The Ohio Department of Agriculture's $10.5-million expansion is being completed with money from House Bill 562, the state's biennial capital budget bill.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture's $10.5-million expansion is being completed with money from House Bill 562, the state's biennial capital budget bill.

The state agency, off U.S. Route 40 in western Licking County, is building a 29,779-square-foot building east of the administration building to house the plant-industries division.

"We have people in two different buildings and programs in three," said David Schleich, plant-industries division chief. "It would be a benefit, from a management standpoint, to have them all in one place."

The plant industry is responsible for pesticide regulation and consumer complaints; fertilizer regulation and tracking; grain-elevator regulation for farmers and all others who handle grain; feed and seed labeling and registration; nursery inspections; apiary regulations and monitoring; and tracking of invasive species.

The agency has several laboratories on site. The newest will be in the plant-industries building and will allow the agency to perform more testing on site.

"We have a very small lab now," Schleich said, adding that the agency works closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"This will be a state-of-the-art lab like the rest of our labs, and they will be able to perform tests that are not now feasible," said Cindy Brown, agriculture communications director.

The new facility is expected to be completed in March 2009.

The agency requested a little more than $10-million and received $10.5-million, some of which will go to contingencies not foreseen in planning the new building. Schleich said, for example, a sewer line along Route 40 had collapsed and had to be replaced as part of the project.

Though the Ohio Department of Agriculture is seen as an agency related to farming, agency officials see themselves as being more involved with food safety than anything else.

"We protect consumers, with truth in labeling, keeping bad organisms out of the food chain, and we have oversight in the meat industry," Schleich said.

Adam Ward, the agency's legislative liaison, said the department regulates what occurs on farms, but it's more than "cows and plows."

Every part of a food's process -- from the time it's taken out of the ground by a farmer to the day it reaches a market and to the time it's prepared and served on someone's kitchen table -- is tracked and regulated by the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

"So much of what we do is consumer-oriented," he said.

Ohio was involved heavily in the tomato scare recently, when it was determined that peppers had been affected by the E. coli virus,

"We work closely with the department of health to see where the source of the outbreak is," Brown said.

She said the Ohio EPA and Ohio Health Department both have labs on site that could help in determining the cause of a food-borne outbreak because all three could work together and communicate results.

The agency already has solved many safety issues. Schleich said the agency eradicated hog cholera when he was a child. He remembered as a boy bringing a dead pig to the state agency for testing.

The agency has had a presence in Licking County since 1912, and most of the administrative offices moved there in the 1980s, Schleich said. The campus now has about half of its 400 employees on site in seven buildings.

The newest building is being built by Gutknechkt Construction, with heating and cooling systems by Radico and electrical service by Claypool Electric.

Schleich said the state is trying to use as many local contractors as possible, purchasing bricks for the building from Bowerston Brick of Licking County.

The building is being built with recycled plastic material for roofing and recycled flooring materials. Along with its natural-gas heating system, the agency is investigating alternative sources of energy, which eventually could be used in conjunction with or in place of natural gas.

"It's part of the governor's plan to reduce energy costs," Brown said. "We're looking at doing that in all of our buildings, reducing the amount of lights used and lowering temperatures. We're doing everything we can to reduce these energy costs."

The exterior of the building already is visible from U.S. Route 40.

Funding for the project was included in $25-million earmarked for Licking County this year. The $1.3-billion capital budget bill, which was introduced by state Rep. Jay Hottinger (R-Newark), is passed every two years and "helps fund local community projects such as building modernization and restoration, land acquisition, and conservation programs for parks," according to information from Hottinger's office.