Announcing an economic development initiative “Appalachia Proud: Mountains of Potential,” Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer made a stop in Harlan on Tuesday, speaking to a large crowd at the Harlan Center before introducing U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
Comer’s initiative is intended to generate economic activity through agriculture in 37 eastern Kentucky counties.
“If the people of Harlan County produce anything — whether it be a food product, farm product, art or craft, they can use the Appalachia Proud initiative sticker on their product that alerts the consumers that this was something produced in the mountains and in Harlan County,” said Comer. “I think consumers will respond and pay a premium for it because everyone wants to support Appalachia. They know the economy is struggling here, through no fault of anyone in my opinion, but unkind federal regulations.
Comer added, “We think we can brand what we produce here in eastern Kentucky, specifically in Harlan County, that people can expand and sell their products for a premium. Hopefully, this will help people who are unemployed and perhaps want to start a new business with an agriculture or food product.”
With an abundance of ginseng in eastern Kentucky, Comer said he feels there should be ginseng processors in the U.S., particularly in Kentucky.
“All the ginseng people dig ends up being processed in foreign countries,” said Comer. “We have some very, very, small mom and pop type things, but as far as on a large scale, we think ginseng should be processed on a large scale in Kentucky. We’re going to work with the University of Pikeville and another entity trying to explore that. “
Comer said he believes eastern Kentucky could be the “honey bee capitol of the world.”
“We can produce more honey in eastern Kentucky than anywhere else in the world,” said Comer. “The problem with honey bee production in western Kentucky is, for example, they have large agriculture areas there and they use a lot of pesticides to produce their crop. Obviously, pesticides kill pests, specifically bees. You don’t have that pesticide application here in eastern Kentucky because there is no large scale agriculture.”
Comer said research shows bees thrive and produce more honey in the eastern Kentucky mountains than in the western part of the state. He said he would like to see “a niche market” formed with honey production in eastern Kentucky.
Comer also added eastern Kentucky is ideally suited for production of mushrooms and speciality livestock.
“We need to think outside the box in this part of the state,” said Comer. “People will say, well, look at these mountains you can’t produce food here. I completely disagree with that. We want more green houses, more food produced by hydroponic, aquapondics — those are the things we are going to push. Anyone interested in this please call my office and we’ll send someone down here to work with them.”
Comer said he recently visited the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy in Harlan where he talked with Director Josh Coldiron about their “raised bed garden project.”
“This project will teach those students there how to produce food,” said Comer. “We’re focused on eastern Kentucky and trying to grow the economy through agriculture and food production and we’ll continue to do that.”
Comer said he is also creating industrial hemp pilot projects in Kentucky. He said the projects will be located in diverse areas of the state with unique research focuses and different university affiliations.
“I don’t think there will be any hemp grown in Harlan County the first year unless someone calls us with an interest in growing it,” said Comer. “Right now, the interest seems to be in the western part of Appalachia - Lee, Jackson and Rockcastle counties, up through Madison County, all the way to Clark County. Eastern Kentucky University is going to be doing a research type project on hemp. Hopefully, this will be an opportunity for this part of the state in the next few years.”
To reach Comer call 502-573-0450, email at James.Comer@ky.gov, or through Twitter @KYComer. You may also visit their website at www.kyagr.com.
Nola Sizemore may be reached at 606-573-4510, ext. 115, or on Twitter @Nola_hde