By John McMillan
Commissioner, Department of Agriculture and Industries
Two years ago, when I first took the oath of office as Commissioner of Agriculture & Industries for Alabama, little did I know what awaited me. The Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries, through years of neglect, had barely enough cash reserves to make payroll, much less pay for the many demands on the operation including maintenance of the buildings, laboratories and equipment.
On top of this, we were twice hit with a proration that, compounded with a lack of cash reserves, forced the layoff of 25% of our employees.
Shortly thereafter, tornadoes struck North Alabama, killing 249 residents and destroying towns, schools and livelihoods. Our state’s poultry industry, concentrated in this region, was dealt a severe setback. Since that time, poultry producers have rebuilt, as have others.
At that point, I resolved to rebuild the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries so that we would be more resilient in times of financial distress. First thing we did was assess our expenditures and prioritize them. We then focused on what it cost us to conduct inspections and other important services for our stakeholders. In many instances, taxpayers were forced to bear the burden of an outdated fee structure that barely covered the costs for inspections and licensing.
Thanks to a good working relationship with our stakeholders, the Alabama Legislature and Governor Robert Bentley, we were able to work through many of our fee issues and resolve them to the satisfaction of most everyone involved.
Finally, we are beginning a program that will vastly improve the productivity of our inspectors and other personnel who are the face of our department. One feature is replacing the laboratory equipment in our seed testing facility in Montgomery. We also made upgrades in our other labs to better serve farmers and agribusinesses. Our food safety lab in Montgomery has new equipment that enables our technicians to more accurately test the foods we eat.
We hope that by the end of this year to complete the foundation for our technology upgrade that will lead to connecting our field inspectors with the latest in digital tools that are badly needed. Once this program is in place and operational, our workers will not only have joined the 21st Century in workplace technology, they will be able to improve the accuracy and speed of their work by over 100%.
At this mid-point in my first term as your Commissioner of Agriculture & Industries, I can report dramatic progress in restructuring this department. Our cash reserves are such that we are able to replace old, worn out technical equipment and vehicles that had become undependable and problematic. We are renovating our headquarters building that still has many of the operating systems when it was built 42 years ago.
Yes, we have had to do much more with a lot less in terms of resources. But, this is what had to be done. We had no other choice, as our mission is to protect consumers and assure the safety of our food supply while ensuring that the state’s largest industry – agriculture – is able to its customers.
Also, I want to commend Governor Bentley for his appointing me to the board of the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation & Improvement Program (ATRIP), which recently announced 300 road and bridge projects located across Alabama. Rural Alabama, including farmers and agribusinesses, will long enjoy the benefits from ATRIP.
You can be assured that we at the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries will continue to improve the way we do business and serve the public and our stakeholders. Because if we don’t, the jobs and livelihoods of one in five Alabama families would be in jeopardy. That is a scenario no one wants to see.
Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries
1445 Federal Drive
Montgomery, Alabama 36107