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Ag chief: Pig manure could help pave state's future

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 29, 2009 - With his suit and cowbody boots, Missouri Department of Agriculture chief Jon Hagler offered a visual contrast to his audience Wednesday night at Webster University.

But Hagler presented a contrasting portrait of Missouri agriculture as well -- where organic and free-range farming, which recalls the past, coexist with high-tech futurist techniques that already have produced a genetically engineered pig that glows in the dark.

And, if a Missouri research company succeeds, he said, there's the promise of using pig manure to create low-cost asphalt to pave state roads.

Hagler -- who described his frenetic speaking style as "a gnat on crack" -- regaled dozens of college students and area residents with his lively predictions of what has worked, and what hasn't, as Missouri's agriculture industry and activists have sought to adapt and advance during changing times.

Hagler was on stage with former Gov. Bob Holden, who was hosting one of the Holden Public Policy Forum's "pizza and politics'' events.

Hagler told how former Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, a lawyer and farmer in mid-Missouri, initially failed when he and fellow farmers sought to craft a cooperative that included slaughterhouses and retail outlets.

The farmers succeeded on their next attempt, said Hagler, when they changed their approach and first found out what the meat consumer wanted to buy. The upshot: consumers were willing to pay more for meat that was "humanely raised, hormone-free and free range,'' the agriculture secretary said.

The tale of the emu wasn't as happy.

In the 1990s, Hagler said, the state saw a boom in the raising of the large bird (a native of Australia and almost as big as an ostrich) because of its eggs and its low-fat meat. But the consumers didn't embrace the bird as much as farmers did, he said, leading to a collapse in the market.

Now, said Hagler, there's a lot of wild emus in Missouri's forests -- let loose by farmers who could no longer afford to keep them.

To remind him of the perils of wrong assumptions, Hagler says he has a keychain with a small emu on it.

Among his most fascinating tales: The glow-in-the-dark pig at the University of Missouri at Columbia, which is the byproduct of combining some of the genes of a jelly fish (which glows in the dark) with those of a pig.

The glowing pig, he explained, makes it easier for medical researchers to monitor the growth of some of its body parts -- such as heart valves -- that are now used in humans.

Such research was financed in part by the Missouri Department of Agriculture, which has continued to offer grants of up to $200,000 to farmers, institutions and companies to help develop new products and markets, he said.

At the same time, he continued, the Missouri Department of Agriculture has had to make do with less. It has seen its budget cut by 33 percent, and its full-time staff trimmed by 35 percent, over the past 10 years, he said.

The department has taken its share of budget trims and layoffs earlier this year, Hagler said, the chief reason while Wednesday's round of $204 million barely nicked the remaining Agriculture Department budget. Only about $250,000 in ag spending was cut, the governor's office said.

Hagler praised Gov. Jay Nixon (an old basketball buddy before becoming his boss), for recognizing the importance of promoting the development and improvement of the state's agriculture industry.

As part of his quest to educate the public, Hagler said that one of his key aims now is to persuade Missouri's urban and suburban schools to offer courses in agriculture, so that their students get a better handle on where their food comes from and how it ends up on their table.

One of his favorite statistics: "Four out of four people eat."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.