Leaders talk agriculture development in E. Ky.

Gwendolyn Holliday Staff Reporter gjoseph@civitasmail.com

February 18, 2014

HAZARD—Several measures were unveiled Monday at the Hazard Community and Technical College in hopes of helping Eastern Kentucky communities rise out of the economic slump of the past few years. Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul along with Department of Agriculture Commissioner James Comer traveled Eastern Kentucky yesterday speaking to town officials and dignitaries in Knott, Perry, Leslie, and Laurel counties about their plans.

“This EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has been hostile to the private sector, and agriculture is treated no differently than coal,” Comer said.

On the heels of this statement, Comer introduced a five-part economic plan to grow agriculture and increase food production in Eastern Kentucky.

“We have to think outside the box because we don’t have the same flat, level productive land here in this part of the state, obviously, that we have in Western Kentucky,” he said.

Comer said he wants to brand products and crafts made in Eastern Kentucky as “Appalachia Proud,” similar to the concept of the Kentucky Proud initiative for things made in the state. When that symbol appears on a product, he said, consumers know that was produced in Appalachia by an Appalachian craftsman or farmer.

Coomer went on to state that generating economic activity in this area was extremely important and hoped that the Economic Freedom Zones bill would be able to do that for the region.

Senator Rand Paul explained in detail exactly what the Economic Freedom Zones bill he and Senator McConnell are co-sponsoring would give to communities like those in Perry County.

“This will be a free market stimulus for Appalachia, and for all of Kentucky and it would leave over a billion dollars in Kentucky,” Paul explained.

He went on to state that unemployment in Perry County is two times the national average which would qualify the area as an Economic Freedom Zone under the bill. Under the terms of the bill, Paul said federal taxes would be reduced dramatically and Perry County alone would see $67 million staying in the area.

Paul was optimistic that the bill could pass politically as it was not a bail out, and no money would come from other communities or states, it would simply remain in Appalachia by giving the money to businesses that are already succeeding and allowing these successful businesses to expand and create new jobs.

Comer said education was obviously needed wherever anyone wanted new businesses to grow, and proposed developing programs with each college and university in Eastern Kentucky to have a pilot program to develop agriculture as his third point in his plan.

“For example, the University of Pikeville is looking into doing a project with ginseng … Eastern Kentucky University is doing great research on honey bee production … Morehead State University is working with orchards,” he said.

Tourism was the next big point for Comer, who said that by partnering with CEO David Ledford of the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation to raise private sector money, the state would be able to build a wildlife center here in Eastern Kentucky.

The fifth and final part of the plan, Comer said, would be to grow the farm-to-campus initiative—something many in Perry County have been striving to do in the last few months with a new Farm-to-School grant—ensuring that every school in Eastern Kentucky has an FFA chapter.

“We have a brain drain in Kentucky where some of our smartest, most educated young people, once they graduate from high school, they leave the rural communities and move to the cities and other states,” Comer said in closing. “We want to reverse that trend and keep them back here in Hazard and Appalachia.”

Gwendolyn Holliday can be reached at 606-436-5771, or on Twitter @HazardHerald.