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Farming for Votes

Knoxville Mayor and GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Haslam told Tennessee Farm Bureau members that leaner government will benefit rural businesses, and the state’s economy as a whole. But agriculture grants and biofuels subsidies wouldn’t necessarily be on the chopping block, he added.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Haslam outlined his strategies for improving the Tennessee agriculture business environment on Wednesday before hundreds of farmers and ranchers gathered at a state Farm Bureau event in Franklin.

Haslam said his overarching effort to check government spending — his commitment to which he said is observable by examining his two-term tenure as mayor of Knoxville — will benefit Tennessee farmers, just as it will benefit the state’s economy as a whole.

However, Haslam said his belt-tightening plans do not include eliminating state-level  agriculture grants, which in this budget year account for about $16 million.

“We will keep the agriculture enhancement grant program going,” said Haslam. “I don’t say that just to cater to this group. I really do think that’s an integral part of our economy and something we have to keep going. It’s been important.”

The pledge drew hardy applause from the Tennessee Farm Bureau audience.

Haslam also said he plans to appoint a rural business-development specialist to work in the Tennessee Department of Economic Development, and indicated he’ll press the Legislature for continued subsidization of the biofuels industry, another popular note in his speech before the largest state Farm Bureau organization in the country.

“Looking at it realistically, the state has made a big investment in the switchgrass project. I think it’s about $70 million,” said Haslam. “What we have to do, what the ethanol refiners and everybody else have to do is make certain that we make that cost-competitive.”

“It’s important in the long run that we use every source of clean energy and alternative energy that’s homegrown, rather than totally relying on oil from overseas, from people who don’t like us very much,” he added. “All that makes great sense to me. The challenge now, at the end of the day, is we have to make that market competitive, and I think we can do that. I am definitely in favor of it.”

Haslam said a “director-level person focused on rural economic development and agriculture business” will help ease harsh economic conditions in struggling rural Tennessee. “That’s where we have the highest unemployment, and that is where we need the most focus,” he said.

He also said the state will “have an agriculture program that is focused on what is best for Tennessee farmers, not for national interest groups.”

“We have to make sure that our regulations are written by people who understand the consequences,” said Haslam. “When people have been in government all of their life they don’t understand the consequences if they have never had to pay a bill, and they have never had to… (wait) on that permit they are holding up, or whatever it is. It is an advantage to hire people who have been in business and have seen those consequences and impacts, and can help spread that message out through government.”

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