Are big ag interests cutting deals for farmers' money?
By Alex De Grand

Some are loudly wondering what the state is doing with all those millions of dollars from the tobacco settlement earmarked for assisting tobacco farmers and their tobacco-dependent communities.

While state officials defend the actions of the Kentucky Agriculture Development Board charged with developing plans to address the needs of tobacco farmers, questions persist concerning how the money will be divided and who might get it.

Sparking controversy was a September meeting of the ag development board featuring presentations from selected commodity groups. Complaints arose over how those groups ended up being invited (while others noticeably weren't) as well as questions of how much influence these groups exercise over the board.

Commodity groups like the Kentucky Cattlemen Association, the Kentucky Poultry Federation and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association were invited to give presentations.

The Council for Burley Tobacco was invited, but the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association was not. Those two groups have some markedly different ideas about agriculture's future.

For example, the Burley Council (along with the Cattlemen Association and the Poultry Federation) joined a suit this summer against the state's rules governing giant livestock farms. In contrast, John Berry, general counsel for the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative, has been critical of those huge operations' financial and environmental impact.

John Mark Hack, the ag development board's executive director, dismissed the idea that something sinister is behind the invitations or the presentations.

"We looked at the Kentucky agriculture census to see what the state produces the most of," Hack said.

Groups representing those leading areas were invited to tell the board where they think their particular industry stands today and where it may go in the future, Hack explained.

Hack acknowledged some of the presentations - although the board specifically asked for just broad overviews - delved into some dollar figures.

But Hack insisted that did not mean those groups had made any kind of proposal for a piece of the tobacco money. Hack stressed no funding decision for any group has been made.

Proposals and applications for funds are a contentious point because the board has not set out any specific criteria for groups to develop requests.

The state has distributed general guidelines for funding proposals, but a number of farm groups say there needs to be more than that. They also complain the state needs to better publicize the availability of grants.

Karen Armstrong-Cummings, the director of the Commodity Growers Cooperative in Lexington, said her group won't apply for money until the state irons out these problems so as to avoid accusations of having "insider" information.

Others have noted it is not unusual for the state to find itself sued when money is awarded in any manner other than scrupulously straightforward.

Many of those complaining about the state's handling of the tobacco funds punctuate their grievances with qualifications like "I know John Mark Hack and I know he's a good man." They also consider many of those sitting on the 15-member board to be friends.

Yet, the questions persist.

Chuck Smith, a Henry County farmer and member of the Community Farm Alliance, is one of those who harbors lingering concerns even after attending the board's October 20 meeting in Prestonsburg to personally ask what the state is doing with the tobacco money.

"I asked how did [large commodity groups] get a jump on everyone else," Smith said.

Legislation governing this money is clearly intended to help tobacco farmers, Smith said.

"There's not any need to invest the money in Perdue chickens and huge hog farms," Smith said, explaining the companies are already well-financed and the kind of contract farming they offer to farmers doesn't provide enough money.

The horse industry doesn't need money aimed at assisting tobacco farmers either, he said.

"Build on the Kentucky horse industry - how does that help tobacco farmers unless they sell hay?" Smith said. "I love the horse industry, but supporting it with tobacco Phase One money does not help the tobacco farmers."

Smith said he wants to see the money used to help farmers develop markets such as schools and reformatories for food they grow and process.

"Right here in Henry County, the school district has about a half-million dollars to spend on food," Smith said. "We can produce at least 80 percent of it right here in Kentucky."

Smith said he has friends on the ag development board which "makes it hard" to criticize their performance. He also noted this board is doing unique work and there are few precedents for it to use as guidance.

"I want to believe John Mark, but he has to answer to his boss [Gov. Paul Patton] with a possible political agenda," Smith said. "We hope for the best for small tobacco farmers and their communities."

For his part, Hack is asking people to be more patient. After all, he noted, the board is largely composed of volunteers and has only been on the job for approximately three months.

And clearly the job is no small task: Chart Kentucky's transition to a post-tobacco farm economy.

Alex De Grand can be reached at 225-4889 ext. 232 or


Don't Gimme No Lip, Child

The next regular state legislative session in 2002 is promising to be fun when items like the "Yes, Ma'am! bill" are on the docket.

Jodie Haydon, a Democratic representative from Bardstown, prefiled a bill that would require each local school board to adopt a policy mandating students "to address and respond to all public school employees in respectful terms such as 'Yes, Ma'am' or 'No, Mr. (surname)."

The bill requires school boards to institute "appropriate punishment" for an infraction. The policy will be phased in beginning with preschool to fifth grade in the 2002-2003 school year, and continuing one grade each year thereafter until the conclusion with the 12th grade in the 2008-2010 school year.

Kentucky students may not end up knowing much, but at least they'll be pleasant when they say, "No, Mr. (surname), I don't know what evolution is. Could that be the same thing as 'change over time,' sir?" - ADG

Our very own Exxon

A 250 million gallon spill of coal sludge in Martin County, Kentucky, is being called "one of the worst-ever environmental diasters" in the Southeastern United States by EPA officials. The sludge, which came from a failed coal waste storage pit near Inez, Kentucky, coated streams and backyards with a thick black goo and has obliterated all aquatic life in two Martin County streams. Kentucky environmentalists speculate that a total cleanup may take a year or more.

-Dave Cooper