department of Agriculture?
RF: Yes. In the last legislative session, Kentucky Proud was made the permanent farm marketing program for the state of Kentucky. So hopefully Kentucky Proud will be there forever and make Kentucky farmers more profitable. When consumers see that logo, they will know what it stands for and what it means.
Another KDA project a lot of people don’t know about is funding for a state-of-the-art motor fuel and pesticide testing laboratory. The KDA not only checks gas pump meters for accuracy, but it also is responsible for checking the quality of gasoline. In the past, we weren’t able to do that very efficiently because we didn’t have adequate funding. At the time, the state of Kentucky was selling about 3.4 billion gallons of fuel a year and KDA was outsourcing to labs about 500 gas and 100 diesel test samples. That was not an adequate amount of tests for 3.4 billion gallons.
So I gathered our KDA staff around and we decided to build a test lab. They said it was a great idea but we may never get funding. KDA did get funding, and Kentucky now has a state-of-the-art motor fuel testing facility that recently opened. We’re still in the process of staffing; it’s not yet operating to capacity. Hopefully, by next year KDA will be testing 8,000 to 10,000 fuel samples annually.
EL: How have budget cuts for your operations impacted the Department of Agriculture’s ability to perform its duties to safeguard food supplies, inspect amusement rides, verify the accuracy of gasoline pumps and meat scales, and protect Kentucky’s livestock from disease?
RF: The KDA is a consumer protection agency. It’s important to make sure consumers receive what they pay for. The General Assembly legislates new services the department is obligated to provide, and when it increases our services and reduces the KDA’s funding that really puts a hardship on the department to provide inspections and oversight in the manner it should be done.
EL: Is your budget for FY 2009 less than it was in FY 2008?
RF: Yes. KDA had $3.1 million cut from its budget. That doesn’t include an earlier 3.5 percent cut ($800,000) and the 4.5 percent budget reduction now underway ($911,000). When an agency the size of the KDA takes a $5 to $6 million budget cut, it is tough to accommodate.
There is a real possibility we will have to cut people because the KDA’s budget is largely personnel oriented (70 percent or more of KDA’s budget is fixed personnel costs and benefits).
EL: What is the future for ethanol and methanol production in Kentucky? Is the Department of Agriculture working with Pearse Lyons of Alltech on his biorefinery project in Springfield?
RF: I’m certainly very aware of Alltech’s program. Pearse Lyons has some very good ideas. His biorefinery concept is cutting edge. This country must decrease its dependency on foreign oil. Eventually you will hear a lot about “25 By 25” – using 25 percent renewable, alternative fuels by 2025. The biorefinery concept that Pearse is doing is wonderful; finding innovative people to do these kinds of projects is the big problem. We have to encourage people to step “outside of the box.”
EL: The economy in the rural parts of Kentucky is anemic because there has been outmigration of population to the metro areas (Louisville, Lexington, Northern Kentucky). Will a successful project like the Alltech biorefinery help create jobs in rural Kentucky?
RF: It certainly has the potential to do that. The one thing I’ve found is our farmers will go to it if you create a market. Our farmers are pretty resilient individuals, and they can do anything we ask them to do. Marketing is the key.
EL: How is your working relationship with Gov. Steve Beshear and the General Assembly?
RF: I’ve had a good working relationship with both. But the times dictate budget cuts. I felt like the KDA was operating with less than it needed before this past legislative session. We were hoping to get extra funding from the legislators, but that was not the case, and what we were asking for in the big scope of things wasn’t really that much.
As far as the governor, KDA has gotten along great. I know the governor has a lot on his plate with budget issues. Obviously, the KDA tries to work with members of the General Assembly from both sides of the aisle.
EL: How are farmers markets doing?
RF: One of the things KDA has tried to encourage across the state is more local farmers markets. When I was initially elected, the state probably had 70 to 75 farmers markets and today there are around 125. Some of the bigger counties have more than one. Kentucky Farmers Markets are listed on the Web site at www.kyagr.gov.
EL: Four years ago you said, “All in all, I look at things on a positive basis.” Has your approach changed after 56 months in political office?
RF: No. I think you have to stay positive. You can look at just about any situation out there and there is the good side and the bad side. Anytime you try to see the positives in things and try to approach issues with a positive attitude, you’ll be more successful. Everybody has bad days or gets down from time to time, but I try to stay positive and upbeat.