About six weeks after he was sworn in McMillan said Gov. Robert Bentley announced 15 percent proration of the state’s general fund. Since 85 percent of the Agriculture Department’s budget is salaries and benefits, the only conceivable way to comply would be to start shedding staff. The department had 400 full-time employees at the time (and numerous temporary employees during harvest season). One hundred of those full-time jobs were eliminated right off the bat, McMillan said.
McMillan then explained some of the things the department is required to do and why the cuts have hurt so much. For instance, there are 200 meat processors all over the state. None of them are allowed to actually produce meat unless the department has an inspector on site. Similarly, the plant and nursery industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the state, especially in south Alabama, but an inspector must certify that every single plant shipped is insect and disease free before it can go anywhere.
Alabama is the third largest state for poultry production in the U.S., and first in the production of broilers, but every single bird must be tested.
The department is also charged with regulating every weight and measure used for commerce in the state. McMillan said this is one of the areas where cuts have had the greatest impact.
“We went from 28 inspectors down to five,” he said. “We were five or six years behind when we started, and now we’re only dealing with complaints.”
He added the department would be working to rewrite their code, much of which was first put on the books in 1928 and has never been updated. For example, he said, the department could charge $20 to certify a weight or measure, but that number was capped at $150 per location. “You could probably get $2,000 or more from a single Walmart, but we can’t do that now because of the cap,” McMillan explained.
The department also formerly employed 11 rural investigators that helped sheriff department’s investigate things like theft of agricultural equipment and livestock. That number was initially reduced to seven and is currently zero.
“We’re trying to bring one inspector back that can provide training for rural sheriffs,” McMillan said.
Some tech improvements are underway, but some will be slower than others. For instance, it is now possible for the state’s thousands of pesticide appliers, across various professions, to apply for their licenses online.
“The automation process is expensive, but if there’s not any more proration, the efficiencies might let us start bringing some people back,” McMillan said.
The name of the commissioner no longer appears on inspection stickers for gas pumps, and the state is in the process of changing to a bar code that could be read by an inspector using a wireless device instead of having to take the pump cover off to do a manual inspection. The department is working with a company in Huntsville to refine the technology and eventually roll it out statewide.
Gas stations that are found to be ripping off customers may be closed immediately.
When asked about the state’s recent immigration law, McMillan emphasized there is a need for a workable guest worker program at the federal level, and that impact had been felt in the agriculture economy. “I know of one guy who normally plants 125 acres of cantaloupe per year that hasn’t planted any this year, and I’m visiting someone who normally farms 400 acres of tomatoes on Chandler Mountain next week. But there’s also a bright side, for smaller producers. We’re seeing more and more you pick type strawberry and blueberry farms, and a I see that as one way to help lift areas like the Black Belt. Also, having green houses, hot houses, tunnel houses and things like that will allow people to grow eight or nine months out of the year.”
He also praised legislation providing tax credits for irrigation. Alabama currently has about half the acreage under irrigation as Mississippi or Georgia.
The Agriculture Department is also responsible for trapping African honeybees, promoting catfish trade in South America (possibly coming back with tilapia), overseeing the state Veterinarian Agency and boosting local agriculture in other ways.
Contact Chris Norwood at email@example.com.