12 Questions for Georgia’s Agriculture Commissioner Candidates

Fred Swann (D)

Fred Swann Georgia Insurance Commissioner Candidate Election 2018
Fred Swann

Photograph Courtesy of Fred Swann Campaign

Democrat Fred Swann is a Middle Georgia native and a Macon software developer. He’s been involved with the state and local party for years; this would be his first elected public office.

1. Like most elected officials, agriculture commissioners can bring their own projects or initiatives to the job. What would you do that’s outside the formal job description?

I want to see a fundamental shift in the role the Department of Agriculture plays in everyday life. Right now, it mostly exists as an arm of government to regulate farms. But really, it touches so much more than just farms. I want to use this office as an agency of rural and urban economic development, as an agency of environmental protection, and as an agency to promote health for all Georgians.

One of the great things about this role is that there are so many ways to work both within the department and with private enterprise make innovative things happen. One of the things I’m most excited about is working to expand urban agriculture and access to markets in food insecure areas. Urban agriculture is not only great for improving food access, but it can also be an economic driver for communities. We’ve got farms here in Atlanta that have been figures in their communities for years—and many of these communities are blighted and under-served. Urban agriculture can be a way for communities to literally grow their way to prosperity and keep ownership of the progress, which also fights gentrification.

The other thing I really want to do is push for more investment into sustainable agriculture. We have come a long way in making environmental issues a bigger part of our Democratic platform, but discussion of food issues as they relate to environment are practically nonexistent—even though our food system is one of the greatest contributors to pollution and to climate change. That’s why I want to provide resources to farmers who want to transition from conventional to certified naturally grown or organic. And I want to work with our land grant institutions to do more research into innovative growing methods, such as aquaponics or aeroponics. I will be a champion for a 21st-Century agriculture model that protects our planet as well as creates profit.

2. Agriculture is the state’s No. 1 industry, but for lots of Georgians, Georgia-grown isn’t on the dinner table. Maybe it’s a long drive to a store with produce, or the produce there isn’t from Georgia, or maybe processed food sure looks tempting after a long day at work. How do you get more people enjoying blueberries, pecans, chickens, and more from farmers nearby?

It has to be a huge cultural shift, but there are things we can do both top-down and more grassroots style to get this accomplished. First of all, agriculture may be Georgia’s leading industry, but that doesn’t mean everyone is benefiting from it. Right now, our small family farms are dying, and they are the ones who would be producing most of that hyperlocal food source. As small farms die off, rural communities lose their tax base, and grocery stores eventually follow. Combine all this with the fact that one in seven Georgians are food insecure, I think it’s clear that people aren’t eating more Georgia Grown foods not only because of the reasons you mentioned, but really, because of economic injustice. And a lot of that has been spurred on by the relentlessly pro-big agriculture agenda that my opponent has been pushing over the past eight years.

I think we can fix a lot of the economic issues while also expanding the reach of Georgia Grown products. I will fight to invest in more local markets and more access to capital, so that small farms can grow their businesses. And I will advocate for a redistribution of subsidies to benefit small farms over big agribusiness. Then we will create tax abatements for grocers who will sell local foods in food-insecure areas. A lot of these grocers also want to sell more fresh foods but they often go bad; they need small grants to buy more refrigerators so they can store more. We can’t just think about how to get more wealthy folks to eat the Georgia Grown produce they find at their local farmers market. We have to really concentrate on getting these foods to those who have traditionally had the least access to them, in both rural and urban areas.

3. Let’s talk about food and education—a lot of people don’t know where their food comes from, what a strawberry plant looks like, or when a tomato is in season. Is this important to know, and if so, what’s an agriculture commissioner’s role strengthening agricultural education?

I do think some level of basic farming knowledge is important for everyone. Growing up on my grandfather’s farm, I learned a lot about the mechanics of growing food. I also got an appreciation for the hard work it takes to produce the food we eat, but also saw firsthand how much bounty you can get out of just a little land. I would like to see a lot more informal agricultural education, like community gardens with public classes, but I also think we can work more agriculture education into our K-12 curriculum. Many schools are starting to put in little gardens for the kids to tend, which I am certainly in favor of. I will also fight for more 4H and FFA (Future Farmers of America) programs, especially in more urban areas. We need to show that farming is a career anyone can pursue. I also will make sure the Department itself is playing a more active role—including through social media—in educating people about the basics of agriculture. But I think even more important than that is talking about how our agricultural system affects communities, our economy, our environment, and our health. Too often, people don’t make the connection between what’s on their plate and the pollution of a local water source or rates of disease.

4. Farming and ranching aren’t easy jobs, and it means being far from the cities where many young people prefer to live. How can you convince young people to go into this industry?

