Cabinet directors, fair officials and agriculture leaders gave legislators a mostly upbeat assessment of the state's farming industry Tuesday, although some voiced misgivings about the advance of bird flu and toxic algae.
The 2015 Joint House & Senate Agriculture Committee met at the Ohio State Fair as the poultry show was canceled this year due to concerns about the avian influenza. Meanwhile, toxic algal blooms again threaten the health of the Western Lake Erie Basin.
Department of Agriculture Director Dave Daniels said agriculture remains Ohio's top industry, with an overall economic impact of about $105 billion a year for the state.
ODA is closely monitoring development of the bird flu in other states where the disease has appeared in commercial flocks, he said during testimony before the joint committee. "This is probably the worst foreign animal disease we have ever seen in this country."
The state decided to ban poultry shows and exhibits at the State Fair this year to prevent the potential spread of the disease.
Director Daniels said the effects of the disease in other states, where farmers have had to slaughter millions of birds, has reached the food processing industry with a shortage of eggs hampering the production of certain products like mayonnaise and ice cream. "This has become a food security issue for us," he said.
Nonetheless, ODA regulators are doing everything they can to prevent the H5N1 virus from entering Ohio, he said. "We're working hard every day to make sure we're not letting the disease into our state."
Jim Chakeres, executive vice president of the Ohio Poultry Association, called the virus "a huge threat to Ohio, our farms and our communities."
While Ohio has not detected any cases of avian influenza to date, the virus has been detected in 21 other states, including 211 commercial operations and 21 backyard flocks, he said in testimony.
Egg farms have suffered the greatest losses - more than 42 million birds, or about 10% of the layer inventory and 6% of the pullet stock, he said. Turkey farmers have had to destroy more than 7.5 million birds, about 7.5% of their inventory.
"It is not an understatement to say that the effect of this avian influenza outbreak has been devastating," he said. "Across the egg and turkey farm communities, there have been layoffs and terrible consequences for rural communities."
Mr. Chakeres said the state is routinely testing all commercial flocks, more than 375 backyard and exhibition flocks and 40 upland gamebird flocks, which represents a 90% surveillance rate of Ohio counties.
Department of Natural Resources Director Jim Zehringer gave committee members an update on the effort to shift ODNR's soil and water conservation programs to ODA's jurisdiction - a move that was authorized by the biennial budget (HB 64*) passed earlier this year.
The programs, which have long been aligned with local soil and water conservation districts' efforts, will be transferred into a new Division of Soil and Water Conservation at ODA by Jan. 1, 2016, he said.
"There is no doubt that this action will best position Ohio to make further strides in our nutrient reduction efforts, while strengthening our support of the agricultural industry," he said, noting that all regulatory authority, technical staff, programs, funding and grants will be housed within ODA.
Directors Zehringer and Daniels also touted the agriculture industry's efforts to reduce farm runoff that flows into lakes where it feeds toxic algal blooms.
Bruce McPheron, dean of Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said enrollment in agricultural programs has been increasing.
The Agricultural Technical Institute, a two-year degree program at OSU's Wooster campus, anticipates about 750 students will attend this fall, he said, adding that enrollment has increased by about 25% over the past three years. More than 92% of graduates find work or continue their education within six months and 77% who enter the workforce remain in Ohio, he added.
Tom Price, chairman of the Ohio Expositions Commission, said state fair attendance this year has been strong with a record-setting opening day last week and two consecutive days each with more than 100,000 visitors.
General Manager Virgil Strickler was optimistic that total attendance at the 2015 fair could set a new record if the fair weather continues for the rest of week.
He also updated members on new facility development at the fairgrounds. The new 195,000 square-foot Buckeye Agriculture Complex is set to open in October with more than 1,000 animal stalls and a nearly 40,000 square-foot arena.
Meanwhile, the DiSalle Center and Heritage Crafts Building has been demolished to make way for the new Cardinal Hall, a 100,000 square-foot multi-purpose exhibition hall set to open next summer, Mr. Strickler said. The facility is designed to host conventions, expositions and trade shows.