It is common for people to talk about their vision of agriculture. But usually those visions are limited. They are limited by the individuals’ pre-conceived idea of what they want agriculture to be. For example, HSUS would have a vision of agriculture where all the animals ran free and were not consumed for food. Organic groups would have a vision of agriculture where farmers did not use any chemical products or biotechnology. Some environmental groups would have a vision of farmers working the land with hand tools. Such visions fit into these artificially-constructed worldviews of food production but do not fit into the real world of a global population who wants safe, affordable, and plentiful food supply. A more accurate vision of agriculture is one that is much bigger and far more diverse. Such a vision was recently articulated by the new director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture.
Ted McKinney was appointed last week to take over the ISDA. This was the second time he had been offered this position, and what made him say yes this time is known only to him and the Pence administration. But his willingness to serve may finally provide the young agency with a vision and a purpose it has not had before. Created to fulfill a campaign promise made during the first Daniels administration, Indiana’s Department of Agriculture is unlike most of the state ag departments in the nation. ISDA has only two regulatory functions, those involving soil conservation and grain warehouse licensing. All the other regulatory functions are divided among a handful of other state agencies. So what is the vision and purpose of ISDA? Past directors have struggled with this concept. Some have sees the department as a government-supported advocate for agriculture, while other have seen it as an economic catalyst designed to drive economic development at home as well as on the foreign market. McKinney, in his first public appearance as Director, articulated a vision that was bigger and more cohesive than any of these.
McKinney used the analogy of a puzzle. Agriculture has many different pieces; but, when all brought together, they make a very powerful force. He sees the role of ISDA as the agent that connects and brings together these pieces. Indiana, as well as Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and other states, all have the resources of a powerful agriculture puzzle which involves commodity products as well as specialty crops, food processing, exports, local food brands, farmers markets, biotech, and organic. All of us, when connected together, can be a major factor in our state, our nation, and our world.
McKinney, who views agriculture as a global industry, sees how states can come together and play a significant role in the local and world marketplace. Too often we in agriculture are so focused on our puzzle piece, we don’t see how we fit into the larger picture. “We in agriculture are all friends, but perhaps we need to become better friends,” McKinney told me. He believes the many and diverse sectors of agriculture can learn a lot from each other, if we only do a better job of communicating.
McKinney also believes in being an advocate for agriculture; but, here to, his vision may differ from the norm. He sees being an advocate as presenting the facts about agriculture — not only to consumers, but to law makers, lobbyists, and other state agencies. This fact-based approach allows him to present the truth about biotechnology, organic agriculture, exports, and local food sources, all with equal passion. While some has already criticized his big business connection, having come from Elanco where he was Director of Global Corporate Affairs, this background and international perspective has given McKinney a vision that is larger than many of his predecessors.
McKinney also brings to the position a passion for agriculture that is infectious and a passion that is focused by his vision of what agriculture can be. Whether a small specialty crop producer or a large commodity farmer, we should all latch on to the big vision of what agriculture is and can be.
By Gary Truitt