First of all, I think it’s kind of a misconception that young people don’t want to go into agriculture. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Most kids simply aren’t even given the option. They haven’t even been to a farm, or there’s no agriculture education at their school. More young people are finding places in farming. I have recently met a lot of young farmers, including urban farmers, who have a unique social justice or environmental bent to the work they do. Still, the average age of a Georgia farmer is 60. I think we’ve really got to work to show that agriculture is for everyone, though it has stereotypically been a predominantly white and male profession.

Other than investing in agriculture education, which I talked about before, I think we also have to look at the larger problem of why young people are leaving small, rural towns in general. And that’s because our small towns are dying, contributing to what’s called the “rural brain drain.” The brightest talent usually leaves town for somewhere bigger with better amenities and better job prospects. But if we work to revitalize rural economies as I outlined, then small towns automatically will have more amenities and will attract more young people. That means more young farmers as well. We can’t simply get more young people back into farming. We’ve got to also stop the flight of young talent from our small towns by investing in quality of life.

5. Undocumented immigrants have been a vital part of the agriculture industry in Georgia. Efforts to curb undocumented immigration have meant a shortage of workers in these jobs. A state agriculture commissioner can’t set federal immigration policy, but also doesn’t want to see produce rot in the fields. What do you do in this situation?

It’s true that the agriculture commissioner isn’t the one in charge of immigration policies. However, I will be the strongest possible voice for increasing the numbers of visas issued to our migrant laborers, and make sure that when they are here, they are treated with fairness and respect. I’ve had numerous farmers tell me that they couldn’t get their crops to market without the help of migrant labor. And because of the seasonal nature of the job, most Americans don’t want the work as they’re looking for something year-round. So these migrant workers are absolutely essential to our agricultural system, as well as to our economy.

6. Georgia farmers and ranchers don’t pay sales tax on qualified farm inputs if they have a “GATE” card—for the Georgia Agriculture Tax Exemption. Though it’s popular, state auditors have recommended better oversight to make sure only legitimate producers get a GATE card and only use it for legit purchases. And to qualify as a farmer requires agricultural income as little $2,500. What changes, if any, would you like to see in GATE?

I think that overall GATE is a good program. There have been instances of abuses, and I fully intend to crack down on those. I think we need more stringent enforcement throughout the state. However, there are a couple of changes I’d really like to see. We say $2,500 is a low number, and generally speaking, it is. But there is a broader context to consider. Over 30 percent of farmers in Georgia who sell their goods make less than $1,000 per year, and an additional quarter make less than $10,000. So we’ve got a good chunk of farmers who aren’t going to make that $2,500 minimum, partly thanks to the predatory practices that have been promoted by this current administration. And one in 10 farmers are making over $500,000 per year, which means a pretty big number of the people being served are already doing extremely well. I would like to see this number lowered to be more inclusive to other producers who are struggling, or who are just starting out. The other thing I’d like to see is the inclusion of greenhouses in permissible items to purchase with a GATE card. I think greenhouse growing is an invaluable resource for sustainable farming, and we should do everything we can to encourage farmers to utilize it.

7. There are a lot of state lawmakers who want to allow cultivation of medical marijuana in Georgia and who aren’t going to give up trying to win over their colleagues. If cultivation happened at scale, the state Department of Agriculture might have some role in regulating it. What are your thoughts on medical marijuana cultivation?

I am strongly in favor of in-state medical cannabis cultivation, as well as industrial hemp. I believe both are vital for the economic health of Georgia. I do, however, want to avoid a big agriculture takeover of this burgeoning industry. There is a precedent with medical cannabis legislation including pointlessly exhaustive regulations that are primarily put in place to keep the little guy from easily entering the market. I will fight for a system that is equitable to farmers, yet still protects consumers and our environment.

8. We’re seeing what appears to be an escalating trade war between the U.S. and China. For example, a July tariff on pecans means fewer Chinese buyers will be lining up to pay big money for them. Though Georgia consumers may enjoy the lower prices, who do you see as the winners and losers here? What’s your message to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue?

This trade war with China is simply ridiculous. Hardworking Georgia farmers should not be held hostage in some Washington power play. I think that the folks in Washington got themselves into this mess, and they need to solve their own problems instead of shoving them off onto farmers. There is an aid package that is being put together [packages were rolled out in early September], but it’s looking like the proceeds will primarily benefit big agribusiness. The people who need help the most will get the least, and we will see more small farms go under. And when they do, they will take whole towns with them. I would say to [Agriculture] Secretary [Sonny] Perdue and to President Trump that they need to quit playing politics and find a real solution for our farmers.

