12 Questions for Georgia’s Agriculture Commissioner Candidates

Gary Black (R)

Gary Black Agriculture Commissioner Georgia Election 2018
Gary Black

Photograph ourtesy of Gary Black Campaign

Republican Gary Black was first elected agriculture commissioner in 2010; voters returned him to office in 2014. He spent much of his career before that as president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. Black and his family raise commercial beef cattle in Commerce.

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?

“The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” This is an important principle in my family. Putting my professional and practical agricultural experience to work for our citizens is “the main thing” for me. Food safety, seed regulation, animal disease control, and disaster preparedness are but a few of the management duties I face every day. This is an important job, and I am grateful for the opportunity to serve. During my time of service, I have introduced several innovative programs to the GDA portfolio that have expanded beyond “the main thing.” My favorites focus on improving nutrition for the next generation. For seven years, our “Feed My School for Week”, “Georgia Grown Test Kitchen”, and “Georgia Grown Source Show” programs have made a positive impact on school nutrition in every corner of the state. We work with local school nutrition, agricultural, and civic leaders to build the support or “booster club” system for school nutrition that one might often be familiar with in an athletics or art setting. Our “20/20 Vision for School Nutrition” sets a goal to have at least 20 percent of every meal in every Georgia public school to be comprised of Georgia products by the start of the 2020 school year. In addition, 20 percent of Georgia public schools will be challenged to reach the 50 percent mark for their menu content.

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?

We prefer to not just timidly refer to our products as Georgia-grown, but always boldly reference them as “Georgia Grown.” It is our state brand, and during the past seven years, our team has worked tirelessly to make it the most recognized state brand in America. But it is more than just a brand or a program; Georgia Grown is also a thriving community for agribusinesses of all types. The relationships forged through the network and promotional opportunities of Georgia Grown have enabled members to prosper and further contribute to the state’s number one industry. Our team works with our members to utilize new trends to revitalize traditional markets. We help facilitate relationships to bridge the gap between a good idea and a marketable product. We will continue to be a steady presence at local fairs, festivals, schools, and civic clubs. We will continue to build partnerships with area retailers and community-based farmer’s markets. Lastly, Georgia Grown produce is now more readily available through our collaboration with food banks across the state. We have worked hard to link producers with food bank leaders in their communities which this year alone resulted in more than 15 million pounds of Georgia produce flowing through the food bank network that otherwise would have been wasted.

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 don’t think it is as much about educating the consumer as it is connecting with them. Today’s consumers are several generations removed from the farm, but many of them still have a desire to know and understand where their food comes from. I find most everywhere I go that there are friends of agriculture and those who want to be. We have many efforts aimed at meeting this desire. From our strong relationship with FFA (Future Farmers of America) and 4-H to help educate youth in both rural and urban communities, our continued partnership with programs like Ag in the Classroom that uses agricultural principles in everyday curriculum, and our own efforts such as Georgia Agriculture Awareness Week that allows the agricultural community to come into the classroom and interact with students with a purpose of connecting with them about how important farmers are to today’s society. We also strive to connect with consumers through with our annual Georgia Grown magazine, biweekly Farmers and Consumers Market Bulletin and Faces of Agriculture photo exhibit, plus all of the educational activities conducted in our Georgia Grown Building during the Georgia National Fair in Perry. These activities are a concentrated effort to highlight the abundant economic impact of Georgia’s agricultural industry, while providing insight on those who produce, market, and distribute the products of the land.

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?

Principle 7 in my Agriculture Makes Life Better Agenda addresses this question. It is important to recognize farming as an honorable and respected profession. Most know that the State of Georgia was named after King George II of England. But many do not realize that Georgia is a feminine form of the Greek George, meaning “tiller of the soil”—or “farmer.” We do not farm because it is all we can do. We farm because it is what we want to do—and what we were always intended to do. And it is also important to note that there is more to agriculture in our state than farming. With agriculture as the No. 1 industry and primary economic driver in our state, there hundreds of career opportunities that exist within it. We are proud to support 4-H and FFA, both of which work hard to expose young people to the broad possibilities within agriculture. We work daily with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, and Fort Valley State University to develop this next generation of agricultural leaders. I have been honored to host hundreds of students at the department as they explore their career paths and have employed more than 60 of them as well through our vibrant intern program.

