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Food Comes From Crops

Ohio's $500,000 program to state the obvious.

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The State of Ohio is spending half a million dollars to remind folks that corn doesn't grow on trees. It shoots from stalks in the ground.

This fact and other mysteries of the universe are revealed in a television campaign sponsored by the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Two 15-second commercials, airing across the state through early December, tout the magnificence of those green tracts of land next to the highway.

Turns out they're "farms."

OK, the ads aren't that elementary. In one commercial, the voiceover teases an industry that contributes $73 billion to Ohio's economy. The doors of a security truck open, and bushels of golden corn spill out. In the second spot, drive-through customers are surprised to find actual farmers manning the window -- the message here being that Ronald McDonald doesn't get up at 4 a.m. to feed the chickens. "I hear a lot of farmers say people think they get milk from a grocery store," Ag Department spokeswoman Melanie Wilt says.

Strangely, the ads don't call for action; they only ask that you ponder the majesty of food production. "We hope that people take a minute to think about the economic importance of agriculture and how closely it affects their lives," Wilt says.

Echoes Joe Andrews, a spokesman for Governor Taft: "We need to make people aware of the role that agriculture plays in Ohio."

To what end?

"In order to preserve farmland and get people to buy Ohio agricultural products," Andrews says.

Actually, the Ag Department already has a program, Ohio Proud, to promote homegrown products. And a program to market commodities. And a program to cultivate international trade. And a program to ripen the grape industry. In all, the state spends about $2 million annually promoting agriculture, not to mention the state fair and Ohio State University's ag college. But true to government form, why fund an existing program when you can create a new one?

Last year, Congress passed an emergency farm-aid package. Most of the $5.5 billion was paid directly to farmers (to compensate for low prices, high energy costs, etc.). The bill also included a $500,000 grant to each state for the promotion of agriculture. Ohio spent the money on the TV commercials and a spiffy new website, OhioAgInfo.com.

To the feds, Ohio's campaign sounds like a fine idea. Dan Stuart of the USDA's Farm Service Agency says consumers take the low price of bread for granted. "We all gotta eat," he says.

Yes, farmers deserve their props, but during a budget crisis, the "Keep a Good Thing Growing" campaign seems an extravagance on a par with the governor crowding into tourism commercials. When he insisted on appearing in the "Discover Ohio" spot, Taft pushed the cost of the ad past $740,000. The farm ads, at least, weren't nearly so expensive: $100,000 to produce, $210,000 for air time. Also unlike the tourism spot, the state found Ohio companies -- Malone Advertising (Akron) and Flying Fish Productions (Columbus) -- to do the work.

Tidy budget aside, a Toledo advertising executive, for one, wonders if people need to be told that farmers farm food. "I don't think there's anyone in Ohio who doesn't appreciate the farmers in Ohio," says Michael Fruchtman of Fruchtman Marketing. "I just don't believe that. Maybe I'm naive, but farmers are respected. We all know farmers, and we all know how hard they work."

Not only does the campaign state the obvious, but it relies on misinformation.

The security-truck ad claims that agriculture contributes $73 billion to Ohio's economy. The source is a 1999 study authored by an Ohio State agricultural economist. But by his measures, the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Parma Heights Hooters girls work in "agriculture." The broad category includes such diverse efforts as forestry, furniture making, and food wholesaling, retailing, and service. Stripped to just "farming," $73 billion looks a lot more like $6 billion.

A month after the farm ads debuted, budget cuts rang down the curtain on the Ohio Film Commission. Granted, the state probably didn't need a staff of 60 to try to bring film productions to Ohio, but it was nice to know that someone could pick up Steven Soderbergh at the airport. Chris Carmody of the Greater Cleveland Media Development Corporation told The Plain Dealer that Hollywood types can't find us on a map. "They think of Ohio as a big factory surrounded by a cornfield," he said.

How right they are.

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