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New TN Ag Commissioner Named

Press Release from Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, Aug. 13, 2010:

NASHVILLE – Governor Phil Bredesen today announced Terry J. Oliver as the next commissioner of the Department of Agriculture. Oliver, who currently serves as deputy commissioner, will assume his new role on August 16, 2010.

“I have personally known Terry and have sought his advice and counsel through the years on agricultural issues,” said Bredesen. “Always dependable and a man of his word, Terry made a great team with former Commissioner Ken Givens in leading our efforts to address the needs and opportunities of farmers and rural communities. He is the right person to assume leadership of the Department of Agriculture at this time, and I’m very pleased to announce his appointment.”

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture provides a variety of consumer protection services, promotes farm products and encourages the sustainable management of forest and farmland resources. Farming and forestry not only preserve a time-honored way of life, but they also fuel the state’s economy. Agricultural production generates more than $3.1 billion annually in farm cash receipts and another $329 million generated by timber sales.

“I very much appreciate the opportunity to serve Governor Bredesen and the state of Tennessee as commissioner,” Oliver said. “The Department of Agriculture touches the lives of Tennesseans every day through the food we eat, the fuel we pump, the clothes we wear, the wood products we use and the land we enjoy. It will be an honor for me to serve Tennesseans in this new role.”

A West Tennessee farmer and businessman, Oliver has nearly 20 years of public service and experience in state government and has served four commissioners of Agriculture as deputy commissioner. He returned to state government in February 2003 having served previously in the same capacity from 1987 to 1995.

Oliver has led efforts to improve the effectiveness of the Division of Forestry and also played a significant role in the development and implementation of the Tennessee Agricultural Enhancement Program, a cost share program established by Bredesen to spur farm innovation and agricultural development in Tennessee.

A native of Gleason, Tenn., Oliver holds a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Tennessee at Martin. He is a member of the advisory council for the Governor’s School of Agriculture Sciences at UT Martin – one of only three enrichment programs in the nation for high school agriculture students. He is also a former member of the USDA Farm Services Agency state committee.

Oliver, a sixth generation farmer, and his wife Marsha reside on their family farm in Gleason and have two daughters and three grandchildren.

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Business and Economy Environment and Natural Resources News Tax and Budget

Farming for Votes

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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Press Releases

First Lady Series Touches on Agriculture

State of Tennessee Press Release; July 21, 2010:

NASHVILLE — Tennessee First Lady Andrea Conte will host an event on Thursday, July 22 from 4-6 p.m. CDT at Conservation Hall at the Tennessee Residence.

The drop-in open house, entitled, “Conservation Hall Supports Agriculture,” will focus on cultivation and gardening, featuring diverse participants that include local produce providers and organic gardeners. Participants can even learn how to assemble aesthetically-pleasing floral arrangements. There will be no formal program. The program is free, but reservations are required.

WHO: First Lady Andrea Conte

Participants:

· Delvin Farms

· Eaton’s Creek Organics, Inc.

· Ellington Agricultural Center

· Pick Tennessee Products

· Gammon Family Dairy

· Gourmet Pasture Beef

· Herb Society of Nashville

· OSHi Flowers

WHAT: “Conservation Halls Supports Agriculture”

WHEN: Thursday, July 22, 2010

4-6 p.m. CDT – Drop-In Open House (No formal program)

4:05 p.m. CDT – media availability with First Lady Conte

WHERE: Conservation Hall – The Tennessee Residence

All parking will be off-site at Judson Baptist Church, 4900 Franklin Pike, Nashville.

Members of the media that wish to attend must park at Judson Baptist Church and take a shuttle to the Residence. The shuttle will begin at 3:45 p.m. CDT. There is no parking available at the Residence.

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News Tax and Budget

HGOP Wants to Restore Career Ladder, Ag Grants

Republicans in the state House of Representatives want to make sure programs like the Career Ladder and and money for farm and ranch subsidies are funded with permanent, recurring dollars in next year’s state budget, according to House Majority Leader Jason Mumpower.

After a caucus meeting Wednesday, the Bristol Republican said members want to take those two issues introduced by the Senate GOP Tuesday off the chopping block.

“With that, I think we’re very, very, very close to where they are,” he said of the Senate proposal.

Senate Republican, led by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, revealed their budget plan Tuesday. The pitch included paying for programs like Career Ladder, the $34.5 million merit pay program for teachers, with temporary dollars instead of permanent funds — opening up the possibility of eliminating the program when the money runs out.

The plan also included cutting out $6.3 million worth of agriculture grants.  The funds, which support long-term subsidies in local livestock and farming operations, would drop from $16.3 million to $10 million.

However, members of the House GOP believe both those funds should be restored, Mumpower said.

“The House Republican caucus, I think, is overwhelmingly for a budget that makes some further responsible cuts and doesn’t go too far into the rainy-day fund,” he added. “It’s irresponsible to clean out the rainy-day fund. The situation this time next year is going to be as bad as it is today, if not worse.”

