Sparks gives state of ag speech

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 3, 2003

During the annual Farm-City Luncheon on Tuesday at the YMCA, Ron Sparks, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, gave the Greenville Kiwanians an update on the state of Alabama’s agricultural industry and touted his new A+ Alabama Agriculture program.

Sparks said the agricultural industry was Alabama’s No. 1 industry, providing 467,000 jobs to state residents.

&uot;This industry provides employment for 21 percent of the state’s workers,&uot; he said. &uot;It is currently a $4.7 billion industry, bringing $40 billion in state economic income to the state.&uot;

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The commissioner said despite a significant downturn in the number of families who are involved in farming – currently less than 45,000 farm families in the state compared to more than 200,000 in the 1950s and ’60s – he is committed to helping farmers achieve success in Alabama.

&uot;I read in a newspaper the other day that we had more than 12 million hungry people in our country in 2002,&uot; Sparks said. &uot;With the job our farmers do in this country and we still have that many hungry people, can you imagine how many hungry people there are in other countries?&uot;

He said that we should be thankful to our farmers.

&uot;Alabama is an agricultural state, and we live in an agricultural nation,&uot; Sparks said, &uot;and we at the Department of Agriculture are trying to do all we can to protect our farmers.&uot;

Sparks said he had recently gone on a trip to Canada and Cuba to sell Alabama products to those countries.

&uot;I sat down and visited with Fidel Castro for 3 1/2 hours,&uot; he said. &uot;I talked about the importance of agriculture in Alabama and what we could do for Cuba.&uot;

The agriculture department leader said Cuba is only 600 nautical miles from the port of Mobile, making Alabama an ideal trade partner for Cuba.

&uot;It takes less than 40 hours to take a transportation of food from the port of Mobile to Havana,&uot; Sparks said. &uot;We deal with China, Russia, Vietnam and Korea, but yet we want to keep a continued embargo on Cuba, which is only 90 miles from the shores of our country?&uot;

He said what was happening was Portugal, Spain and other European countries were presently building the infrastructure of Cuba.

&uot;When we do lift the embargo, the USA will be standing on the outside looking in when it comes to a world economy,&uot; Sparks said. &uot;Cuba has 11 million hungry people.&uot;

Sparks said he signed contracts with Castro for the Cubans to use the port of Mobile for their shipments.

&uot;We signed contracts for Cuba to buy 10,000 tons of chicken, 850 tons of cotton and 3,000 tons of powdered milk,&uot; he said. &uot;I plan to go back because I believe we ought to be doing business with Cuba. I think we ought to be selling Alabama’s agricultural products to any country that wants them.&uot;

Sparks also encourages the US to produce as much oil from agricultural products as possible to cut our national dependency on foreign oil.

&uot;Poultry litter can be used to create ethanol,&uot; he said. &uot;We ought to be using soy beans, velvet beans and switchgrass – everything we can so that our country can be energy independent through alternative fuels made from agricultural products.&uot;

Sparks said the state is beginning experiments using agricultural crops to help fire coal at the Alabama Power plants.

&uot;If we can help them 10 percent, it would be an enormous help,&uot; he said.’

The commissioner also said he strongly believed in requiring country of origin labeling on imported food products.

&uot;Every person is Alabama has the right to know where the food comes from,&uot; he said. &uot;We label our coats, ties, shoes, cars, VCRs and TVs,&uot; he said. &uot;We label everything else so that we know where it comes from, but we don’t label our food.&uot;

He said that importers weren’t held to the same standards to which Alabama farmers were held.

&uot;Our farmers are doing a good job and working within the regulations the government has set down,&uot; he said. &uot;But we turn around and let folks from other parts of the world send products containing chemicals our farmers can’t use for our people to eat.&uot;

Sparks said he has implemented a new promotional program called

&uot;A+ Alabama Agriculture – Help Alabama Grow.&uot;

&uot;We need to teach our children to eat Alabama fruits and vegetables so that they can grow up healthy and productive,&uot; he said. &uot;We started the A+ program because I believe what we grow in Alabama is the best you can get.&uot;

He said when anyone sees the A+ signs across Alabama, &uot;You know it’s an Alabama product, it’s grown in Alabama, and it’s the best you can get.&uot;

&uot;That’s what I’m doing – promoting Alabama farmers,&uot; Sparks said. &uot;If we don’t do it, who will? We have great farmers in Alabama.&uot;

He said that despite difficulties the past few years, the outlook for this year is good.

&uot;This year, I see a few smiles,&uot; he said. &uot;I see a smile on cattle producers faces; we had record prices for our cattle this year. Cotton prices are better than they were last year. That’s what I like to see.&uot;