Pictured, from left, are Ohio Department of Agriculture Dorothy Pelanda, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Ohio Farm Bureau director of media relations Ty Higgins during their keynote address at the eighth annual Ag Is Everyone's Business event. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Pictured, from left, are Ohio Department of Agriculture Dorothy Pelanda, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Ohio Farm Bureau director of media relations Ty Higgins during their keynote address at the eighth annual Ag Is Everyone's Business event. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Over 400 individuals enjoyed a discussion by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Ohio Department of Agriculture Director Dorothy Pelanda Monday morning during the keynote address of the eighth annual Ag Is Everyone’s Business event, hosted by the Highland County Chamber of Commerce. During that address, the crowd heard information on the administration’s policies implemented thus far that impact agriculture in the state, as they weighed in on a number of recent headlines affecting farmers and rural communities.

Chamber of Commerce community relations coordinator Erin Sheeley told The Highland County Press that approximately 380 people purchased tickets for the popular annual celebration highlighting agriculture at the local, state and national level, held at the SSCC Patriot Center. There were also close to 40 Highland County FFA students volunteering, along with other workers throughout the venue.

The keynote speaker for this year’s event was Governor DeWine, who held what was described as a “fireside chat” discussion with Director Pelanda, which was hosted by Ohio Farm Bureau director of media relations Ty Higgins.

After a catered breakfast served by Ponderosa, Dwight Hamilton provided the invocation and Highland County Chamber of Commerce executive director Destiny Bryson welcomed those in attendance. Dr. Brooke Beam, Agriculture and Natural Resources/Community Development Extension Educator for the Highland County Ohio State University Extension office, introduced a video that she and Bryson co-produced.

Beam said they felt it was important to share an inside look at local agricultural productions because, as she said, there were people in attendance Monday morning who had never stepped foot on a farm.

“Agriculture is Highland County’s business, and we hope this video helps connect you to the producers in your backyard,” Beam said.

The video featured interviews with local farmers with a variety of different backgrounds, all of whom shared statistics on farming in Highland County. A breakdown of crops and livestock operations and information on Highland County farmers were shared, along with facts of local interest and a look at agriculture’s future in the area.

Dr. Kevin Boys, Southern State Community College president, introduced two local 4-H members — Sara Newsome, who led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance; and Trinity Edenfield, who led many members of the crowd in reciting the 4-H pledge — before discussing the event, which has been held at the college each year.

“The event is in its eighth year,” Boys said. “The inception was to celebrate Highland County’s — and indeed, Ohio’s — number-one industry, that of agriculture. We are here to celebrate all of you that are involved in that important industry, from the clothes we wear on our back — 100-percent wool, 100-percent cotton — to the great breakfast we had this morning. Thank God for the blessing of those who work in the agriculture community.”

Boys then recognized the numerous public officials in attendance, including Highland County commissioners Jeff Duncan, Terry Britton and Gary Abernathy; Highland County auditor Bill Fawley; Highland County engineer Chris Fauber; Highland County sheriff Donnie Barrera; Hillsboro mayor Justin Harsha; Greenfield city manager Todd Wilkin; Southern State Community College board members Doug Boedeker, Lynn Stevens and Kristy Wilkin; U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup; State Rep. Shane Wilkin; State Sen. Bob Peterson; and representatives from U.S. Senator Rob Portman’s office and Ohio Treasurer Robert Sprague’s office.

After thanking those public officials for their service and support, especially to the college, Boys introduced the governor, whom he called “a true Ohio story” and “no stranger to agriculture.” DeWine’s family ran a seed company based in Yellow Springs, where he worked “alongside his parents and grandparents,” Boys said.

“He learned quickly the value of hard work, strong leadership and fiscal responsibility, traits that he brings to the governor’s office each and every day,” Boys said. “Growing up, I hear he loaded seed bags onto trucks and box cars, shoveled wheat out of trucks during harvest, worked the wheat fields to ensure purity of seed — basically, did whatever he had to do to get the job done.”

