REYNOLDSBURG — David T. Daniels makes it no secret that he loves … no, correct that … really loves his job.
Approaching his fifth year as director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the Greenfield native who grew up on his family’s Highland County farm says he feels thankful not just for the job he holds, but for everyone he works with and serves in the state.
“The opportunity to get to be a part of the Ohio Department of Agriculture that represents the number one industry in the state of Ohio is a pretty neat thing for a kid that grew up on a small family farm in Greenfield,” Daniels told Rural Life Today in an interview Nov. 17 at his Reynoldsburg office.
“I got here in February, 2012. Time sure flies when you are having fun,” Daniels laughed. “Are you?” he was asked. “Absolutely. I don’t want it any secret that I love my job here.”
Growing up on the Daniels Brothers farm in Greenfield gave him a unique perspective as he took office as head of the state’s agriculture department.
“We were a general grain, general livestock operation. The farm had been in our family since the early 1800s,” Daniels said.
“When I was a kid growing up I was going to be a farmer for the rest of my life. When I left high school I started working with my dad and uncle on the farm. I got involved in community affairs and one thing led to the other and I ended up here.”
He feels his experience growing up on a family farm has been very helpful for him.
Daniels said the average farm size in Ohio is about 187 acres. “We have something like 75,000 of those in the state. And my family farm was like the other 75,000 farms, so it has allowed me to relate to the farmers, the producers out there, coming from the same background and experiences as they do.”
Daniels said one thing that makes his job so great is that he travels to many Ohio farms during the year. “It’s one of the best parts of my job — getting out there and seeing what other producers are doing on the farm and what agriculture has become with the new technologies that have helped all of us be more productive to raise more food. That helps the two percent raise food for the other 98 percent.”
He said that when he visit someone’s farm who is implementing conservation measures that is making a difference in the state with water quality, “Those are fun things to see. It is important that we continue to get this message out.”
What does he see as the biggest issues facing Ohio farmers in the coming year? “I say that each year brings new hope. The seeds we plant in April and May will turn out to be a good crop. Here (in Ohio) the farm economy is going to have a rough couple of years, and obviously that will be on the minds of our producers,” Daniels said.
A message of thanks
As director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Daniels was asked what message he would like to send Ohio farmers and all residents of the state as we approach the holiday season.
“As we enter the Thanksgiving season, I am thankful for the agriculture industry in Ohio and all the producers we have, not only those raising food and fiber but also the folks who are in the food processing industry. I’ve said it a hundred times — we have a great story to tell. Farmers work hard each and every day to provide for everybody, and what we do is honorable work,” Daniels said.
“I tell everyone to be proud of the story they have to tell and be proud of what their family does. Let people know how important it is to understand what you doing as a farmer and producer connects with them. I am thankful to have the opportunity, thankful that we have the choices we have in this country, and we need to thank agriculture for that,” he added.
Daniels was appointed director by Governor John R. Kasich on Feb. 15, 2012. Daniels lives in Greenfield with his wife Karen. They have four children and nine grandchildren.
Before his job as ODA director, he served four terms in the Ohio House of Representatives, he was elected to the Ohio Senate in 2010 to the 17th Ohio Senate District, which includes Clinton, Fayette, Gallia, Highland, Jackson, Pike, Ross, Vinton and portions of Lawrence and Pickaway counties. Prior to being elected to the Ohio General Assembly, he served four years on the Greenfield City Council and eight as mayor. He also served as a Highland County Commissioner for six years.
Food and agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Ohio, adding more than $105 billion to the economy each year. In addition to providing leadership for the agricultural industry, the director of agriculture administers numerous regulatory, food safety, and consumer protection programs for the benefit of all Ohioans.
Daniels sat down with Rural Life Today and answered questions about his years at the helm of the state’s agriculture department, some of the major decisions he has made and issues the state’s farming community has faced and will face in the future.
Exports and the November election
Q: Can you talk about the role of exports in Ohio’s agriculture economy and what you see ahead with a new administration in Washington.
Daniels: We want to pay close attention obviously with what happens with trade. Not only on the national front, because trade is the lifeblood of agriculture, but Ohio also. We export a lot of good from Ohio, to partners all over the world.
Dave Martin’s Bluegrass Farms (in Jeffersonville, Fayette County) and the export of non-GMO soybeans to places like Japan is an example. Obviously Dave has found a market for non-GMO beans and that’s great. He is working with producers to market this product and probably paying a little bit of a premium. It is great he is working with producers.
Q: With the November presidential election, do you have any concerns about the U.S. export crops?
Daniels: No, I think export has been the lifeblood of agriculture and everybody realizes it. I believe that trade is going to continue. The candidates on both sides didn’t say they would cut off trade, but maybe TTP wasn’t the trade deal they would agree with and might have t go back and re-negotiate. There is always going to be an export market. There will always be a market for trade. There are products we need to import, and products other countries need from us. Gov. Kasich was very clear that he supports exports and we should as a nation, and I agree with that.
I think everyone just needs to calm down and see what happens. As far as exports, agriculture has a very strong voice and I think will make it clear how important these exports are to the economy. Fred Yoder (of Union County) and others are part of the Trump Agriculture Advisory Committee that will have a voice in the new administration. I think that agriculture will have a strong voice.
Q: How will the election affect the Ohio Dept. of Agriculture?
Daniels: First, I report to Gov. Kasich and not to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We work cooperatively with the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration on a number of different programs. About half the state ag directors are elected and half appointed. They report either to the governor or the public electing them. I agree that there will likely be a new USDA Secretary replacing U.S. Sec. of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Elections have consequences and also opportunities. It gives an opportunity for new direction. I can tell you I am not applying … I am happy where I am at!
The bird show ban of 2015
Q: How did the decision last spring to ban all bird shows in the state, including county and state fairs, come about?
