By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries John McMillan was in Odenville on Thursday speaking to members of the St. Clair County Republican Party.
Commissioner McMillan said that his Department has had to handle one crisis after another since he came into office. Proration of the Alabama General Fund Budget has meant that he has had to cut the department from 400 employees down to 300. Com. McMillan said that the Department gets ~50% of their funds from the Alabama General Fund and ~50% from what they call ‘the Ag fund’ that comes from the fees that the Department generates.
As head of the Department, McMillan made the decision to protect three critical areas. The first was meat inspectors. Alabama has ~200 meat processing facilities and the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries has to have an inspector at each one when they are in operation. Conecuh Sausage is one example. The second area of concern was plant nurseries. This is the fastest growing agricultural sector in Alabama and they have to have their plants inspected and certified as disease free before they can be shipped out of state. The third area that Commissioner McMillan protected was poultry testing. “The poultry industry is the big boy in Agribusiness in Alabama and represents 60% of our Agri-business. We process 21 million broilers a week.” There are 80,000 poultry industry jobs in Alabama. The state Agriculture Department has to do the blood sample testing for the industry so cutting the jobs of those testers was not possible.
Other areas of the Department therefore had to take especially high levels of cuts. One of those areas was the Agricultural Crimes division. The Department had 11 rural investigators that worked with the state’s sheriffs on rural theft, equipment theft, and rustling. The Department laid off seven of those and then got rid of the last four in the next round of cuts. Commissioner McMillan said that he would like to try to rebuild that group. Commissioner McMillan said he will likely hire one investigator to do seminars with sheriff’s department to teach deputies about the rural areas of the state and how to investigate rural crimes. With Beef prices at record highs some people have gotten very good at rounding up a herd of cows in the middle of the night.
The Department is responsible for inspecting all the weight and measurement devices in the state. Com. McMillan said that he had to cut the number of weights and measurements inspectors from 28 down to five. Com. McMillan said, “Really all we are doing is responding to complaints.” Com. McMillan said that he hope to be able to privatize that responsibility.
In other areas the Department was able to save money by becoming more technology smart. They have put pesticide license renewals online for example. The Commissioner said that some of the offices were 30 years behind in implementing technology. Com. McMillan said that he saved $10,000 to $15,000 by switching from color copies to black and white for internal department correspondence. He eliminated $300,000 a year in salaries and benefits by closing two state-run farmer’s markets. He then turned around and was able to lease those facilities to private operates and now the Department collects $60,000 in lease payments. Publishing the ‘Alabama Farmers Bulletin’ was costing the state $280,000 a year. The state was mailing that out to 60,000 free subscribers that month. Com. McMillan switched that to a paid subscription service and now has 30,000 paid subscribers for the Bulletin.
The Commissioner warned that Africanized bees are coming to Alabama. A man in Talladega recently brought a tractor home from Texas and the machine had been colonized by the aggressive bee variety. Com. McMillan said that the department was setting out traps to find the bees, but they are coming and everyone should be vigilant.
Commissioner McMillan said that he wants to change the name of the department to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, because that is a more accurate description of what the Department actually does. The Commissioner also said that they were attempting to modernize and simplify the legal statutes in Alabama law that pertains to the Department.
Freddie Turrentine is the Chairman of the St. Clair County Republican Party. Their next meeting is scheduled for September 20th.