Legislative leadership indicated Thursday that both chambers will conduct Finance, Ways and Means committees next week to hammer out the budget. The House will meet in full session Monday and Thursday, but the Senate will only meet in committee.

Mumpower said he expects the legislature to have a final budget hashed out by the end of the month.

“But hey, ask me again in 15 minutes,” he said.

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Press Releases

Senate OKs Sen. Barnes’ Bill Protecting Farmers From Unfair Taxation

Press Release from Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Adams, and Rep. Joe Pitts, D-Clarksville, March 24, 2010:

Bill would protect farm land from massive estate tax hikes

NASHVILLE – The state Senate passed Wednesday 31-0 a bill by Sen. Tim Barnes (D-Adams) and Rep. Joe Pitts (D-Clarksville) to protect farmers from unfair property valuation by sponsoring a bill to limit the effect of exorbitant appraisals.

“I’m pleased to say we’re closer to protecting our farmers from losing their family farms because of unfair federal estate taxes,” Barnes said. “Farmers deserve our assistance for all that they do to feed Tennessee families and support Tennessee’s economy.”

The bill (SB3191/HB3448)would make Tennessee farms’ “highest use value” available only for computing state rollback taxes – not for use in values for estate taxes, as the current law interprets. Many farmers are being taxed based on the state’s assessment of the land’s development value, even if the property is impossible to develop or has been restricted to farm use through a will.

Barnes and Pitts sponsored the bill after hearing from Montgomery County farmers who have seen their farm appraisal rates increase more than 700 percent after the most recent reappraisals.

The House version of the bill passed in a subcommittee Wednesday and will go to the House State and Local Committee.

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Business and Economy Environment and Natural Resources Liberty and Justice News

Ag Committee Batters Animal Abuse Bill

A measure to expand the state’s animal cruelty law to cover livestock may not have a political leg to stand on after lawmakers beat it up in a legislative committee Tuesday.

Livestock are in fact protected by animal cruelty laws, but the aggravated animal cruelty provision only punishes individuals who hurt non-livestock animals, like dogs and cats.

Animal cruelty includes overworking, not caring for, or abandoning animals. Aggravated animal cruelty would include intentionally killing or causing serious physical injury to livestock.

Under the bill, causing such harm to livestock animals would be a Class E felony, punishable by one to six years behind bars, and a fine of up to $3,000. Currently, animal cruelty to livestock is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.

Rep. Janis Baird Sontany, D-Nashville, who is sponsoring HB3386, told members of the House Agriculture Committee that she believes a link exists between harming animals and committing violence against humans.

“If you think back at all of the cases we’ve had about the school shootings…each of those young men were known to have abused animals,” said Sontany. They “set cats on fire, kill dogs by shooting them. There are studies over and over again that do talk about that,” she said.

Sontany acknowledged there are some provisions to protect livestock in the law presently. But she added that the laws on the books are not being well enough enforced.

Because such crimes status under current law are not felonies, many prosecutors choose not to pursue the cases, Sontany said.

“The DA says ‘it’s a misdemeanor – I won’t prosecute,’” she said, adding that prosecutors often cite their heavy caseloads as a reason they don’t fully investigate and bring charges. “I’m trying to give them tools in their belt to encourage them to prosecute.”

The bill’s opponents, however, aired a number of complaints against the measure. Several lawmakers, including Morriston Democrat Rep. John Litz, questioned whether increasing penalties would indeed translate to more prosecutions and convictions.

“If the DAs are not doing and enforcing the laws that we have now, what makes you think that increasing it more is going to make them do any different?” he asked. “Do we have room in these jails and these prisons to be able to put people who are out here that commit heinous crimes against animals?”

Litz also warned that farmers may be falsely accused of violations by people unfamiliar with agriculture practices. He related one situation in which a “witness” filed a complaint against a farmer after observing a cow that appeared too skinny. The person who made the report just didn’t know the difference between a beef cow and a milk cow, said Litz.

“(The individual) didn’t know that a dairy cow was not supposed to be big and fat and plump — that they’re supposed to be lean – their purpose is to produce milk,” he said.

The Tennessee Farm Bureau is lobbying heavily against the bill largely for that reason. Leaders in that organization worry people who don’t understand common livestock-management practices might file unnecessary complaints against farmers, in turn possibly costing them time and money to defend against.

The group’s opposition has drawn fire from supporters of the legislation, but committee members such as Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, tried to deflect that criticism, saying The Farm Bureau is representing the farmers of Tennessee. “Farm Bureau is doing what their group wants them to do. They are representing what Farm Bureau is all about,” he said, adding that both his local bureau chapters are against the bill.

Sontany said the Farm Bureau is part of the problem in her quest to protect animals.

“I did go to Farm Bureau when I drafted this bill to ask if they would work with me and to come up with something we could all be comfortable with and they refused,” she said. “They’re the 800 pound gorilla that walks around (the legislature). They’ve got the clout – not me (as) one legislator. I would welcome their help, but all I get is ‘No.’ They’re not going to negotiate in any way.”

