Full partner for 5 years

No one brought out birthday cake with five candles when the Indiana State Department of Agriculture turned 5 years old last spring. Both department personnel and the farmers they serve were too busy trying to sustain a strong ag economy in the middle of a recession everywhere else to stop and celebrate.

Now deep into the sixth year, however, Indiana’s Secretary of Agriculture, Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, agreed it was time to take a step back and see just how far ISDA has traveled. Has it fulfilled lofty expectations? Is ISDA still on the right path?

Key Points

• Lt. Gov. Skillman sought a seat at the table for agriculture.

• She’s responsible for ISDA and Community and Rural Affairs.

• Skillman sees ISDA as an equal partner with IEDC today.

Skillman sat down for an exclusive interview recently around the kitchen table inside Merrill Kelsay’s home near Whiteland. Barns, cows and farm equipment were visible out the window. It was the perfect setting to get reaction from the lady who leads the department and who, along with Gov. Mitch Daniels, asked the Legislature to create ISDA in the 2005 General Assembly.

High hopes

“Creating the Indiana State Department of Agriculture seemed logical then, and it still does,” Skillman said. “I’d spent 12 years in the Indiana Senate representing rural Indiana, and I knew agriculture was not a full partner in state government.

“When there were disputes or concerns, someone from the Department of Natural Resources and someone from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management would be around the table, but there was no one representing agriculture.”

That was one of Skillman’s expectations — get agriculture a seat at the table. Once ISDA was established and a director named, agriculture finally at least had a voice.

“We saw great potential for agriculture in economic development, and for getting Indiana going again,” Skillman continued. “Part of our hope was that we could help agriculture grow.”

The Legislature created the Office of Community and Rural Affairs and placed it under the lieutenant governor’s umbrella at the same time it created ISDA. Through that association, some $146 million in funds, mostly federal grants, has been doled out to improve infrastructure in rural communities.

Today’s reality

Five-plus years later, Skillman sees agriculture, thanks in part to ISDA, as an equal partner at the state level in economic development. “ISDA works hand in hand with the Indiana Economic Development Commission,” she said. Gina Sheets heads up that effort for ISDA.

“She’s helped develop a great network of contacts and a good working relationship with IEDC,” Skillman added. With IEDC and ISDA working together, she said, Indiana has attracted $5.3 billion in new food- and agriculture-based ventures in the past five years. The state’s role is often to provide tax credits. Some 6,500 new jobs were created.


First lady of agriculture: Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman took time to visit the Kelsay farm near Whiteland and share her thoughts about the first five-plus years of ISDA.

This article published in the December, 2010 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.