Mike Starkey opened up his farm gates recently, and the candidates for governor rolled in. Indiana Farm Bureau Inc. hosted the event on Starkey’s farm. More than 160 farmers and ag business people filled the farm shop near Brownsburg to hear what the candidates — Libertarian Rex Bell, Democrat John Gregg and Republican Eric Holcomb — would say about key agricultural issues.
Questions were prepared by Indiana Farm Bureau's legislative team. The candidates were provided access to the questions in advance. Each candidate had a chance to speak and then answered the same set of questions. It was not a debate. Candidates appeared on the "stage" — a flatbed trailer with straw bales as a background — one at a time.
Here is the first set of questions and responses.
Question: What is your experience in working with the agriculture sector?
Bell: I grew up in a farm family in Henry County. I have spent my career operating a contracting business. I am aware of what goes on in agriculture, and I’ve noticed that a lot of regulations on farms today often seem to be government overreach.
Gregg: I grew up putting up hay and cutting corn out of soybeans in Knox County. I’m an attorney by trade and have experience in the coal mining industry. My wife and I own farmland, and I live on a farm and manage farmland. Obviously, I don’t make my living just by farming.
Holcomb: The Holcombs come from Oaktown in Knox County. As the current secretary of agriculture, I’m aware of the issues facing farmers today. I worked in the Daniels administration, and was around when we brought in the first Indiana State Department of Agriculture, and developed the first strategic plan for ISDA in 2005.
BELL SHARES VIEWS: Rex Bell is the Libertarian candidate running for governor this fall.
Question: What is your overall impression and opinion of Indiana’s ag sector?
Bell: I support the freedom to farm [in Indiana policy] that has been restricted elsewhere. If every industry in Indiana was as dedicated as agriculture, we would all be in a lot better shape.
Gregg: I know that margins are tight right now and costs keep going up. There are lots of challenges out there. People move to the country to get away from the city, then find they don’t always like the dust and smells [in the country]. Many just don’t understand it.
Agriculture is one of five areas for economic growth that lieutenant governor candidate Christina Hale and I have targeted in our 35-point economic plan. Agriculture is just Indiana!
Holcomb: I am impressed with the big-tent approach to agriculture that we have in Indiana. Everyone is welcome under the tent. We must continue to grow. Indiana agriculture was the spinal column that has helped hold the Indiana economy together, especially in 2008.
Indiana is already a global player in agriculture. We have an excellent location, world-class universities and a very good relationship between government and the private sector. ISDA Director Ted McKinney has a strong hand to play when at the table with the Indiana Economic Development Council. We also recognize that 50% of Indiana farmers work off the farm, so we need to focus on the whole economy to help farmers move forward.
GREGG ON AGRICULTURE: The Democratic candidate, John Gregg, expresses his views on key ag-related topics.
Question: Explain why or why not you think the property tax law needs to be reviewed, and give your thoughts on any changes.
Bell: We’re opposed to property taxes. They should be eliminated. It is the most unfair tax there is. We would replace it with a use tax or some sort of consumption tax.
Gregg: We live in a competitive day. Appointing a committee to study all taxes would be a good idea. Years ago, the inventory tax had grown obsolete, and I helped get rid of it during my time in the Legislature. We need a study of the overall tax system in Indiana. Property tax caps are in the constitution, so they will be around for a while. Our unique challenge is figuring out how to fund local schools and governments [in this environment].
Holcomb: A year ago, I would have said yes, property taxes need to be reviewed, especially taxes on farmland. Thanks to the Legislature this past spring, that’s pretty much taken care of now. We couldn’t have done it without the help of Indiana Farm Bureau and its members. I think we got it just about right. We’re no longer seeing double-digit percentage increases in property taxes from year to year on farmland.
HOLCOMB ADDRESSES FARMERS: The republican candidate, Eric Holcomb, answers the same questions posed to the two other candidates.
Question: Do you have any ideas surrounding the issue of property tax structure and funding of local government? Can you articulate them for us?
