FRANKFORT — Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer, a former state representative, is accustomed to challenges but had no idea what awaited him during his first full year of office.
Comer, elected agricultural commissioner in 2012, celebrated his first year in that office Thursday. While he acknowledges the department has made significant strides to overcome alleged corruption under former commissioner Richie Farmer’s leadership, Comer knows there is still a lot of work to be done.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is now handling allegations surrounding Farmer’s time in office, Comer said. Farmer allegedly used state employees to take him hunting and shopping, drive his dog around, build a basketball court in his backyard and mow his lawn, according to the results of a state audit released in spring 2012.
Comer had to draw on all his experience plus the guidance of legal counsel to quickly diffuse some of the problems that remained from Farmer’s tenure.
“We’ve made a lot of changes,” Comer said. “We’ve turned over 20 percent of the department since I’ve been here. We’ve been bringing ina lot of new people and a lot of new management. I think we’ve made a lot of positive changes to the department.””
Comer is used to the myriad of issues that sometimes surround Kentucky politics, entrepreneurship and farming. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2000 at the age of 27 and is the founder and owner of James Comer Jr. Farms, a 950-acre beef cattle, timber and hay operation in Monroe County.
Garrard County Judge-Executive John Wilson, a longtime friend and political associate of Comer’s, said the progress the department has made over the past year is noteworthy.
“He was an outstanding state legislator and one of the best agricultural commissioners we’ve ever had,” Wilson said. “He truly offers transparency in government and has cleaned up a lot of the problems that existed in that department. I wish America had more leaders like James Comer.”
One of the initiatives Comer led during his first year in office was developing a brand new website that includes a wealth of information about not only the department’s operations, but also data related to agricultural and consumer protection issues that could potentially impact people across the state.
“I said we were going to operate in the sunshine at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, and this website accomplishes that goal,” Comer said in a news release.
Besides continuing to work toward restoring the public’s trust in the Department of Agriculture, Comer’s other main goal for 2013 is to continue enhancing economic development opportunities for people living anywhere from Danville to Paducah.
Regional businesses can participate in the Kentucky Proud program free of charge, Comer said. That project not only helps boost the profits of local farm families, but also ensures that Kentucky residents eat fresher food. Protein and produce not grown locally is transported an average of 1,500 miles before it gets to a Kentucky family’s dinner table, according to Comer.
A Kentucky resident with a simple home gardening and vegetable canning operation could join the initiative and receive plenty of free advertising and other publicity opportunities.
“We have an adequate budget to market anybody that is Kentucky Proud,” he said. “You used to say that a small farmer or a small business never could compete in food processing. Well, you can today.”
The Kentucky Proud initiative is still being fine-tuned by agricultural authorities to ensure that participating entrepreneurs really are Kentuckians dedicated to humane and ethical farming practices, but membership will remain free for the foreseeable future.
One of Comer’s goals for 2013 is to get more eligible farming businesses enrolled in the program.
Marksbury Farm Market near Camp Dick, a Kentucky Proud member, was just one of the qualified businesses that benefited from the publicity of the vice presidential debate held in Danville at Centre College.
Kentucky Proud was one of the hosts of the Governor’s Media Reception held the night before the debate. An estimated 900 media and other special guests sampled everything from bourbon to Hot Browns.
The debate was “a huge opportunity for us to place Kentucky agriculture on an international stage,” Comer said.
Comer expressed high economic hopes for central Kentucky in 2013 and beyond.
“I think they’re clicking on all cylinders, not only in Danville, but also in little towns like Lancaster and Stanford,” he said. “I’m excited for the future.”