Time to listen

CELINA — For the past year, the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s administrators have spent a lot of their time — listening.

They listened to farmers as well as representatives of commodity groups, Farm Bureaus, farmer unions — more than 125 groups total — in how the department should address the issues facing agriculture in Ohio and the department’s responsibilities, state Agriculture Director David Daniels told area commissioners and farm leaders from the region on Thursday in Celina.

He said the main area of concern for the Grand Lake St. Marys watershed is water quality at the lake and how farming practices affect the welfare of the lake.

“Over the course the last year, we have been working with, but mainly listening to, farmers and producers all across the state as to what is the best way that we can address some of the problems that we have,” Daniels said about agriculture in general before focusing on Grand Lake St. Marys. “There are people out there every day that want to lay this at the foot of agriculture. I have done my best, yelling at the top of my lungs, that this is not entirely an agricultural problem — there are many different contributing factors to this.

“I think it is important that agriculture lead the way on this, and I think that they have,” the one-time commissioner and state legislator said.

Daniels, who served in both houses of the General Assembly, also addressed a piece of legislation Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) officials have worked on during the past year. They unveiled the proposed legislation to representatives of commodity groups and farm organizations on March 7.

“We walked through what we want to do and what we want to accomplish,” Daniels said. “The immediate response we received after that initial meeting was, ‘Thanks for not wanting to surprise us and these are the things we have been talking about for the last year.’ There are some things in there they liked and some things they didn’t like.

“We tried to put together something from the recommendations that we received,” the director said.

One of the recommendations was people would have to obtain a license to apply nutrients to the field — commercial and natural nutrients. The license would be similar to those needed to apply pesticides. He said he wants those individuals to have the latest training and information.

He explained the language in the proposed legislation is “non-specific” and gives ODA “a tremendous amount of rule-making authority to develop that program.”

“Our vision all along, the thing we wanted to do, is we know we needed a program like this, we know it is important — we want the community to tell us what it should look like,” Daniels said. “So we just said give us the rule-making authority in this and we will sit down with every commodity group, with every interested party, to determine how this program should look. What is the easiest to comply with? How do we get the information? How do we build a program that is easy for the producer, that provides the information that we need them to have and how do we do that in the least invasive way?”

Daniels said the lines of communication in the past year extended to the other offices, too. He explained there are more discussions between leaders of the state Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and ODA. Gov. John Kasich appointed directors, who all had agricultural backgrounds, to lead all three agencies because the agencies responsibilities intertwine and they are so crucial to agriculture.

The Ohio EPA is led by Scott Nally and ODNR is led by Jim Zehringer.

Daniels commented on other issues as well.

Noting Mercer County is the No. 1 agricultural county in the state and providing Ohio’s ranking in national agricultural production, Daniels shared that Kasich realizes agriculture is the No. 1 industry in the state.

“For the first time in my lifetime, agriculture has now become one of the four components of the state’s economic development plan through JobsOhio,” Daniels said. “Now agriculture and food processing have become on of the four main components they are working on and actively seeking to assist and to bring to the state.”

He gave an example of a food processor in the state that had some supply chain needs and JobsOhio personnel started immediately on resolving that issue.

He visited the largest dairy operation east of the Mississippi River in southern Ohio. He noted the producer also grows blackberries so he can produce an extract. He provides the extract for The Ohio State University so they can perform research on its effect on cancer prevention.

“The extract he has been providing has shown it will decrease the rate for colon-rectal cancer and cancer of the mouth — anywhere that blackberry extract hits seems to provide some cancer prevention,” Daniels said. “Twenty years from now, agriculture will probably be the pharmacy for the world. We continue to find out how the food that we grow, the products that we grow interact with the human body. We will be looking at things this way.

“For me the exciting thing is not where we have been, I know that is important to know what our state looked like and how we got here,” he said, “but more so I am excited about where we are going because the possibilities are unlimited.”