Bruce Kettler had a unique opportunity while addressing 450 agriculture supporters at the annual Taste of Shelby County Agriculture celebration in early March. The director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture could say anything he wanted about agriculture in Indiana. The message he shared with farmers, ag businesspeople and local community leaders spoke volumes.
“People ask me why I do this job,” Kettler said. “It’s really fairly simple. I feel optimistic about the future in agriculture, and I want to be part of it and help our agency do what it can to help agriculture grow.
“Yes, 2019 was a tough, challenging year for many people in agriculture. There are still challenges as we move deeper into 2020, but I see reasons to be optimistic about agriculture, especially here in Indiana.”
Kettler cited several reasons for optimism. “The first reason is the great young people we have here in Indiana,” he said. “There are FFA members from five chapters in Shelby County at this event. That is awesome and speaks for how fast the FFA program is growing.”
Kettler noted that a few years ago, a previous director had the vision to see that Indiana FFA needed a home in state government. Working with the administration, he helped move Indiana FFA’s administrative leaders into ISDA. Within the past year, an administrative position for vocational education also became part of ISDA.
FFA membership statewide is growing, and now totals about 12,500 students, with more schools adding ag departments and FFA chapters, and several schools adding second teachers.
State departments of agriculture in most states are burdened with regulatory functions. In Indiana, the grain warehouse division is under ISDA, but other regulatory functions are primarily under the Office of the State Chemist, located at Purdue University. “That frees us up to be involved in other things, such as economic development,” Kettler said. “It’s a really important part of what we do.”
It’s also another reason for his optimism about the future. “There is a real commitment to help companies which are here grow, and to bring new ag businesses into Indiana,” Kettler said. “There is a reason why other companies want to come here.”
Indiana is a good place to do business, he said, and he sees that continuing. In fact, two new ag-related businesses are getting underway in Shelby County. One of those, a new ethanol plant built by Poet, is reported to be moving closer to being ready to begin operation.
To make economic development happen in the ag sector, you need infrastructure, Kettler acknowledged. Today, that’s more than good highways and bridges. You also need high-speed rural broadband.
ISDA does all it can to support that effort, Kettler said. The Indiana Legislature approved Gov. Eric Holcomb’s request for a $100 million grant program to expand rural broadband in 2019.
“We’re into the second round of grants for those projects now,” he said. “We’re also doing what we can to seek USDA and other federal grants to assist in expanding rural broadband capabilities.
“It’s important for farmers who use technology and for businesses, but it goes deeper than that,” Kettler said. “It’s a quality of life issue, as well.
“Rural communities need effective broadband available for the people who live there. We also need it available for rural schools. We’re making progress.”