Following what Boys described as “a long and distinguished career of public service,” DeWine was elected governor in November 2018. The audience gave DeWine a standing ovation as Boys welcomed him to the stage.

After Boys introduced DeWine, Pelanda and Higgins for what he called their “fireside chat,” Higgins complimented the “great turnout.” “Especially for the eighth year for an event, this is quite the morning, I think, for sure for this county,” Higgins said.

DeWine also thanked those in attendance and said that he first visited Highland County when he was in high school and working for his family’s seed company.

Part of the morning’s discussion focused on the widespread flooding throughout the state in 2019. In August 2019, “U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said there were sufficient production losses to warrant a Secretarial natural disaster designation” that added Highland and nine other counties among “counties where farmers can seek potential relief from the USDA following Secretarial disaster designations in their counties or contiguous counties due to rain, flooding or other weather conditions,” according to a press release from the Ohio Governor’s office.

“Last spring, we couldn’t get crops planted, and thanks to your leadership, all 88 counties across the state were declared disaster areas by the federal government,” Higgins said. “Could you talk about the process you went through to bring these issues to USDA’s attention and work with them to achieve a disaster declaration?”

“This was a unique year, and we saw farmers hurting all over the state, not being able to get in the field,” DeWine said. “Probably the worst degree was northwest Ohio.

“I talked to farmers who said they couldn’t get into the field at all and had several tell me ‘I was in the field one day out of the whole planting season, and I shouldn’t have been in there that day.’ I don’t think in my lifetime I’ve ever seen anything this bad, where farmers could not put a crop out at all.”

In response, the governor said he reached out to Secretary Perdue and the “congressional delegation,” the latter of whom DeWine thanked for their “major role in making sure the Department of Agriculture understood just how bad it was in Ohio” to receive the federal disaster designation in every county by October 2019.

Higgins also asked Pelanda to speak on experiencing her first year as director “with all those challenges in Ohio.” Pelanda said she and the governor toured farms with “fields full of water” and heard farmers’ concerns last spring.

“Governor DeWine was the first governor in the nation to follow this practice and apply for this declaration,” Pelanda said. “Four other governors followed suit, but we took the lead, and as time will tell, all 88 counties have now been able to avail themselves of some funding.”

Higgins steered the conversation toward H2Ohio, a water quality initiative first introduced by DeWine last March. According to a news release from DeWine’s office last November, H2Ohio is “a comprehensive, data-driven water quality plan to reduce harmful algal blooms, improve wastewater infrastructure and prevent lead contamination.”

“Governor DeWine’s H2Ohio plan is an investment in targeted solutions to help reduce phosphorus runoff and prevent algal blooms through increased implementation of agricultural best practices and the creation of wetlands; improve wastewater infrastructure; replace failing home septic systems; and prevent lead contamination in high-risk daycare centers and schools,” the news release said. “The Ohio General Assembly invested $172 million in the plan in July [2019], and since then, H2Ohio experts have been developing strategies for long-term, cost-effective and permanent water quality solutions.”

The first phase is “reducing runoff into the Maumee River Watershed and Lake Erie,” which Higgins said is being implemented this month. Higgins asked DeWine and Pelanda to speak about the program’s reception thus far.

Pelanda said that in organizing the plan, the DeWine administration met with “scientists, experts and most importantly, farmers.”

“We looked at science-based practices on how to maintain water and nutrients on the land,” Pelanda said. “We started out with 300, then 100, then 30, 10 and finally, in November, Governor DeWine rolled out the H2Ohio Plan in which ODA is funding farmers in the lower Maumee basin to engage in seven science-based practices.”

At the beginning of February, Pelanda said hundreds of farmers in the Maumee area turned out to hear presentations on the plan. “We’re so excited because we believe — we’ve always believed — that farmers are the true conservationists and that together, voluntary conservation is going to work in this place,” she said.

After speaking about the focus on reducing algal blooms in Lake Erie and other aspects of the H2Ohio plan, DeWine also spoke about the reception from Ohio farmers, saying, “We’re very enthusiastic with the number of farmers who’ve signed up for meetings.”