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?

I do not believe illegal behavior should ever be rewarded or condoned. I will agree that a legal, skilled agricultural guestworker program is vital for continuing an abundant, safe, affordable, and local food supply for our consumers and the future of our strong agricultural economy. I first led a group of farmers to Washington to testify on this issue in 1997. Though Congress has considered a number of measures, not much has changed since then but the date on the calendar. As Commissioner, I have testified before the Congress twice on this issue. In one hearing both Senators Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) challenged some of my comments, which I still think indicates that the testimony was on point. The federal guestworker program (H-2A) is cumbersome and in need of overhaul. Producers of fruits and vegetables in Georgia still make it work for them even with the problems within the bureaucracy. However, the program does not serve other sectors of agriculture like dairy. The gridlocked Congress should consider the ideas presented under the H2C program of Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia). Abundant, bipartisan obstinacy will likely keep this from happening. The proposal calls for mandatory guestworker touch-back (to their home country), flexibility for workers to work under multiple contracts, and shifts the program management to the USDA. These ideas are a good start. The choices are simple: establish a reasonable, reliable guestworker program or prepare to import more fruits, vegetables, and milk.

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?

Sales tax exemptions for agricultural inputs have been embedded in Georgia law for more than 50 years. Until 2013, no one knew how many Georgians were claiming exemptions by
claiming to be a farmer. With the advent of the GATE card, we now know that the number is roughly 38,000 producers. Like any new program, revisions were warranted. I worked with Representative Sam Watson (R-Moultrie) and House Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell (R-Camilla) this year to craft several amendments to the program. The farm sales threshold is now $5000. The fee is now $50.00/year. We instituted a three-year card beginning in 2019. The law now better facilitates the sharing of information with the Georgia Department of Revenue to assist in targeting abuse. These amendments were approved with broad, bipartisan support. It is important to note that the amendments were supported by the Georgia Farm Bureau, Georgia Agribusiness Council, Georgia Cattleman’s Association, and Georgia Poultry Federation. This is a better program now, and I am thankful that the agriculture family came together to chart its course for the future.

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 do not support traditional agricultural cultivation of medical marijuana. Why? Simply winning over colleagues is not the path to success for any type of cannabis cultivation. There are far more fundamental issues to consider. No regulatory system exists for crop protection practices. Until EPA establishes a framework for how to treat for weeds, crop diseases, and insects associated with production backed up by the same science used to determine safety for other agricultural crops, I do not see a pathway to success. Extensive medical research is needed if these crops are to be accepted for having safe, proven pharmaceutical value. In Georgia, I am not aware of any proposal thus far that is supported by any branch of law enforcement. Ignoring the professional opinion of a Sheriff or the Director of the GBI would be unwise in my view.

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?

Indeed, Georgia pecan producers are in a difficult situation. Just as an investment account can become too concentrated in a sector or single company, our pecan portfolio has become too heavily dependent upon China. Our 2018 crop looks very good today. But removing Chinese demand from the marketplace will cause prices to dive. If you discuss this subject with and advocate for growers like Buck Paulk of Valdosta, R.G. Lamar of Hawkinsville, Brad Ellis of Vienna, or Will Easterling of Montezuma, as I have over the past few months, you will find these shared opinions. No one trusts settling trade disputes at the World Trade Organization. China has been cheating. Their tariffs are illegal and retaliatory. Our current problem was not started by the U.S. These growers mentioned above—thankfully my friends, supporters, and leaders in the pecan industry—all believe we will be far better off after this dispute is settled. We must diversify the portfolio of customers. My team just completed a promising trade mission to Indonesia. We have seven more trade missions planned with USDA between now and next July. Pecans will have a prominent role in each mission. We will also be introducing a creative domestic marketing campaign with our grower community to introduce Georgia Grown pecans throughout the U.S., much like our California almond friends have in recent years. Georgia pecans easily outperform Texas, New Mexico, and imported products by a wide margin. Our premium product can command a premium price if we properly engage the consumer.

