A conversation with Rocky Black, deputy director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture

Rocky Black

OCJ: First, could you share a little about your background in agriculture and legislation that has helped prepare you for this position?

Rocky: I’ve had the privilege of working with the Ohio General Assembly for 25 years, since 1985, including working 6.5 years as Statehouse lobbyist for Governor Voinovich.

And I’ve worked in agricultural policy for nearly 9 years including as senior director of policy and political affairs for the Ohio Farm Bureau, and as senior policy advisor for the Ohio Soybean Association.

OCJ: Your duties include overseeing the ODA’s legislative efforts. What are the key opportunities and challenges in this area?

Rocky: We haven’t really identified an agenda per se, however some issues are sure to surface. First we have the enormous challenge of the state budget. Shoring up essential programs in food safety, livestock oversight, laboratory testing, and weights and measures is essential. Cutting some programs in areas with less overt impact on food and animal safety is probably unavoidable.

While it is not a legislative effort per se, we must shepherd the Livestock Care Standards Board rules through JCARR, and ensure that lawmakers are comfortable with them. The Governor’s priority is also to identify regulatory hurdles blocking job growth in the agricultural sector, which could result in some legislative changes.

OCJ: How will the drastic changes that took place as a result of the 2010 election shape the next few years for Ohio agriculture?

Rocky: First I think all state agencies and their customers must be more self-reliant. The days of ramping up new state funding for expansive programs are over, at least for now. Also Director Zehringer and Governor Kasich want the Department of Agriculture and other agencies to be service-oriented to taxpayers who are footing the bill for our operations.

Second, taking a cue from the Governor, Director Zehringer wants our agency to be in daily hand-to-hand combat in recruiting new and keeping existing agribusinesses in Ohio. We will always be a regulatory agency ensuring the safety of Ohioans’ food. But now we must focus on jobs and businesses within our agricultural industry.

OCJ: How will the challenging state budget affect your actions and decisions in next few months at the Department of Agriculture?

Rocky: The state budget forms the backdrop for all that we do through June 2011. Programs, services, activities all must be evaluated through the grid of necessity. Having said that, we have a job to do, which is to protect Ohioans food, health and safety and we will do that to the utmost of our ability.

OCJ: You are also charged with the promotion of agribusiness opportunities at the ODA. What are your goals for this part of your job?

Rocky: We are currently meeting with various groups of farmers and farm leaders, and asking for their input on recruiting new agribusinesses. We plan to “deputize” these leaders to spread out across Ohio to help us identify opportunities for economic development.

Within the next six weeks we hope to finalize an Economic Development plan for the Department. In 2005, the state of Indiana created a new Department of Agriculture, which has very strategically focused on expanding traditional as well as higher tech. agriculture in the state. They have gained 4,000 farm related jobs and generated over $4 billion in the 5 years since then. Ohio can do even better. But we must be focused and strategic. That’s why we are working with Ohio farmers to develop an economic outreach plan that will get results.

OCJ: Agriculture has been a standout in an otherwise sluggish economy. What areas of agribusiness have the most potential to shine in the next few years?

Rocky: The certitude created by enactment of the Livestock Care Standards Board, and resolution of major conflict with groups like HSUS, give Ohio the chance to expand traditional agriculture like livestock operations. We will have a clear set of rules for farmers who want to build or expand livestock operations.

Second, Ohio is on the knife-edge of tremendous success with some of our higher technology initiatives in important areas like food science, bioproducts, biorefineries, aquaculture and the like. Waste to energy, and waste to textile uses are also moving forward.

OCJ: What other goals do you have for your new role with the ODA?

Rocky: I want to help people access the agency and get their questions answered and problems solved. I also want to help Ohio farmers put their best foot forward. We are the largest and most progressive industry in Ohio and we need to project that image.

OCJ: What part of this job are you most looking forward to doing?

Rocky: I am most looking forward to working on policy matters, and having more Statehouse contact. I want to help initiate good laws and policies for Ohio farmers. I am also excited about muscling up the agency’s economic development outreach. We can do that, help Ohio’s economy and still maintain our primary focus on safety.

OCJ: What challenges do you anticipate?

Rocky: The state budget is clearly a huge challenge. We and other agencies are going to lose some valuable programs, but it can’t be avoided. Also, we need to stay positive and unified, since our goal is to move agriculture forward in Ohio.

OCJ: How does agriculture fit into the governor’s plan for Ohio’s future?

Rocky: It is very telling that Governor Kasich’s first cabinet appointment was Director Zehringer as Ag. Director. That spoke volumes about how he perceives Ohio’s number one industry. He has personally been involved in the major issues affecting our industry so far, including finding solutions for Grand Lake St. Mary’s, and boosting economic development outreach for the agency.

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