New agriculture commissioner moves to protect Georgia’s leading industry

In January, Tyler Harper, 36, became Georgia’s 17th commissioner of agriculture. Courtesy of Georgia Department of Agriculture

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

In January, Tyler Harper, 36, became Georgia’s 17th commissioner of agriculture. Courtesy of Georgia Department of Agriculture

Six months into his new job, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper, a native of Ocilla and a seventh-generation farmer, is moving to protect and promote Georgia agriculture — the state’s leading industry, with an annual economic impact of more than $74 billion.

Enhancing food safety and security was among the priorities stressed on the campaign trail by Harper, who spent 10 years as a member of the state Senate, representing the 7th District. And protection of the state’s agriculture industry is a national security issue, Harper told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, because of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The war in Ukraine shone a light on how interconnected we are on a global scale when it comes to agriculture,” Harper said, pointing out that 30% of the world’s wheat is in Ukraine, and 67% of the world’s supply of ammonium nitrate (a widely used fertilizer) is in Ukraine and Russia.

“So, when it comes to providing the food, the fiber, the shelter for Americans, for Georgians, it’s vital that we protect the agricultural industry here at home,” he said.

In June, Harper took steps to restore the status of the state Department of Agriculture as a law enforcement agency, and named Harlan Proveaux as the inspector general and director of the Law Enforcement and Emergency Management Division. (The GDA’s law enforcement division had been disbanded in 2013.)

Proveaux previously was deputy director of Homeland Security for Georgia, and under him GDA’s law enforcement division will have full arrest powers and will assist local, state and federal law enforcement agencies with investigations.

“There’s a variety of things that we can be involved in, not only from protecting the food supply and from a Homeland Security perspective, but also labor trafficking and human trafficking,” Harper said.

Trafficking of foreign farmworkers in Georgia became national news in late 2021 when a wide-reaching federal investigation, known as Operation Blooming Onion, uncovered a modern-day slavery ring that involved bringing people from Central America to the U.S. and forcing them to labor in horrific conditions on Georgia farms.

With the department’s expertise in that area, Harper said, “we want to be able to provide that resource to our local law enforcement around Georgia, to ensure that they have the appropriate resources they need.”

Responding to natural disasters and severe weather are other responsibilities of Harper’s department. In late June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a natural disaster declaration for 18 Georgia counties affected by a spring freeze.

Besides lobbying for federal emergency funding when severe weather and natural disasters hit Georgia farms, Harper sees a need for new legislation to protect the state’s agricultural industry. For example, he noted, “a lot of our fruit and vegetable crops in Georgia don’t have the same type of product protections that other commodities do.”

He’d like to get additional provisions to fix that added to the federal farm bill that is under consideration in Congress.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper (center) has been an outspoken advocate for Georgia Grown, a division of the department that helps grow local agribusinesses in the state. Christina Matacotta for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Christina Matacotta

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Credit: Christina Matacotta

Harper also sees consumers playing a role in supporting Georgia farmers. This year, he has doubled down on Georgia Grown, a division of the department that promotes agribusinesses in the state. In June, the department partnered with the Atlanta Braves for a Georgia Grown Night at Truist Park, to raise awareness of Georgia-grown specialty crops.

As Harper looks to create pathways to success for current farmers, he also sees the importance of investing in getting the next generation to fill a variety of needs in agriculture.

“Agriculture is more than cows, plows and saws,” he said. “We need farmers and producers, but we also need veterinarians, nutritionists, geneticists, chemists and so on.”

Among those initiatives, he said, is the Elementary Education Program, which began as a pilot in 2019, grew to include 27 elementary schools statewide and now is a permanent option for all elementary schools in Georgia. Ag education already had been available to Georgia middle and high school students, but not to elementary students.

“We are the first state in the nation to provide agricultural education curriculum from kindergarten to 12th grade,” Harper said.

And for budding entrepreneurs who want to explore opportunities in agriculture, there is the Foundational Leadership and Entrepreneurship Experience, or FLEX, a competition that Harper likened to the television program “Shark Tank.” Begun in Ben Hill County in south central Georgia, it will expand next year to 10 school systems, with winners taking home $5,000 — and a better understanding of what it takes to make it in today’s marketplace.

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