“As we put more and more efforts into good farming practices, we’re eventually going to see a significant reduction in algal blooms and phosphorous going into the lake,” DeWine said. “I think that’s going to be good for agriculture. It’s going to be good for anyone who lives in Ohio.”

Higgins also spoke about the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program, which, according to the Ohio EPA, “focuses on identifying and restoring polluted rivers, streams, lakes and other surface water bodies.” He asked DeWine and Pelanda to speak on how this program and H2Ohio “complement each other.”

DeWine called the EPA’s TMDL initiative “a logical followup” to the H2Ohio program.

“We had to have a plan first, and that plan is what we call H2Ohio,” the governor said. “Once we have a plan in place and know how this plan is going to work, then we can investigate this and say ‘this is high-priority, this is what we need to do.’

“The fact that we do have a plan is the most important thing.”

Pelanda said that the EPA’s program will have “no impact to how we’re rolling out H2Ohio” through the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

“The TMDL will not in any way affect the voluntary nature of the H2Ohio program,” Pelanda said. “The important thing to note here in Highland County is that the goal the governor and I have, through the help of our legislators, is to ultimately roll H2Ohio out to all 88 counties, including Highland.”

Another recent ODA headline involved the 500th farm being preserved in the state’s Farmland Preservation Program earlier this month. Higgins asked the governor to speak about farmland preservation in the state.

DeWine said the program is “important, first of all, to give farmers options.” According to the ODA, “The Clean Ohio Local Agricultural Easement Purchase Program (LAEPP) provides funding to farmland owners for placing an agricultural easement on their property. Monies are issued for up to 75 percent of the appraised value of a farm’s development rights. All easement transactions are recorded on the property deed and transfer with the land to successive owners.”

“It’s a very, very positive thing,” DeWine said, and discussed Highland County’s role in agriculture as an example.

“Highland County has been a major, major agriculture county,” DeWine said. “Whoever put the video together there [earlier in the program], thank you for the great summary of agriculture in Highland County. It really brings home the importance of agriculture.

“If you look at not just the farmers who represent agriculture, but if you look at all the economic impact agriculture has in Highland County, it’s absolutely huge. We want our farmers to continue to be farmers and understand that farmland preservation is certainly one way of doing that.”

In speaking of farmers’ legacies, Higgins asked for Pelanda’s thoughts on House Bill 183, which is currently being considered by the Ohio Legislature. Higgins described the bill as a “tax cut program” for beginning farmers.

“This provides an opportunity for people who have never considered farming before to consider it as an industry and as a family industry,” Pelanda said. “We’re excited.

“We’re very supportive of the legislation. We’re excited about what it could do for young farmers and for people who have never considered farming before.”

Higgins also asked DeWine to speak about the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which President Donald Trump signed last month.

“I think it’s been a good start,” DeWine said. “In talking about trade, farmers understand the importance of us being able to sell our products overseas. Farmers also understand intuitively that sometimes in the past, we’ve been run over by other countries. What we have to do is find that balance.”

Also related to trade are concerns over the African swine fever’s impact on the swine industry in Ohio, Higgins said. Pelanda said that it is a matter of “not if, but when” the disease comes to the U.S., but the state is taking measures to keep informed.

“Dr. Tony Forshey, who’s our state vet, was tapped by our president to be part of an African swine flu task force,” Pelanda said. “He just finished a three-day conference laying out a plan for not if, but when, African swine flu hits the United States. We are briefing the governor on what his role will be.

“The governor will make certain things happen — in effect, martial law, where we shut down our borders nationally — as we work with swine that’s been infected to determine its origin.”

As the swine industry has faced issues in recent years both at the state and national level, the Ohio Department of Agriculture has taken “two steps,” including the recent hire of Jason Francis from Adams County as a “full-time fair director” for the ODA to work with representatives at the county level; and a requirement for signed affidavits affirming that pigs shown at fairs have not been given ractopamine, or Paylean.

