Current Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, a Republican, is facing Democratic challenger Fred Swann. Contributed photos.

First-time Democratic hopeful challenges GOP agriculture commissioner

After two terms in office, Republican Gary Black says there still is more he wants to get done at Georgia’s Department of Agriculture.

But Fred Swann, his Democratic opponent for agriculture commissioner, says the department hasn’t done as much as it should to address the growing needs of people living in Georgia’s rural areas.

Swann is challenging Black to lead the state’s Agriculture Department, which, in addition to regulating the state’s farming industry, also has oversight in a variety of areas including pet breeders, gasoline quality and grocery stores.

Swann, a first-time candidate, said he believes Black has been too focused on the farming side of the department and needs to place more emphasis on regulating the industry — starting with the department’s Animal Protection Division.

“Right now, there are 19 animal inspectors that are for large- and small-animal breeders, shelters, groomers,” he said. “They license them and do follow-ups on complaints from animal welfare groups. Nineteen people to do inspections on 159 counties. That’s not enough.”

Black said the department has made improvements in its regulatory responsibilities, citing the Food Safety Division’s award this June from the Association of Food and Drug Officials. The agency received the Elliot O. Grosvenor Food Safety Award to recognize “strides in building a high-quality regulatory program that is organized, focused and accountable.”

Black, who raises cattle on his farm in Commerce, said he also wants to keep laying the groundwork for the next generation of farmers and agency employees through Georgia’s Career Pathways. The Georgia Department of Education’s Career, Technical, and Agricultural Education Program trains middle and high school students to work in fields such as agricultural mechanics and plant and landscape systems.

“Priority No. 1 is setting the stage for the next generation of people that are going to work for the department,” he said. “We have to be competitive. If we want the best and brightest to work here, we have to invest in them.”

Black said he used Gov. Nathan Deal’s permission for agencies to increase their annual budget requests by 2 percent to seek raises for department employees.

Black has vastly outraised Swann. As of the Sept. 30 campaign filing deadline, Swann reported raising about $22,000. That’s only 3 percent of Black’s haul. He reported nearly $679,000 in campaign contributions.

Swann, a Macon native, also admits that he doesn’t have an extensive background in the world of agriculture. Raised by a single mother, Swann said he spent half of his childhood on his grandfather’s small farm.

“I’ve touched it and seen its impact,” he said of the industry. “I know the power of agriculture and how it can affect families and communities.”

Swann has a master’s degree in business administration and has worked in the insurance industry. He also served as the chairman of the state Democratic Party’s 8th Congressional District.

In addition to running a cattle farm, Black served as president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council for 21 years before being elected agriculture commissioner in 2010.

Black said he believes his record will propel him to another victory next week.

“You’re making an application to the people of the state of Georgia and you’re asking them to hire you,” he said. “I’ve applied twice and people have hired me. I’m asking them to do that again.”

OUR REPORTING

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates up and down the ballot in a busy election year. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.

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