Tobacco Settlement money still has a major impact on Kentucky agriculture
(First Appeared in the Feb. 16 issue of The Farmer’s Pride)
By Ray Bowman
In 1962, singer Hank Snow rose to the top of the country music charts with a song called “I’ve Been Everywhere,” a rapid-fire recollection of the cities the singer claimed to have visited.
Warren Beeler, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Agriculture Policy, seems to be re-writing the tune’s lyrics with a Kentucky twist.
Appearing with his deputy director Bill McCloskey before the Tobacco Settlement Agreement Fund Oversight Committee, Beeler started out his report with an impressive list of the places he has visited and spoken since taking the GOAP Reins last year.
The Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy provides grants, incentives and low-interest loans to help farmers and agribusinesses innovate and grow.
“Bill McCloskey runs the office and I run the roads, promoting the programs and promoting agriculture,” Beeler told the state senators and representatives that make up the committee. “The Governor calls me the ‘Ag Evangelist’ and he’s pretty close, I’d say.”
As he presented the annual report to the legislators, Beeler pointed out that there were many success stories profiled in the document. “I suspect that there might be one that’s close to you, or in your district,” he noted.
Several new programs have been implemented by GOAP including plans to address one of the major problems facing Kentucky agriculture, an aging participant base.
“The biggest concern I hear when I travel is that young farmers are having trouble getting this money,” Beeler noted. To find ways to solve that problem, a new program was launched in Washington County called Next Generation CAIP (County Agricultural Investment Program.) Under the initiative, a county has the discretion to dedicate funds to assist applicants who have operated and shared in the financial risk of a farming operation for at least 3 years but not more than 7 years.
“It’s an opportunity for the young farmers, who probably need the money the most,” said Beeler. “They still have to score high enough (on the application) but it is a county decision. We never tell the counties how to spend their money.”
Similarly, there is money for youth projects like heifer chains or the popular country ham curing project, which saw more than 800 participants at the 2016 Kentucky State Fair who cured hams and prepared and delivered remarks on their experience. The youth projects encourage young people to continue their interest and engagement in agricultural pursuits.
Beeler also told the committee that his agency would like to recruit summer interns. “It’s not as much for us as it is for them,” he explained. “Coming from the Department of Agriculture, I’m a big believer that you can make little ag monsters out of these youngsters if you give them to us for 2 or three months.”
Senator Robin Webb has been with the Oversight Committee since its creation to watchdog the use of Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement money.
Webb emphasized, especially to the newly elected members of the committee, that the Settlement Agreement Fund needs to be protected.
“I just feel compelled as the only one standing here that was in on the ground floor of this thing to remind everybody that this is, to me, sacred ground,” Webb stated following the reports. She pointed to the fact that she, like many others in the Commonwealth, once depended on and benefited from the revenue created by tobacco production, especially in her native eastern Kentucky. “Now we don’t have that for my farmers.”
“I felt compelled to have a little history lesson and remind everybody of the importance of what we’re doing here,” she said.
Kentucky has been a model for expenditure of the funds coming into the Commonwealth from the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998, negotiated by 46 state attorneys general with the Big Four tobacco companies. The Commonwealth budgeted 50 percent of the settlement for agricultural programs and agricultural diversification. Twenty-five percent of the funds were dedicated to early childhood development, while the remaining 25 percent went to public health programs to deal with problems perceived to be tobacco-related.