A vote on the bill is expected in next week’s Agriculture Committee hearing after the panel hears from district attorneys about prosecuting cases of animal abuse of livestock.

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Press Releases

Sen. Barnes, Rep. Pitts Support Fair Taxation For Tennessee Farmers

Press Release from Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Adams, and Rep. Joe Pitts, D-Clarksville, March 18, 2010:

Bill would protect farm land from massive estate tax hikes

NASHVILLE – Sen. Tim Barnes (D-Adams) and Rep. Joe Pitts (D-Clarksville) want to protect farmers from unfair property valuation by sponsoring a bill to limit the effect of exorbitant appraisals.

“I’m hearing from farmers who are in danger of losing family farms because they face high federal estate taxes due to high appraisals,” Barnes said. “We must do all we can to protect our farmers who form the agricultural backbone of our economy.”

The bill (SB3191/HB3448) would make Tennessee farms’ “highest use value” available only for computing state rollback taxes – not for use in values for estate taxes, as the current law interprets. Many farmers are being taxed based on the state’s assessment of the land’s development value, even if the property is impossible to develop or has been restricted to farm use through a will.

Barnes and Pitts sponsored the bill after hearing from Montgomery County farmers who have seen their farm appraisal rates increase more than 700 percent after the most recent reappraisals.

“Sen. Barnes and I were made aware of this problem by Betty Burchett, our Montgomery County Property Assessor, and members of the local Farm Bureau,” Rep. Pitts said. “This proposal hopefully will make her job easier by putting farmers’ minds at ease.”

The legislation passed in the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Wednesday. The House version is scheduled for a subcommittee hearing next week.

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Press Releases

Bredesen Announces Federal Farm Assistance For Seven Counties

Press Release by the Gov. Phil Bredesen administration, March 5, 2010:

28 Counties Now Qualify as Primary Natural Disaster Designation

NASHVILLE – Governor Phil Bredesen today announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved his request for federal farm assistance for seven additional Tennessee counties due to excessive rain and flooding that occurred in September and October. Bredesen made the request to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack last month. The seven counties designated as primary natural disaster areas include Fentress, Giles, Madison, Morgan, Putnam, Van Buren and White.

“The 2009 growing season was certainly unpredictable and challenging for many of our state’s farmers. This disaster designation will be important for helping those who experienced significant crop losses during last year’s unusually wet harvest,” said Bredesen. “I’m pleased that USDA has responded so promptly to my request.”

The designation makes farmers in the designated counties eligible to apply for assistance, including emergency loans and supplemental farm payments, through their local USDA Farm Service Agency. Also qualifying as secondary, adjoining disaster counties are: Anderson, Bledsoe, Carroll, Chester, Crockett, Cumberland, DeKalb, Gibson, Hardeman, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Lawrence, Lincoln, Marshall, Maury, Overton, Pickett, Roane, Scott, Sequatchie, Smith and Warren.

With today’s announcement, a total of 28 Tennessee counties have qualified for a primary natural disaster designation due to excessive rain during the 2009 harvest.

Farmers in affected counties reported crop losses ranging from 20 to 50 percent for major crops including corn, soybeans, cotton and tobacco. Some counties reported receiving record rainfall of as much as 10 to 12 inches during what are normally the driest months of the year.

USDA reported significantly higher yields in 2009 for most major Tennessee crops as compared to the previous two drought years; however, heavy rains hurt both crop yields and quality because of rotting, mold and other disease problems. Farmers also reported losses for hay, pumpkins and other specialty crops.

Statewide, the 2009 harvest was three to four weeks behind the five-year average due to the unusually wet weather according to the Tennessee Field Office of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. For the latest information, visit www.nass.usda.gov/tn.

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Press Releases

TN Forestry Commission to Meet Jan. 12; Off-road vehicle-use on private property up for discussion

State of Tennessee Press Release:

The Tennessee Forestry Commission will meet Jan. 12, 2010 at 9 a.m. EST at the Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry’s East Tennessee Nursery, located at 9063 Hwy. 411 S. in Delano, Tenn.

The commission will hear reports on off-road vehicle use on private forestlands, timber trespass, property access for hunting, tree planting practices on state property, State Forest assessment and strategy plans, the Division of Forestry budget and legislative issues. Following the meeting, commission members will tour the East Tennessee Nursery, which produces genetically superior hardwood and softwood tree seedlings for reforestation projects on public and private lands in Tennessee.

The meeting is open to the public. Individuals interested in addressing the commission should plan to arrive prior to the start of the meeting in order to be placed on the agenda.

The Tennessee Forestry Commission comprises seven members representing the public’s interests as it relates to forest resources in the state. The commission advises the Tennessee Department of Agriculture on forest resource issues and the Division of Forestry. For more information, contact the TDA Division of Forestry at 615-837-5520.