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Bruce Kettler
STAY THE COURSE: Bruce Kettler sees the Indiana State Department of Agriculture’s role as one of supporting farmers and agriculture, but not attempting to do things through state government that private industry can handle.

Indiana ag director shares insights after 1st year

Bruce Kettler is cautiously optimistic about Indiana agriculture in the year ahead.

In November 2017, Bruce Kettler was named to fill big shoes left by Ted McKinney as director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture. When McKinney became USDA undersecretary for trade, Kettler took the reins of ISDA, officially beginning in January 2018.

Roughly a year later, he took time to size up where he sees Indiana agriculture today and reflect on challenges and accomplishments during his first year at ISDA.

Here’s an exclusive interview with Indiana Prairie Farmer:

What is your sense of farmers’ attitudes and the state of Indiana agriculture heading into 2019? We’re all aware we’re in a period of low commodity prices, which has made it difficult for farmers. Good yields in most areas have helped many. It’s an interesting dichotomy in agriculture — prices are low because there is a surplus, but farmers need big yields individually to make things work. Overall, I haven’t picked up on a sense of panic. People are concerned, and we’re watching and monitoring the situation, but there are still many positives.

Would you agree that the livestock sector seems especially hard-hit? That’s especially true of the dairy industry. Those producers have been through a three- to four-year trough of low prices, and those I talk to don’t see big relief coming quickly.

What can ISDA do to help? We believe we need to go back to what we do best as an agency of state government. We continue to help look for new customers and new markets for Indiana ag products. One way we do that is through trade missions. We participated in Gov. [Eric] Holcomb’s trade mission to Israel earlier this year, which focused largely on agricultural technology, and on Lt. Gov. [Suzanne] Crouch’s trade mission to Manitoba, Canada, in September. Our goal is to take the right people on those trade missions who can help see opportunities for markets for our products and develop relationships which can make that happen.

Our other big emphasis is on aiding Indiana ag businesses already in the state expand, and on bringing companies outside of the state into Indiana.

What selling points do you promote in searching for ag businesses? I feel very comfortable in the position we’re in as a state and as an ag industry, especially compared to several neighboring states. We have good infrastructure, and Gov. Holcomb’s proposals to improve roads should make that even stronger. We also have a low tax base compared to other states. These are positives when you’re attempting to bring in businesses that can help your economy and, in turn, help farmers.

What are you hearing from ag businesses and financial lenders about the current state of Indiana agriculture? I would say there are concerns, but again, I don’t sense panic. Companies are aware that their customers will be looking at their budgets for 2019, and many are exploring ways they can help farmers moving forward. We’re doing the same thing in state government. If it becomes apparent we should help in some way, we will study it carefully Right now, though, the best course seems to be to do what we do best, and let farmers and ag businesses do what they do, while keeping a watchful eye on the situation.

What has been your biggest challenge since taking this position? I came from private industry, and ag industry and state government do things differently. It’s not necessarily right or wrong, it’s just different. One is budgeting. In state government, we budget on a two-year cycle. Fortunately, our budget was in reasonably good shape. We’re looking now at any adjustments we might need to make for the next biennium.

You’ve already talked about how ISDA can help develop markets for ag products. Is that part of what Indiana Grown is all about? Yes, and it’s an amazing story. The goal is to help members who are primarily local farmers learn how to locate markets and meet the needs of customers. The initial focus was on farmers markets, and while that’s still important, it’s moved beyond that scope. Now several members are looking at how to provide locally grown or raised ag products for institutions, such as hospitals and schools.

Our membership grows by about a member a day. When I started in January, Indiana Grown had about 950 members. We’ve just surpassed 1,300.

Is this an area where you may need more staff? We’re going to look at it carefully as we put together the new budget. We have three full-time staff members. Yet as growth continues, we must be able to provide the services which members expect. We’re growing because members are receiving value through the program as they prepare to produce and sell for new markets.

What are other successes of ISDA? We’re very proud of our FFA and youth leadership staff. On the mission to Canada, we talked a lot about 4-H and FFA, and they were very interested in what we do in Indiana and ISDA to promote youth leadership. There’s likely going to be more come from that relationship.

Our Division of Soil Conservation team continues to do great things as part of the Indiana Conservation Partnership. Before coming here, I had heard about it but hadn’t been personally involved. Seeing the partnership in action and what it can do has been eye-opening. Other states talk about trying to model their system after Indiana, and with good reason. When conservation people go out to landowners, they worry about what farmers and landowners need first, and then determine which programs fit best — whether state, federal or local. Everyone pitches in to get things done. It’s amazing to watch.

Is there anything new on the horizon for ISDA? We’re going to roll out the rural economic development model in the first quarter of 2019. We’re also introducing a hardwoods strategy for Indiana in the first quarter of 2019. ISDA and its partners are excited about both of these opportunities.

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