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Watch: Contentious farm law sparks debate in race for agriculture commissioner
Georgia voters will fill a top leadership position for the state’s No. 1 industry when they head to the polls during this year’s midterm elections.
Three candidates are on the ballot for agriculture commissioner: Nakita Hemingway, a Democrat; state Sen. Tyler Harper (R), and Libertarian David Raudabaugh.
Whoever wins the election will lead an agency responsible for everything from food safety and antifreeze to fuel pumps and animal shelters.
But it’s the contentious so-called “Freedom to Farm” law that’s garnering the most attention in this race.
Harper, from South Georgia’s Irwin County, championed the legislation through the General Assembly earlier this year.
The law makes it harder for neighbors to file a nuisance claim against a nearby agricultural producer over things like noises and smells.
“The Freedom to Farm Bill was about protecting American agriculture,” said Harper, a cotton, peanut and timber farmer. “Every ag interest group supported the Freedom to Farm Act in this state. And it was a measure that was important to support our family farms.”
But Hemingway, a cut flower farmer from Metro Atlanta’s Gwinnett County, said the law isn’t about helping farmers.
“Mr. Harper has been disingenuous about the intent of that law,” Hemingway said. “It allows chicken processing plants to spread industrial waste all over farm land in the state of Georgia.”
The bill became law two months before a June spill of such waste caused a fish die-off in a creek in East Georgia’s Wilkes County.
The spill brought renewed attention to the law because it was caused by waste that some consider a smelly nuisance while others consider it vital to the business of farming.
Harper questioned Hemingway’s knowledge of the law.
“If she understood what the bill actually does in protecting agriculture and protecting our state’s No. 1 industry and protecting family farmers all across this state, she would understand the importance of that,” he said.
It wasn’t the only time Harper questioned Hemingway’s knowledge during a 30-minute debate presented by the Atlanta Press Club.
At one point, Harper asked Hemingway if she knew how many people worked at the Georgia Department of Agriculture and what Georgia’s top four agricultural products were.
Hemingway appeared to answer the question correctly, saying 656 for the number of employees (the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture says it’s 659) and saying chickens, timber, blueberries and pecans for the top agricultural products (all of which are in the top 10 according to a 2022 University of Georgia report that ranks chickens, cotton, peanuts and beef as the top four).
“I am the only qualified candidate on this stage,” Hemingway said, noting her family’s multi-generational farming history and her experience in real estate and technology businesses. “With my leadership, we will bring in a new era of agriculture in the state of Georgia that is equitable and just. And we will make a lot of money.”
Raudabaugh stressed his experience in the cannabis industry, in which he founded several cannabis-related companies.
At a candidates forum organized by the League of Women Voters in Macon, Raudabaugh touted the agricultural and economic benefits of cannabis for much of the hourlong discussion, including when asked about the demographics of farming in Georgia.
The average age of a Georgia farmer is 58 years old and only 8% of Georgia farmers are under the age of 35.
“I don’t want to seem like I’m a one-topic candidate here,” Raudabaugh said. “But if you want to get young farmers involved, let them learn about cannabis.”
In addition to educating young people about the farming profession, the Department of Agriculture also is responsible for educating consumers about Georgia-grown products.
Food and fiber agricultural commodities in Georgia were valued at $12 billion in 2020, according to the 2022 University of Georgia report.
Those commodities and more will be the concern of whoever Georgia voters select as their next agriculture commissioner, who will follow the outgoing Gary Black.
Black, a Republican, was elected to three terms but chose not to seek reelection, running instead in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, which he lost to Herschel Walker.