Lieutenant Governor Suzanne Crouch visited Shelby County Friday morning, stopping at Fischer Inc. to discuss agribusiness.
“Rural communities are the backbone of Indiana’s economy, I mean, 60-some odd are considered to be rural out of our 92 counties,” she said. “Rural Indiana is extremely important to our overall economy.”
As Lieutenant Governor, Crouch oversees the Indiana State Department of Agriculture (ISDA) and the Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA), so she “understands the importance of rural Indiana and all that it has to offer.”
Agriculture is a $31 billion industry in the state, making Indiana the 10th largest farming state.
“Corn and soybeans are fifth in terms of production of all the states here in our country, and it’s just big business,” Crouch said.
Crouch said the COVID-19 outbreak has affected the agriculture business through the meat processing plants.
“It certainly has affected at times the food supply chain,” she said. “We saw at the beginning of COVID when we had our meat processing plants that had to shut down, that started to disrupt our food supply chain, but in Indiana people pulled together, stakeholders pulled together, and we were able to overcome that, and shift our production toward smaller, more independent meat producers.”
Crouch and the agencies she oversees were able to support the smaller meat producers by providing $4 million in CARES Act money.
She’s also assisting other areas of agriculture business by releasing a Six-Month Road to Recovery.
“We’re looking at COVID and how it was affecting agriculture, and what things we need to do differently during COVID,” Crouch said. “We’re working with Purdue and Ball State University to revise that plan and now look at the next six months here in 2021 to give [farmers] a road map, or a blueprint on what they can do, and what we can do, to help them recover and be not just productive, but thriving.”
A key point of this plan is to expand and support the smaller meat processing plants to prevent disruptions of the food supply chain.
“Many states saw disruption in their food supply chains, and many states had to euthanize their pigs and hogs as result of their larger meat processing plants closing down,” she said. “In Indiana, we did not have to do that. We have over 100 small, independent meat processors here in Indiana.”
Crouch unveiled an update to the dairy strategy recently that looks at how to have more dairy production.
“It looks at how we can have more production of milk, how we can keep our milk producing here in Indiana, and this latest was an update to that strategy – looking at how to do more valuable products and how to continue to strengthen our dairy strategy and our dairy producers in Indiana,” she said.
As president of the Indiana State Senate, Crouch is working on a bill with Shelby County’s senator, Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg).
House Bill 1483 pertains to the Grain Indemnity Program, which protects farmers in the event of a licensed grain buyer’s financial failure, according to the ISDA website.
“I’ve worked with Senator Leising on the Grain Indemnity Bill, looking at strengthening our Grain Indemnity Board and that department within the Department of Agriculture,” Crouch said. “We’ve had a number of failures for grain elevators, most recently in northeast Indiana. We’re looking at taking an actuarial look at that fund to ensure there is enough money to fund future closures. In addition to that, we’re also asking for a third-party assessment of our processes and procedures, and audit practices, so we can learn how to do a better job for our farmers.”
Crouch is also working on expanding Internet access and broadband across the state.
“Back in 2018, Purdue University released a study that said there were about 500,000 Hoosiers who were in ‘Internet darkness,’ and if they were all connected, it would result in an additional billion dollars to our state’s economy every year,” she said.
“So Governor Holcomb and I committed $100 million to expand broadband throughout rural Indiana, because we know that that affects workforce, health care, education, economic development and quality of life – and it’s important that rural Indiana has the same opportunities for economic growth and quality of life as the more urban parts of Indiana,” she continued.
So far, they’ve awarded $79 million of that to connect over 22,000 Hoosier families and businesses. This legislative session alone, there were 18 bills filed regarding broadband, many in response to lack of internet access during COVID-19.
“You’ve got workers working from home, the kids are at home trying to learn, and they don’t have the capacity to be able to connect to the internet,” Crouch said. “We hear stories of parents having to put their kids in the car and go to the schools and sit in the parking lot to do homework, because they don’t have that connectivity at their homes. That’s not sustainable and not acceptable, and that’s why the General Assembly is also making broadband their priority in this upcoming session.”
The Federal Government is issuing help as well – in December, they announced $169 million in grants will be awarded in Indiana over the next six years and will connect around 153,000 Hoosiers.
“We think much like the 1930s when the federal government had to get involved to make sure rural electrification took place, that’s what’s happening and that will continue to be a direction the federal government will play,” Crouch said.
“Between our efforts at the state level and the federal level, we know that there’s a real drive and commitment to connecting Hoosiers throughout Indiana, and Fischer’s is a perfect example,” she said.
Fischer Inc. Vice President Bryan Fischer said his company can’t function without broadband.
His almost-90-year old, family-owned company specializes in raising quality food grade corn and soybeans, as well as seed. It owns and rents farmland across Shelby and Rush counties.
“That change probably happened five years ago,” he said. “Our production lines cannot run without the Internet. We have to scan the product in and it’s going to the cloud, that information is going to distribution centers. Without rural broadband, we’re in big trouble. The bandwidth that we have to have, the speeds we have to have, continues to increase because of added demand.”
“Even the tractors in the field now are constantly uploading data,” he added. “Over the last ten years, the amount of less fertilizer, less seed, less chemicals that we’ve used to raise more grain, that is a direct result to the technology and being connected to the internet.”
Fischer’s business production wasn’t super impacted by COVID because their work production requires employees to be spread out anyway.
“We’ve kind of been social distancing for a long time,” he joked. “From a farming perspective, you’re sitting in a tractor by yourself. From the business perspective, you’re driving a fork truck driving here or running a certain process on the line, but there’s no one within six feet of you.”
Other local businesses weren’t as lucky, but OCRA’s COVID grants helped. The Shelbyville City Government already received and administered two of these grants to small businesses and is applying for a third.
A new grant OCRA will start awarding specifically pertains to mental health.
“Communities typically apply for infrastructure or PPE or loans and grants to small businesses, and while we did include that as something they could apply for, we also included a mental health component,” Crouch said.
“We understand that the human cost of this pandemic is huge and it’s going to continue to exponentially grow over the years to come; therefore, we wanted to – for those communities that wanted to be able to start helping and addressing mental health issues – we wanted to make grant money available for that also,” she added.
To apply for the grant, the local government would have to partner with a mental health provider, such as a hospital or mental health center.
As final remarks, Crouch commended Shelby County.
“Shelby County is an incredible county, very big in agriculture, and we appreciate their hard work,” Crouch concluded.