Sun Staff Writer
In the wake of significant budgetary cuts, the Alabama Department of Agriculture was forced to make substantial program cuts and about 200 staff cuts.
But state Agricultural Commissioner John McMillan told area farmers and officials Monday while touring area farms the cuts were made in preparation for next year’s budget shortfalls and no additional cuts should be made until fiscal year 2013.
“The good news is we see a lot of opportunities to do things differently than we have in the past to make (the department) more inexpensive and efficient than it has been in the past,” McMillan said.
Presently all applications and agricultural documents are processed in the department on paper.
“We are going to get into scanning and online transactions,” he said.
The department will also begin exploring ways to privatize some of its departments including the inspections of gasoline pumps, which currently fall under the agriculture department’s jurisdiction.
McMillan, since taking office, said Alabama farmers and his department have faced crisis after crisis.
“First we had the budget and then the north Alabama tornados that were extremely hurtful to the poultry and lumber industries,” he said.
Working to help the state’s agricultural industry and protect its interests is a priority for the department, though.
Many people fail to realize how important both industries are in Alabama.
“We rank third in the country in poultry (production) and rank first in broiler production,” McMillan explained.
With such production come innumerable responsibilities for the department.
Meat production plants cannot operate without meat operators on hand to inspect the product as mandated by law.
“We didn’t do away with any of the areas that are mandated,” McMillan said.
The department, he said, is preparing to aid farmers who may face unforeseen negative impacts.
One such unforeseen negative impact state farmers may face could come as a result of the state’s immigration reform, he said.
“It could have an enormous adverse economic impact on agricultural business in Alabama,” McMillan said. “It is unquestioningly going to drive up food prices.”
In touring the state’s farms and speaking with farmers, McMillan said “migrant” workers have a large hand in generating the state’s produce and goods.
During his tour, McMillan said he found many of the migrant workers – workers who belonged to a family with only two illegal immigrants, for example – were now leaving the state.
“In my opinion, the legislature did a pretty big overreach (with the law),” he said.
Straying from how the law will impact Alabama farmers, McMillan said he also questions the impact the law might have on numerous other businesses in the state.
“How are we going to rebuild Tuscaloosa without roofers and construction workers,” he asked.
He urged area farmers Monday to become involved in the policy-making process.
“We have our work cut out for us,” McMillan said.
Presently, about 95 percent of the food consumed in Alabama comes from outside the state, he said.
Expanding the farming industry and having available expansion will lower the imports of such produce into the state and aid the Alabama agricultural community’s survival.
“It could have an enormous adverse impact on agricultural business in Alabama.”