Daniels: The avian flu outbreak last year was an example of us working closely with a number of Ohio agriculture organizations. Our animal health division here first worked very closely with the Ohio Poultry Association and others to help remind them of the best biosecurity practices they could put into place to prevent the bird flu from spreading here and infecting their operation. And they worked very closely with us. So we feel very good that we have a great relationship with these folks.
(In the spring of 2015, the Ohio Department of Agriculture announced a bird show ban for the year as a response to the nationwide outbreak of avian bird flu and to prevent the disease from spreading to Ohio.)
That decision rested with me. Our primary responsibility at the Department of Agriculture is food and animal health and food safety. It is something we take very seriously. Poultry production in Ohio is the second largest producer of table eggs in the United States behind Iowa. We have a large poultry industry here. So moving birds in and around fairs as a practice added an element of risk of possibility of bringing the disease into an unaffected area. We saw outbreaks across the midwest in the backyard flocks, outdoor flocks.
First we look at what would be best for the Ohio poultry industry, then to make sure we remained disease-free and third to make sure that people who rely on eggs as protein for their table would have the ability to get the product. The fact that this year, the cost of Thanksgiving dinner went down 50 cents a person — I think we are a part of that. The cost was up last year because of the poultry losses in the Midwest, but we were able to save our flocks, to keep Ohio disease-free and to move our product in and out of commerce. That is why the prices have gone down.
It was a disappointment to a lot of FFA and 4-Hers, but at the same time they are learning a lot about production livestock and putting food on the plate. It was difficult lesson for them. But as producers it is something we all face. We see each and every day the threat that is out there. But we watched county fairs come up with some very creative ways to hold poultry shows. We had the highest Skillathon participation ever at the state fair.
It was a tough decision, any time you have to disappoint people. But I am convinced it was the right decision for the public and the industry. The fact that Ohio remained disease-free and our consumers could source the products they wanted and our producers did not face the loss that they did in a number of states and the environmental impact: absolutely … it was the right choice.
Question: How is the harvest for 2016 looking this year?
Daniels: In my life I can never remember a time like this. People have said they have been tired, but not stopping (harvest) because nothing has broken down and we have had a really nice stretch of weather. They have done a good job getting out and getting harvest done.
Has it been a good harvest? Yes, I think so. The yields for some people are not what they hoped for, but that is in areas where they were hurting for water. We also have talked to people who have had better than average yields. Depending on where they are they will say it was a great year or not as good as they hoped but no one is saying it was a terrible year. We are hearing good things.
Surprises and responsibilities
Q: When you started as director, were you aware of all the duties that the job entailed?
Daniels: I was a little naive. I had been associated with agriculture and knew what the department did. But coming out here on day one, and seeing all the things I saw… I knew there were many things going on such as the laboratories, the consumer protection labs, the animal disease labs, the work our department is doing on genetic exports, the testing we are doing on food safety. That is some pretty sophisticated work.
I think sometimes people don’t realize the depth of the work we do here and the importance of that work. When we work on food safety, that provides a level of confidence that allows the public to buy with confidence the food they put on their plate, knowing it is safe day in and day out. We like to think the work we do is protecting consumers and also providing protection for the marketplace as well.
Q: Since starting, what has surprised you the most about your job?
Daniels: The level of sophistication of the work being done at our labs here would be the most surprising to me. I remember as a boy we had a sick cow and father said, let’s take it up to Reynoldsburg to be tested. I knew then about the diagnostics here, the testing and that we could find out what was happening to the animal and then what might be happening on the farm. But seeing that first-hand, the level of professionalism we have here on this campus is astounding to me.
Challenges and communications
Q: What have been your biggest challenges so far?
Daniels: I have said for years that one of our biggest challenges is communication. Farming has become more and more sophisticated, our consumers that we work for each day have more and more access to information and a lot of times we wish it was more accurate information. We have to not only produce but defend the practices that we do.
I think that agriculture today raises and produces products that are good and wholesome that are science based and we do this each and every day as we look at technology to reduce our footprint, to do all those things that will require us to use less pesticides, less fertilizer, fewer chemicals.
But we also have to justify these practices to the consumers that we work for. I think that at times people question our methods — are they science-based, are they safe for me? I tell our folks that they have to do a better of job of communicating to our friends and neighbors that aren’t attached to the farm. Years ago, growing up, everyone had a connection to the farm. Now we are getting to the point where every kid doen’t have an aunt or an uncle on the farm where they can spend their summers at. So we have to communicate to people that what we are doing is safe. There is nothing sinister going on. As an industry this is one of the biggest challenges we face.
Water quality concerns
Q: What about the issue of water quality and fertilizer runoff?
Daniels: Here in Ohio, water quality has been a huge part of the conversation. We work every day to let people know that our producers and the ag community have stepped it up in a big way and want to work to find solutions to their contributions to the problems that are going on. We know that we have got a piece of this. We want to tell our producers we are working to solve our piece of this and others who have a part in this (the problem) will to their part to work as hard as the ag community to resolve a lot of the problems we face.
All of the different groups have their interests in this, but they all understand we are all agriculture, so while they may have a focused interest, they understand we all need to work on best practices.
Looking at 2017
Q: Looking ahead into 2017, what do you see as your goals and challenges?
Daniels: First, we want to be an effective agency. We would like to do technology upgrades for a lot of our people out in the field. We were extremely fortunate to bring the Division of Soil and Water conservation from the Department of Natural Resources into the Department of Agriculture. It gives us an opportunity to expand our ability to be an asset and resource to these small and medium farmers across the state, so we want to grow and expand our relationship with these folks that we were not able to have before, and be a good partner with them.
Rural Life Today editor Gary Brock can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter @GBrock4.