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?

The more than 70-year-old farmers market system of Georgia is more profitable and sustainable today than it was when our team arrived over seven years ago. The produce business, like the magazine or insurance businesses, is much different than it was three generations ago. Operational plans must reflect paradigm changes in the industry. Farmers will never flock back to any of our markets the way that they did in 1968. The fruit and vegetable business has changed. We must continue to facilitate positive change within this system of state assets. We have closed three markets (Albany, Columbus, and Dillard) and transferred one market (Jesup) to a city government. These steps were the right management decisions. Farmers had abandoned these markets years ago, and they had since evolved into other business operations. Other markets have important ties to their respective communities and legislative delegations and will remain open. Our strategies in Cairo and Moultrie have revived these markets as vibrant vegetable packing and distribution centers. I am excited about working with Representative Carl Gilliard (D-Garden City) on some new community driven initiatives at our Savannah market, including a community garden on the property. We have the first new facility in 14 years under construction at the Atlanta Terminal Market in Forest Park. This 72,000-square-foot cooler warehouse is a positive step for the community and Georgia agriculture. Our strategic plan calls for the construction of two more similar structures on the property.

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?

We have partnered with Georgia Organics to further promote USDA Certification and thanks to those collective efforts, Georgia now has roughly 150 USDA-certified organic farmers across the state. Quite a number of organic producers are involved in the Georgia Grown program, and their operations are searchable on the Georgia Grown website and in our annual Georgia Grown Buyers Guide. Our popular “Pick Your Own” promotions within issues of the biweekly Farmer’s and Consumer’s Market Bulletin often lead readers to these producers as well. Lastly, I have enjoyed working closely with Mario Cambardella since his arrival to the Atlanta Mayor’s Office [as the urban agriculture director]. He recently secured access to power line right-of-ways in the city limits of Atlanta to open opportunities for urban producers. Mario’s “AgLanta” project is one of the most innovative urban agriculture initiatives in the US. I look forward to building on this relationship.

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

Climate change has been happening since the beginning. Georgia’s record drought of
the early 1950s probably stimulated a similar question for candidates back then. So
what is one to do? We all should remember that agriculture is very dynamic. The discovery of the next drought tolerant, insect tolerant, disease resistant crop variety is and always has been just around the corner. Farmers and consumers alike reap benefits daily because of today’s technology that manages the prescriptive use of water, crop-protection chemicals, and nutrients. Animal genetics continue to improve. Controlled-environment agriculture will have its place. In fact, our GDA team helped recruit Pure Flavor (greenhouse-grown produce) to Georgia just over a year ago. Their 75-acre planned greenhouse vegetable operation will soon be in production in Fort Valley and will market products year-round using the Georgia Grown brand. The most conservative of estimates point out that agricultural productivity must increase by at least 70 percent by 2050 to feed, clothe and shelter a growing world population of 9 billion. Each challenge presents enormous opportunity. My hope is to continue to promote these exciting opportunities to the next generation.

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

Challenges are an innate part of agriculture. I have outlined these priorities in
detail in my Agriculture Makes Life Better Agenda. I will strengthen career paths for our employees. I will continue to help local food systems flourish. I will always ensure that our team educates as we regulate. I will ensure that we lead in emergency preparedness and response. I will promote animal health. I will enhance marketing strategies. I will encourage our next generation of agricultural leaders. Additionally, as an agriculture family we will face and work together to solve issues related to water use, labor, trade, and regulatory abuse. I have the experience, a proven record, and work ethic to accomplish these goals. I ask for your vote. I will always honor your trust.