9. A state audit this year found that five of Georgia’s nine state-run farmers’ markets cost more to operate than they generate in revenue. Outside Atlanta, some of the others can’t attract a full house of produce vendors and visitors. What do we need to do with these underutilized, money-losing markets?

This problem is something we’ve talked about extensively on this campaign. I remember when I was a kid, the State Farmers Market in my hometown of Macon was bustling. Now, it’s a ghost town, and a majority of the vendors aren’t even the farmers themselves, but rather are retailers for an assortment of farms. So a lot of the connectivity to the food source is gone. The stalls at the Macon market go for around a whopping $1,500 per stall, which is completely inaccessible to the vast majority of farmers. And when you consider how busy the Mulberry Street Market (a Wednesday pop-up market in downtown Macon) is, you can see this is especially absurd. To start, I will definitely make sure we lower the prices of these stalls. If we do that, more farmers will come in and benefit, and we can actually begin to turn a profit. Any unused space can be rented out for different purposes, including storage or event space. But honestly, when you don’t have a strong base of small family farms to pull from, you’re always going to have problems maintaining occupancy. Investing in small family farms is half the battle on this one.

10. A lot of consumers are looking for organic produce—are even willing to pay a lot of money for it. In your list of priorities, where does promotion of organic farming fit, and what would you do in that area?

I am very excited about the prospects for organics for both farmers and consumers. I think that some of our current practices are very unsustainable and often rob our soil of the necessary nutrients to produce good food or poison our water and air. That’s wrong, but I think that for the most part our farmers want to do the right thing. We have to empower them to do that in a way that generates a profit. I will work with private partnerships to promote organics, and also work within the department to provide assistance to farmers who are looking to transition to organic. But really, organics are doing just fine in many well-off areas in Georgia. My main focus will be to make organic foods more affordable and accessible by investing in more markets selling local food in low-income areas and to invest in organic urban agriculture initiatives. I also look forward to working with our land grant institutions to pioneer more innovative ways to farm organically.

11. How will climate change affect the state’s agriculture industry? What should be done to address that impact?

Climate change has already affected our agriculture industry, and it will continue to do so. We have seen increased tornadoes and hurricanes, plus drought and heat waves. We have already seen some crops suffering. I spoke recently with a multi-generational peach farmer in middle Georgia who reported that yields were more uncertain, and that even slight differences in elevation between two neighboring counties might make the difference between a successful or unsuccessful season. That’s why I will fight to make sure we are exercising the highest level of responsibility with our water and other resource use, and will fight for investments into more environmentally-friendly practices. I will also make sure our inspectors are checking for proper application and storage of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.

I know many people still think climate change isn’t real, and we do have to be able to talk with those people when having this discussion. We have to focus on the concrete, everyday impacts of pollution. There are whole communities being poisoned from improper disposal of waste from factory farms. We have soil being stripped of all its nutrients and groundwater being poisoned, making growing crops near impossible. People are deeply affected by these things in their daily lives. We have to make the connection between the big scientific concepts and their everyday effects.

12. What are the biggest issues that the agriculture commissioner will need to face in the next four years?

I think we’ve covered a lot of them. First and foremost, we have to contend with the death of the small family farm, and by extension, the death of many of our rural communities. We have to expand access to markets that sell healthy, affordable food in food insecure areas. We need to get healthier foods, including organic and locally grown, in our schools. And of course, we have to focus on protecting our environment and natural resources.

I think we also need to get serious about working with our legislature to bring in-state cultivation of medical cannabis and industrial hemp to Georgia. There is opportunity for exponential growth, including for small farmers, with both of these crops. Cannabis has shown to be beneficial in combating the opioid crisis, and hemp would be a huge benefit to our textile producers in northwest Georgia.

We also need to double down on enforcing and strengthening the animal welfare protections we have. With so few inspectors to do so much work, a lot is falling through the cracks. In some cases, they are calling ahead to give warning, a practice that will immediately be stopped under my administration. I plan to crack down on puppy mill and irresponsible breeders, and to fully investigate all potential abuses.

I also will be a champion for more diversity in farming. We need to find ways to get more women, people of color, young people, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, and people with disabilities into farming, especially into farm ownership. People of color have long faced oppression in farming in the South, from being denied loans to being deliberately sold bad seeds. I was diagnosed with autism in my adulthood, but I remember how therapeutic I found farm work to be even as a kid. In many rural communities, there isn’t even a hospital, much less an autism specialist, and there are very scarce work opportunities. We must ensure they would not be exploited, but otherwise it would be very empowering work for many on the spectrum like me. I will work to create career pathways for all types of farmers, including neurodiverse farmers. That’s because I believe agriculture, like our government, must work for everyone.