Thursday, March 14, 2002

Biotech may be answer for farms

State report looks for alternatives to growing tobacco

By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — A state plan for long-term agricultural development says biotechnology, including genetic engineering of plants and animals, “may hold promise” and should be explored but not immediately embraced.

        Instead, the state's top farm priorities should be market development and giving farmers more access to capital, according to the report, which Gov. Paul Patton released Wednesday.

        The decline of tobacco, which allowed thousands of farmers to be profitable on comparatively small acreage, has prompted a re-examination of Kentucky's entire approach to agriculture. Half of the state's money from a national settlement being paid by cigarette makers has been earmarked for farm diversification.

        Farmers “have struggled to adapt in ways that allow them to stay on their farms and in their rural communities,” Gov. Patton said in remarks prepared for a news conference. The new plan is an “initial blueprint for creating the farm-based economic activity that would enable our farm families to do just that,” he said.

        According to the report, “biotechnology, genetic engineering and molecular farming may hold promise for adapting agricultural crops and livestock to new purposes.

        “It is imperative that policy makers recognize widespread concerns about the implications of these technologies.”

        The plan, distilled over several months by the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board, said regions of the state have different potential — timber, livestock, vegetables and tourism in eastern Kentucky; horses, tobacco, forages and hay and feeder cattle in central Kentucky; grains and horticulture in western Kentucky.

        Other highlights:

        Kentucky should cultivate a “wholesome image” for its farm products, capitalizing on consumer desires for food purity. A quality assurance program for farm products, with a state seal of approval, would add value to Kentucky brands.

        Farm production credit has been readily available. But money for farm entrepreneurs, who would turn raw commodities into finished products, has been subject to high interest and strict covenants, making it unavailable to any but sophisticated borrowers.

        The state should continue and expand the use of financial incentives aimed at environmental stewardship to get farmers and companies to control soil erosion, improve water quality and better manage timber stands.

        Because most rural families need off-farm jobs for health insurance and to otherwise make ends meet, the state should step up efforts to bring “non-polluting jobs.”.

        An advocacy group, Community Farm Alliance, endorsed most of the plan but also had questions.

        Pete Cashel, an organic farmer in Mercer County and a former president of the alliance, said it was unclear, for example, whether the Agricultural Development Board envisioned using tobacco settlement money to recruit technology jobs.


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