Georgia agriculture race focuses on needs of farmers, consumers

Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black says he stabilized a department that suffered from recession-era budget cuts and outdated technology after replacing longtime farms chief Tommy Irvin, who held the post for more than four decades before retiring in 2010.

But Democratic opponent Chris Irvin, the 39-year-old grandson of Tommy, believes cuts to food safety and fuel pump inspectors have left the state at risk.

At stake is leadership of the Georgia Department of Agriculture, which regulates the $71.1 billion agriculture economy, the largest industry in the state, and is responsible for protecting consumers.

Unlike most of Georgia’s statewide elections, the agriculture race is not so much a battle of ideology. Both candidates stress the need for less government to help small businesses thrive. Neither is a fan of the federal H-2A migrant workers program that farmers say isn’t cost effective and limits harvesting.

The real differences between the two are in the weeds.

Safety and profits

The commissioner’s role is to be an advocate for both farmers and consumers.

Black, 59, served more than two decades as a lobbyist for the Georgia Agribusiness Council before taking office. He has revamped Georgia Grown, the department’s economic development engine, which used to rely on state funds.

Black persuaded farmers to shoulder half of the program’s budget, about $150,000, under a multitiered membership program. He also helped the department create a license for mom-and-prop growers to sell their goods legally in the state’s local food markets.

“We started it from scratch,” said Black, who added that almost 400 small businesses are now licensed. “We were able to do it through our rules, as opposed to something from the legislation.”

When Black took over in 2011, Georgia Grown didn’t have a website, the telephones hadn’t been updated and the department still relied on a paper system to process 70 different licenses and reports from 136,000 Georgians.

“All of that can be conducted online now,” Black said. “There was nothing like this”

Irvin, who almost lost his mother to E. coli poisoning last year, believes consumer safety efforts should be more of a focus for the department.

A deadly salmonella outbreak from 2008-09 exposed major flaws in peanut butter sanitation standards under Tommy Irvin’s watch. On Sept. 19, a federal jury convicted three Georgians in the case that sickened hundreds and was linked to nine deaths.

“We seem to only embrace the technology when it comes to yield production and profits and the bottom line, but we’re not open to the discussion concerning public health,” Irvin said. “Protecting the food has got to be No. 1.”

Vidalia onions

Perhaps the biggest conflict between the two candidates has to do with the Vidalia onion. In August 2013, Black ordered growers to wait until April 21 to ship the prized specialty crop, saying he had to protect its trademarked quality.

“We’ve been working with farmers because they know they’ve had a problem with early-season onions,” Black said. “Our packing date was very successful this year.”

But a Fulton County judge ruled in March that Black overstepped his authority, a decision Black will appeal in court in January. Irvin cast the mandate as a heavy-handed government intrusion into farmer’s businesses practices, since the onions previously could be shipped as soon as they passed federal safety standards.

“To me, that is borderline price fixing,” Irvin said. “The early market prices are the highest. These bigger outfits that get their seed in sooner, naturally their product is ready sooner.”

Budget cuts

The day he took the reins, the department was “$828,000 in the red,” Black said. He added that it absorbed an additional $1.5 million hit when the fiscal 2012 budget was passed.

As a result, the staff of roughly 620 people was reduced by about 100 employees in the past four years. Some longtime staffers received pink slips within two weeks of the new chief’s arrival and felt they weren’t given a chance to keep their jobs. Others said they were unfairly refused health and retirement benefits.

“He fired people he didn’t have any grounds to fire,” said Virginia McLendon, 64, who worked 22 years as a livestock inspector and farmer’s market manager before choosing to retire shortly after Black took over. “I would have worked for him just like Commissioner (Tommy) Irvin. I reached out to him, and he let me know right off the bat that I had no use in trying.”

Black said his staff followed proper procedures during cuts.

“There is no doubt we had to take some dramatic steps to balance the budget,” Black said. “We did so professionally.”

While many positions were lost, Black said he helped employees by raising salaries. He said that last fiscal year there were 62 people being paid below the poverty rate — a number he thought was unacceptable.

“Now we don’t have an employee who is paid below the poverty level,” Black said. “This was our No. 1 priority, this year, to overcome this generation-old problem.”

Senior officer blunder

The commissioner’s hiring decisions have also come under fire.

On a September night in 2012, two top agriculture officials led an overnight training session with dozens of employees that ended with co-ed skinny dipping and a damaged state vehicle. Billy Skaggs, the department’s chief operating officer, and Oscar Garrison, the food safety director, stepped down amid an investigation six months later.

At a recent debate, Irvin used the episode to question the hiring practices and leadership of Black, who handpicked Skaggs as his second-in-command in 2011.

“It was your senior officer, under his guidance, in his own cabin, where they engaged in what was described as a fraternitylike atmosphere,” Irvin said.

A report from the Department of Agriculture’s chief investigator said Black did not know of the raucous training session until a former employee complained in March 2013.

“Within 48 hours, after all the facts were gathered, those senior members were dismissed,” Black said. “We will not tolerate a lack of integrity in our department.”

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