Ag takes center stage in debate
LEBANON, Ind. — Agriculture took center stage at a debate between the candidates for Indiana lieutenant governor.
The hour-long event was hosted by AgrIInstitute and sponsored by the Indiana Corn Growers Association, Indiana Farm Bureau and the Indiana Soybean Alliance.
Panelists questioned Republican Suzanne Crouch, Libertarian William Henry and Democrat Linda Lawson.
The lieutenant governor serves as the secretary of agriculture and rural development and oversees the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, as well as the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, the Indiana Destination Development Corporation, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority and the Indiana Broadband Office.
COVID-19 has highlighted inadequacies in broadband coverage. How should the state address this and fund bringing real progress in broadband to rural communities across the state of Indiana?
Lawson: I know that the Holcomb administration has done a lot of work over the last few years, but for me it’s a day late and a dollar short. We need to be able to help farmers. We need to be able to make sure that they’re insured and able to get to a doctor’s appointment. If they can’t get to a doctor’s appointment, they need to be able to do telehealth.
Henry: It’s imperative that we make sure that these children can connect to their schools when they’re at their homes. I think that we can possibly reduce some of these regulations for some of these co-ops that are laying some of this broadband out and if we do that we can give them some relief to be able to put more out quickly and cover a lot more area. They’re doing a really good job. We need to encourage that.
Crouch: We have already awarded $28 million in grants which has then ended up being a total of $51 million investment with the private sector with 14 projects connecting 11,000 Hoosiers in 18 counties. We are now in the second round and hope to have an announcement here in September. But that is just the beginning. We are never going to be able to realize our full potential without having the ability to connect Hoosiers.
Legal changes at both the federal and state levels have opened the door on hemp for the first time in decades. There are numerous crop varieties that can be used for countless products: CBD oil, food grade oil, hemp milk, protein powder, rope, clothing, paper and even concrete. Hemp seems destined for an agricultural gold rush. How should Indiana manage this onslaught of interest?
Henry: That’s near and dear to my heart as the chairman of Indiana NORML, which is the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws here in Indiana. Federally, hemp is legal. The state of Indiana recently has passed legislation to limit some of these forms of hemp. If you take the fruit of the plant away, you’re not giving any nutrition to the people. Cannabis is food first. That’s like taking the ear of corn and giving the stalk to the people. You want to have access to all parts of this plant.
Crouch: Hemp is extremely important in Indiana because it offers our farmers another growing opportunity, another source of income. Last year we had 100 permits. This year it’s over 250. Seven thousand acres are being grown with hemp, according to our state chemist. The challenge that we have is that we need to be sure that we have markets as this interest grows here in Indiana. That’s why it was so exciting to see the new hemp processing plant actually open in Westfield, a $10 million project. According to them, they can actually process 750,000 pounds of hemp, if the need be.
Lawson: I don’t know why we’re not doing this. It just makes sense to me. It’s a little niche product. It’s not going to take over soybean. It’s not going to take over corn. It’s regulated by the state chemist, so you might have a state police officer looking over your corner sometime because the leaves look exactly like the other ones. So, I say go for it.
2020 has been a challenging year for farmers as COVID-19 led to lower crop prices and market disruptions. What can be done to help growers recover from coronavirus-related disruptions?
Crouch: One of the things that we have done with the state Department of Agriculture is that we have had weekly stakeholder calls with the Board of Animal Health to help support farmers, to help share information. Also through the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, which I oversee, we implemented a COVID-19 response grant program to provide assistance to our small rural communities. We also worked with our meat processing plants to ensure that they could reopen safely and be able to keep our food supply chain moving.
Lawson: I think the state has done a little too late. I think that there are a lot of hog farmers out there that wish they had their animals back or be able to sell them. They’ve had to dig holes and put them there. They haven’t gotten a lot of support from the state. They’ve gotten some, but certainly not enough, not for their crops, not for the kinds of things that have occurred over the last five months. I think that farmers deserve a lot more than this. We can brag about them all we want to, but until we show them that we’re actually serious about helping them in a crisis, it’s just words.
Henry: It would have been great to have a sort of task force during this emergency for agriculture to seek out these farmers and try to understand a little better and react faster in these situations to what they need.
More than a generation ago, Indiana embarked on the T-By-2000 program to reduce soil erosion and other problems related to that. Do you think a similarly coordinate effort to promote soil conservation such as tax incentives for planting cover crops or enhanced funding for Soil and Water Conservation Districts is needed now?
Lawson: Absolutely. I watched a whole hillside in Brown County on State Road 135 clearcut from the top to the bottom, and what it did to the two farmers who are at the bottom of that hill was pretty despicable — the soil erosion, their ponds were flooded. That was a pure indication to me exactly what happens when there is erosion in a community and how bad it can be.
Henry: Farmers are good stewards of the land. They want to do what is best for the land. We really need to look at the hydrology around these fields in some of these conservation areas. If the water is not leaving the area right, it’s going to damage the roads, it’s going to damage the infrastructure in some of these places and it’s going to cost a lot of money to try to fix that stuff. So, we’ve got to watch the erosion.
Crouch: To do it best, we need to have partnerships. We’ve seen those partnerships working as we have addressed soil erosion and nutrient runoff in our Western Lake Erie Basin, our Mississippi River Basin and our Kankakee River Basin. Indiana is a leader in cover crops. We have the third most acres planted of cover crops in all the states. I’m certainly willing to explore any opportunities to be able to continue keeping Indiana natural resources safe for future generations.
See For Yourself
The 2020 Indiana Lieutenant Governor Debate can be streamed online from Walton Webcasting at: https://tinyurl.com/y3vq3nfb.
The event was introduced by Julia Wickard, 2020-2021 chair of the AgrIInstitute, and moderated by Gerry Dick, creator and host of Inside INdiana Business with Gerry Dick.
The panelists that questioned the candidates were James Henry, AgriNews executive editor; John Ketzenberger, The Nature Conservancy director of government relations; Amy Simpson, Brownfield Network anchor/reporter; and Gary Truitt, Hoosier Ag Today president.
Meet The Candidates