Harper, Hemingway vie to bring new leadership to state’s Ag Dept.

Republican state Sen. Tyler Harper and Democrat Nakita Hemingway are seeking to become only Georgia’s third ag commissioner since 1969

For just the third time in over half a century, Georgia’s Department of Agriculture will have a new leader in 2023.

Since 1969, the agency has been led by two men: Democrat Tommy Irvin, who served as commissioner for more than 40 years, and his successor, Republican Gary Black, who is finishing his third term as agriculture commissioner. Now, after Black’s unsuccessful run for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat, the door has been opened for new leadership.

The candidates vying to replace Black are Republican state Sen. Tyler Harper and Democrat Nakita Hemingway, as well as Libertarian David Raudabaugh. Hemingway and Harper are the favorites, but the third-party candidate could draw enough votes to keep anyone from reaching the 50% vote share threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

Whoever wins the general election will take over an agency that is critical to the state’s economy. The department is tasked with ensuring food safety; monitoring animal diseases; marketing Georgia’s fruit, vegetables and protein to the global market; and even regulating gasoline quality.

Harper is a seventh-generation farmer who was raised on his family’s farm in Ocilla, where he now grows peanuts, cotton and timber, and raises beef cattle. He has represented South Georgia since 2013 in the state Senate, where he’s served as chairman of the Natural Resources and Environment Committee and vice chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

Harper says his farming heritage combined with his political experience gives him the tools to address the challenges facing Georgia’s No. 1 industry.

“I don’t think you’ll find a background, record or experience that matches what we have to go to work on day one in January to fight for this industry every day and ensure that it’s successful,” Harper said.

If elected, Harper said one of his priorities is investing in the next generation of farmers. The last federal survey of Georgia’s ag industry found that the state has lost nearly 7,000 farms since the late ‘90s and reported a small uptick in the average age of the state’s farmers between 2012 and 2017.

“It’s vital that we do that for agriculture to continue to thrive and be successful,” Harper said.

In the face of inflated fertilizer, diesel and other input costs, Harper said he also wants to find solutions that allow farmers to increase their profits. He said continued investment in the “Georgia Grown” program, the marketing wing of the Department of Agriculture championed by Black, is also a top priority.

Hemingway also comes from a long line of farmers who grew rice on a 360-acre farm near the Savannah River. Today, Hemingway carries on their agricultural heritage by running a cut-flower farm and business in Dacula, in addition to working as a licensed real estate agent. In 2020, she ran for a state House district in Gwinnett County and narrowly lost.

Like Harper, Hemingway wants to work to make farming an appealing profession for today’s youth.

“I want to help the little guy make money and help the little guy protect their assets so that their children and grandchildren can go away to college and come back home and keep that legacy of agriculture in their family for generations,” she said.

Among her other top priorities are fostering urban farms, as well as combating food insecurity and childhood hunger.

“It’s a travesty that agriculture is our leading industry and we have food deserts in the metro Atlanta area,” she said. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”

There are some controversial issues likely to pop up as the campaigns enter the homestretch.

One involves the so-called “Freedom to Farm” law, which the General Assembly passed and Gov. Brian Kemp signed earlier this year.

The law places limits on the ability of landowners who live near farms or facilities such as slaughterhouses to sue because of noises, smells or other nuisances. Critics say it restricts the legal rights of nearby landowners harmed by agricultural companies, including other farmers.

Harper championed the bill in the last legislative session and says he still strongly supports it, calling it a “vitally important piece of legislation.”

While Hemingway said she doesn’t necessarily oppose the law, but she said it provides legal cover for bad actors in the industries.

“I can’t get on board with that,” she said.

Hemingway says she supports full legalization of cannabis, which she said would create jobs and benefit the environment.

Harper has supported medical marijuana legislation in the Georgia Senate. He also backed a measure during the 2022 session that would have authorized a hemp derivative called Delta-8 THC, a product already sold in stores that gives users a recreational high. The measure failed, but Harper said at the time that he was trying to support Georgia’s fledgling hemp-farming industry.

He didn’t say whether he supports legalizing cannabis.

Learn more about the candidates

Tyler Harper: https://tylerharperga.com/

Nakita Hemingway: https://www.nakitahemingway.com/