Ag. commissioner talks development in E. Ky.

Cris Ritchie — Editor

December 11, 2013

HAZARD – Agriculture in Eastern Kentucky has a future, and it could lie with food production and livestock, noted Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer during a town hall meeting Tuesday in Perry County.

Comer made an appearance at the county extension office where he met with about 10 people who braved the winter weather outside to get to the meeting. He said while much of the agriculture in Kentucky is located in the western and central regions, Eastern Kentucky has plenty of room to develop its own industry.

“When you look at Eastern Kentucky in the future, I think there’s potential in the future to have more food production,” Comer said.

A former six-term state legislator and a farmer himself, Comer said former strip mine sites in the region are suitable to grow thick stands of grass, which can then support cattle. Comer was in Perry County last year where he delivered several head of his own cattle to a Chavies ranch owned by the Duff family and located on a former Pine Branch Coal mine site.

“You can see the quality of cattle in this end of the state has improved,” he added.

There has also been an upswing in interest in local food in more urban areas like Lexington and Louisville, Comer added, and there exists a lot of potential in a regional beef industry which could provide locally produced beef products to those areas and others.

“With local food you could have a brand if producers would go together and have a quality beef product that’s produced and processed and everything here in Eastern Kentucky,” he said. “It would sell at a premium.”

There are also projects ongoing in which Dr. Tammy Horn, a researcher with Eastern Kentucky University, is studying bee populations in the region, which Comer said could lead to a positive boost in locally produced honey. This concept is even more promising, especially considering bee populations aren’t faring as well in the western part of the state where farmers regularly use pesticides and other chemicals. Those are issues bees aren’t facing here in Eastern Kentucky.

But because so little food production occurs in the region, Comer noted the potential is essentially unlimited and the market untapped. And with so much attention being placed upon Eastern Kentucky’s economic future in the past few months, he said the time could be right now for state lawmakers to begin taking action on projects to develop such an industry in this region. He said those actions could be taken as quickly as next year as the legislature crafts a new state budget.

“I think food production should be a part of that,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll line item some money in the state budget for some economic development projects in Eastern Kentucky.”