Bell: Property taxes need to go. We would need to replace the revenue. Sales tax might be a possibility. Our tax system needs to be replaced with a simple tax system that people can see and understand.
Gregg: Less of school funding now comes from property taxes. One thing that’s happened is the Legislature has taken some control of schools away from local boards with this change.
We need to do two things here. First, we need to realize that many schools are struggling due to the property tax cap issue. Second, we need to have a conversation about these issues. Local governments are struggling, too, for the same reasons. All players need to be at the table in these discussions, including agriculture. Others that need to be there include those in the education system.
Holcomb: We need to keep an open mind on ways to improve current tax strategies and look for answers.
Question: How can the state encourage farmers to improve on-farm conservation and reduce nutrient loss to help improve water quality?
Bell: When it comes to conservation, we have the soil and water conservation districts. We can do that locally.
Gregg: I am impressed by the amount of cover crops I see in my area. It’s amazing to see the fields of radishes in the fall. Indiana is a leader in cover crops. We’ve done that because farmers are voluntarily adopting best [management] practices. Farmers want to be good stewards of the land.
Holcomb: Conservation in Indiana is an excellent example of what can be done with partnership and collaboration. We are No. 2 in the nation in [acres of] cover crops. Our INfield Advantage testing program through ISDA is a voluntary program that is a collaborative effort that is working. It is an example of how things can be. We could do more, and we have to do more. We need to focus more of our strategy at ISDA on this, and figure out how to leverage more USDA Farm Bill funding that is available, so we can get those dollars back to Indiana.
Question: How can the state of Indiana facilitate providing broadband to all rural areas within our borders?
Bell: This is not a proper function of government. If you can see the top of a grain leg from your house, you can probably get it. The private sector will provide it. The government would just create another layer, which would complicate things.
Gregg: The fact is that 14% of all Hoosiers don’t have good broadband service. When I tell people that in urban areas, they don’t believe it, but it’s true. We can look to places like Scottsburg for answers. Several years ago local leaders decided they needed broadband, and they did what it took to get it. It’s a problem, and it’s a matter of making it a priority. Kentucky has done it. Tennessee has done it. We are prepared to do it as well. We would propose using $200 million out of a fund set aside for infrastructure to begin addressing it.
Holcomb: Providing broadband is a tall order. It’s even more important to the ag sector. There is a need for speed. I get it. We need to focus on increasing access and bandwidth. At the same time, we must realize there is no silver bullet. It’s expensive. We will need to leverage federal dollars — we send our money there, and this is a chance to get it back. We need to make sure that folks aren’t left behind and that they are connected to the 21st century.
Question: How would you support vocational education training, specifically for vocational agriculture in our educational system?
Bell: We would turn education control back to parents, teachers and local leaders. I realize agriculture is important. Local boards where it is important in rural areas would help it.
Gregg: I took ag but not FFA. My son was in FFA. All I hear from small-business people is the need for skilled employees. Vocational education has been overlooked, and that doesn’t work. We are losing an entire generation of employees by not having vocational education the way it needs to be [taught]. We need to get ahead of the curve, and vocational education is the key. We need to get everyone involved — principals, teachers and others around the table — and figure this out. What we really need to do is get politics out of the schools.
Holcomb: Gov. [Mike] Pence was a champion of career and technical training. We need to make sure ag education is highlighted and supported. Purdue University is doing what it can to encourage its students to become agriculture instructors. We also have a strong track record of supporting the National FFA. They committed to coming here [for the National FFA Convention] for nine years.
Question: Do you support FFA as part of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture?
Bell: Indiana FFA is working. I don’t see any reason to tweak it.
Gregg: Yes, I support FFA. It’s important. We’re talking about learning essential skills for those in farming and rural areas. As far as where it’s located, [ISDA or Department of Education] maybe we should all talk about it. We should continue it.
Holcomb: Absolutely! I’m 110% behind FFA as being part of ISDA. They work well together.