ISDA director reflects on first year: Working on value, communication

Joe Kelsay, director of ISDA, spent a rare moment back home to discuss the state of ISDA. Kelsay, Whiteland, also reflected on his first year of service.

IPF: Is ISDA bigger today than ever?

Kelsay: No, at least not in terms of employees. We peaked at around 74. Many former positions were in soil and water conservation. Our only recent hire is Steve Hickey, director for the Indiana FFA and Indiana Young Farmers Association.

IPF: What do you feel you’ve accomplished in your first year?

Kelsay: Getting our economic development team headed by Gina Sheets off and running has been crucial. She works closely with the Indiana Economic Development Commission. It has the tools, and she builds relationships. ISDA’s goal is to create jobs in agriculture. Suppose an ethanol plant moves into a community. It brings some 30 jobs. That’s a big deal to a local, rural community.

IPF: What is your view of the agency you lead?

Kelsay: ISDA has value, especially from an economic standpoint. Just being here gives ag companies that might consider Indiana a place to start.

We play a key coordinating function. Some might call it an ombudsman role. We can get people in touch with IEDC, and hopefully something will come of the effort.

IPF: Why should Indiana farmers care about ISDA?

Kelsay: Many farmers have trouble talking to people in government, especially when there’s an issue. One of ISDA’s roles is getting the parties together and helping them start talking to one another. It can be difficult to make this happen, but it’s incredibly important.

IPF: Where does the soil conservation piece fit in ISDA?

Kelsay: We’re trying to leverage as many federal dollars as we can toward conservation efforts. We want to be proactive. Regulation is cumbersome, expensive and unnecessary. We would rather develop relationships and head off problems before someone decides we need more regulation. We offer the carrot before someone brings the stick.

IPF: Some people are disgruntled because some state programs don’t get funded. What do you tell them?

Kelsay: It’s tough to work through things when revenues are less than expected. The reality is that making decisions at the financial management level is tough. I still see great things coming down the road. I believe in the industry, and we do the best we can with our resources.

IPF: How do you feel about bringing FFA and Young Farmers under ISDA?

Kelsay: We’re very excited. It’s our first major effort in education, and we believe we can help support each other. The opportunity opened up, and we went for it. Previously, they were housed at the Department of Education. Hickey was our latest hire, but he’s funded through federal money that passes through workforce development to ISDA.

Not all farmers are on ISDA bandwagon

An exclusive survey of 45 leading farmers turned up interesting findings. Overall, ISDA received high marks. However, there are still farmers who aren’t convinced.

Those surveyed were not picked at random, and it wasn’t a scientific poll.

Here are five key questions:

1. Is Indiana agriculture better off today because there is ISDA?

Results: Nearly two-thirds said “yes,” but more than one-fourth weren’t sure. Nearly 1 in 10 answered “no.”

2. How would you rate ISDA’s role in increasing ag awareness among farmers?

Results: About 6 in 10 answered very important or important, yet nearly 4 in 10 thought it was of only mild benefit, or not helpful.

3. How would you rate ISDA’s role in increasing ag awareness among non-farmers?

Results: Nearly two-thirds marked very important or important.

4: Which most closely describes what ISDA’s role should be?

Results. Three-fourths believe it should be an advocate for agriculture, and another 17% answered “attract new ag industry.” No one thought ISDA should be a regulator!

5: How would you rate ISDA’s success at achieving more livestock production?

Results: Half said it was “on target,” but nearly 2 in 5 answered “not successful.”

What farmers said

“ISDA has been a great partner,” said Don Villwock, Edwardsport, also president of Indiana Farm Bureau. “Lt. Gov. Skillman promotes ag wherever she goes and considers ISDA as a leadership agency in state government. Joe Kelsay has taken the department to a new level and keeps ag’s interests in the forefront.”

Bill Pickart, Camden, agreed. “As important as ag is to Indiana, it is critical to have an ag advocate,” he noted. “Many urban citizens have no clue of the impact of ag on Indiana.”

Not everyone was so positive, however. “I feel having ISDA takes away from other commodity groups we’ve had for a long time,” said Joe Vieck, Vincennes.

Wayne Townsend, Hartford City, added, “We appreciate ISDA’s support of the livestock industry. But doubling of hog production was not a realistic goal, and it attracted unneeded attention.”

Roger Hadley II, Woodburn, took a realistic outlook. “I believe ISDA has done very well, considering it is in ‘start up’ mode. I know we had an ag presence before ISDA, but with a full department and considering the tight budget climate for the past three years, I feel we’re doing well,” he said.

Others complained about little commitment from the state to fund ISDA, and some believe the Legislature doesn’t give it enough authority to do its job. One observer believes too much turnover in positions has hurt the ISDA’s consistency.

Perhaps the lowest marks came on ISDA’s Biotown effort. Two of 10 rate it unproductive, and nearly half feel the project simply ran out of steam.


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THEY SAID IT: “The test for ISDA’s merits will come when we get a governor who is not interested or supportive of agriculture. Will it become a dumping ground for political hacks?” —Mary and David Howell, Middletown

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Fiscal management key: Guiding ISDA through choppy financial waters and looking for opportunities to grow agriculture and add jobs are keys, Joe Kelsay says.

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

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.