Higgins also asked Pelanda to speak about the state’s Got Your Back campaign, which offers mental health support and suicide prevention for Ohio farmers. Highland County farmer Nathan Brown, who also serves as a board member of the Ohio Farm Bureau, is one of the leaders of this initiative.

“We hear real stress in farmers’ voices,” Pelanda said. “We realized we needed to take a very proactive approach. Nathan Brown is one of our spokesmen for our program called Got Your Back. The goal, using assistance with RecoveryOhio, is to provide funding in each of the 88 counties so we are reaching local farmers to give them opportunities for mental health services.”

DeWine said that addressing mental health issues among children is also a priority of his administration. “The key is if a child is having problems, we’ve got to reach that child at an early age,” DeWine said.

Another issue affecting rural farmers, children and other residents is the lack of access to broadband services, which Higgins asked DeWine to address.

“There are a million Ohioans who don’t have access to broadband today. That’s a lot of people,” DeWine said. “We are really focused on that.”

DeWine said his administration has a goal “to keep our rural areas vibrant,” and in rural areas he has seen people forced to take their kids to a McDonald’s to use the internet for homework and many people utilizing library services because they don’t have access to broadband services at home.

“It’s a very high priority,” DeWine said. “We are certainly working on it.”

Higgins asked if there were concerns about Highland County and other rural areas being underreported on the 2020 census, which is offered online.

“Counting all Ohioans is important to us,” DeWine said. “We’ve seen some underreporting in rural areas before. We’ve also seen some underreporting in families that have children under the age of 5. Everybody needs to do everything we can to report our population.”

Higgins also asked DeWine about TechCred, an initiative signed into law this year “that connects businesses with the talent they need and gives employees the ability to earn industry-recognized, technology-focused credentials, better preparing them for a job in today’s advanced, technology-infused economy,” according to Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted’s office.

DeWine said the initiative includes “a plan to create what we call microdegrees,” as the administration focuses on helping workers “get the training they need.”

“What we have to continue to do is to really focus on investing in our people,” DeWine said.

Along with that, DeWine said his administration wants to emphasize the importance of early childhood development, including through a focus on kindergarten readiness and first lady Fran DeWine’s initiative to implement the Imagination Library program in all 88 counties.

Following the discussion, Rick Williams, a member of the Chamber of Commerce and the Ag Is Everyone’s Business committee, presented DeWine with a gift, which the governor unwrapped to reveal a framed copy of a DeWine Seeds bag.

Seth Phillips, Chamber board vice chairman, concluded the keynote presentation by thanking the attendees and speakers as well as Bryson and Sheeley. Phillips also thanked the event’s sponsors, which included Ag-Pro; Bane-Welker Equipment; BioGene Seeds; Carraher Ag; First State Bank; Great Oaks Career Campuses; Hamilton Insurance Agency; Hecate; Herb Day Radio; Highland District Hospital; Innergex; J. Boeckmann Excavating; Merchants National Bank; Newman-Barton Group; Nutrien Ag Solutions; Ohio Asphaltic and Limestone; The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; Open Road Renewables; Peoples Bank; Ponderosa Steakhouse; Premier Crop Insurance/Amy Magulac Boeckmann; RWE; South Central Power; Southern Hills Community Bank; Southern State Community College; The Linen Closet; and Tom Pitzer Trucking.

Ag Is Everyone’s Business committee members are Beam, Jeff Dickey, Brad Elmore, Amy Hamilton, Jim Hamilton, Randy Lennartz, Tim Parry, Phillips, Austin Trueblood and Williams.

Phillips then dismissed the audience to attend one of three breakout sessions: an ag business roundtable, hosted by Beam; a discussion of rules and regulations of Ohio’s hemp program, led by Ohio Department of Agriculture hemp inspection manager Jim Belt; and a lecture on meat production practices delivered by Dr. Lyda Garcia, assistance professor of meat science at Ohio State University. This is the first year the breakout sessions were offered.