Skillman on ISDA’s history
When Gov. Mitch Daniels signed legislation creating the Indiana State Department of Agriculture in 2005, there was excitement and yet apprehension. Indiana had operated for nearly 190 years without a department of agriculture. Would the new department shore up support for agriculture in key areas of state government? Would it interfere with regulatory functions already handled by Purdue University?
• Lieutenant governor couldn’t find an E85 refueling station in 2005.
• The lack of regulatory requirements frees ISDA to be an advocate for agriculture.
• The Division of Soil Conservation survives on a tight budget.
Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman was there before the beginning. Here are excerpts from an exclusive interview conducted on the Merrill Kelsay farm, near Whiteland.
IPF: You hit the ground running. One strategy was to help Indiana become a leader in biofuels. How has that fared?
Skillman: New Energy at South Bend was the only commercial ethanol plant operating in Indiana when ISDA began. Today there are 12 plants.
General Motors loaned me a vehicle that could run on E85 back in 2005. There were no refueling stations for E85 within the state! This is an area ISDA took seriously. Today we have 135 refueling stations.
ISDA worked with the state office of energy in these efforts. A primary role was offering tax credits.
IPF: ISDA soon established Biotown in Reynolds. The goal was converting the town to alternative energy as an example for other small communities. How do you rate its success?
Skillman: It was a completely new venture, and no one knew exactly what to expect. Some of the more complicated steps, such as heating the town with methane gas, proved tougher than expected. However, the community probably has the highest number of flex-fuel vehicles per capita in the U.S.!
ISDA is no longer directly involved. The state advises Reynolds through its office of energy, but the project is locally driven.
IPF: One plank of the first strategic plan was to double pork production. What progress has ISDA made?
Skillman: Our figures show livestock growth is up 35% in Indiana since 2005. All sectors of the livestock industry saw growth, with pork being one of the strongest growth areas.
IPF: Promoting expansion of livestock operations met some resistance. What did you learn from this?
Skillman: We were surprised that some of the strongest opposition came from rural areas that could benefit most from these investments. Some people didn’t understand that most producers maintain well-run operations. It’s one reason we started the voluntary Certified Livestock Producer program in 2008.
IPF: Some county officials were pressed to pass their own strict regulations. Has ISDA addressed this?
Skillman: The biggest boost comes from educating officials about proper use of local land use ordinances. The Indiana Land Resources Council talks to county commissioners and other officials about these matters. ISDA urges county officials to sit down and talk to ISDA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management before passing ordinances.
IPF: ISDA is not a regulatory agency. How do you view the pros or cons of this?
Skillman: It’s a real advantage. ISDA is free to be an advocate for agriculture.
In 2005, some 13 state agencies regulated agriculture. We’ve helped combine these. We also studied Purdue’s role in regulation and decided it worked well vs. bringing regulatory authority under ISDA.
We still need to look at who controls issues related to water and agriculture.
IPF: You’ve led four trade missions abroad. Do these pay off economically?
Skillman: Growth in ag exports is up 67% since 2005. It’s not all because of our trade trips, but they help. Our trips have been about building relationships.
IPF: Legislation also moved the Division of Soil Conservation from the Department of Natural Resources to ISDA. Was that a good move?
Skillman: I thought it was a good thing at the time, and I still think so. We have worked hard to bring in federal partners. We established the first Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program in 2005 and expanded it in August. However, we still lag behind other states in capturing federal conservation dollars.
We need more money for conservation, but we’re very careful with state funds. For example, Michigan spends far more dollars on tourism promotion, and the state is nearly broke, too. Better times will return, and we will have strategies in place to move forward.
This article published in the December, 2010 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.