It’s not a sexy race, but it’s an important one — critical to Mississippi’s largest industry.
Whoever wins the battle for commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC) — incumbent Lester Spell Jr., D.V.M., or agriculture educator Max Phillips — will wield considerable regulatory power over the state’s nearly $5-billion agribusiness industry.
“We have to remind Mississippians that agriculture is indeed the largest industry in the state of Mississippi and an industry that needs someone with a vision and a proven record to make major accomplishments and for us to realize our true potential,” said Spell.
Because of Spell’s two terms as state agriculture commissioner, he has a great deal more name recognition than his opponent Max Phillips, but Spell’s campaign has been disrupted by the death last month of his wife of 24 years, Sandra.
“That not only disrupts Commissioner Spell’s approach, but Max Phillips is a gentleman and isn’t going to do or say anything that’s going to put Lester Spell in a bad light while he’s dealing with it,” said Marty Wiseman, political science professor and director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “It’s thrown the whole thing off kilter a little.”
Both opponents have impressive backgrounds in agriculture. Spell studied pre-veterinary medicine at Mississippi State University and earned a doctorate of veterinary medicine from Auburn University in 1968. He served two years as an Army captain before returning to Richland, where he opened a veterinary practice and began farming. After serving as mayor from 1975 to 1995, Spell successfully ran for the state agriculture and commerce commissioner post vacated by long-time chief Jim Buck Ross, and won re-election in 1999.
“Lester Spell is also a real estate licensee and that’s very attractive to us,” said Scott Brunner, executive vice president of the Mississippi Association of Realtors, the state’s largest trade association. “That’s one reason why we endorsed him.”
An Ellisville native, Max Phillips of Taylorsville received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in agriculture education from Mississippi State University in 1969 and 1974, respectively. After teaching agriculture education in public schools for 21 years, Phillips served for two years as agriculture industry training coordinator for Mississippi Department of Education and for the last decade as an agricultural lender for Production Credit Association and Trustmark National Bank. He has 35 years of experience raising cattle and poultry, farming row crops and managing timber.
While Spell points out numerous programs that have been implemented during his tenure, Phillips believes more work can be done to sustain and enhance the state’s agricultural operations.
“Mississippi’s greatest assets are its people and an abundance of renewable natural resources,” said Phillips. “As the next commissioner of agriculture and commerce, the primary focus of this department will be to combine these assets in a productive manner, promoting rural development, assisting our family-owned Mississippi agribusinesses, and providing for a safe food supply from the farm gate to the family table.”
In the last few years, Mississippi has lost more than one-third of its family farm operations, primarily because of economic conditions in the agriculture sector, said Phillips.
“Production costs have increased, but the farmers are getting a smaller and smaller portion of the food dollar,” he said. “In addition, our farmers and ranchers in Mississippi are rapidly approaching retirement age. We must develop programs that will once again make farming profitable to encourage future generations to stay on the farms. An aggressive campaign to develop markets for Mississippi-grown and Mississippi-produced agricultural products is vital.”
MDAC should provide a more effective and efficient delivery of services to Mississippians, said Phillips.
“We must work hard to eliminate duplication of efforts and hold the line on wasteful spending,” he said. “We need to maximize value-added opportunities for every Mississippi-grown agriculture commodity and develop new opportunities for the continued expansion of every level of the horse industry in Mississippi, from recreational and youth programs to professional competitions. We need to involve our youth in agriculture by supporting and promoting existing 4-H and FFA programs and developing new avenues for encouraging our youth to seek agriculture-related careers. We should create an advisory council for agriculture to address immediate problems and develop a strategic long-term plan for economic development through agriculture.”
For example, Mississippi ranks third in the nation in the number of horses owned, yet very little is being done to promote or support the industry, said Phillips.
“From recreational riding such as trail rides and wagon trains to professional competitions, including barrel racing and reining events, horses provide a wealth of all-American entertainment and sport for Mississippians,” he said. “Additional opportunities for competition and increased support for existing horse activities will be an integral part of my efforts as commissioner.”
Marketing efforts should be coordinated with university research departments through the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Education, allowing promotional dollars to stretch farther on emerging markets, products and cutting-edge agriculture developments, said Phillips.
“The idea of a family farm needs to be stretched beyond the boundary of catfish, cattle, poultry, hogs or row crops,” he said. “The formation of the Agriculture Advisory Council, comprised of leaders from every interest group in our agriculture business and professional community, to openly debate the best approach to meeting the challenges of our state’s diverse ag-industry is essential for the survival of the economic crisis our state is experiencing now. If we will learn the value of doing business at home and buying Mississippi first, then our state will prosper.”
Spell said MDAC employs 32% fewer people than it did eight years ago, yet the total budget has increased a scant 1% while measurable productivity has increased 20%.
“People want a business approach, which we’ve done, and at the same time we’ve made these reductions, we’ve been able to cross train people to do different jobs so one person isn’t necessarily a specialist for just one position,” he said. “This has really allowed us to expand on other horizons.”
MDAC personnel routinely inspect the state’s 47,000 gas pumps, checking for proper octane levels and precise readings. They check scales at supermarkets, lumberyards and stockyards for accuracy, and recently initiated a program to insure consistent grocery barcode pricing. Highly qualified meat inspectors insure the safety of the meat at the more than 70 meat plants in the state.
“We have been very aggressive to do those things that are really meaningful, not only to promote the agricultural industry in our state, but also taking into serious consideration consumer protection and commercial aspects,” said Spell.
Several recently implemented new programs have made a difference to Mississippians, said Spell.
“More than 800 companies participate in the Make Mine Mississippi program, which was started to promote Mississippi business and to bring attention to Mississippi products, and has been tremendously successful,” he said. “The Farmer’s Market Nutritional Program, where low-income Mississippians can use food coupons and WIC program credits for
sh fruit and vegetables, has also been successful, as has the public school program to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables.”
MDAC has taken a leadership role in investigating alternative energy sources that are much more ec