The contest to become the state’s next commissioner of agriculture & commerce doesn’t get much publicity, but it’s an office that affects the lives of Mississippians through regulatory and marketing activities. The Democratic nominee for this position, Rickey Cole, and the Republican nominee, Lester Spell, spoke to the Mississippi Business Journal about campaign issues. Spell, the incumbent who’s been in office 12 years, is being challenged by Cole.
Both were asked about the current commissioner’s leadership in the failed Beef Plant project in Yalobusha County that cost Mississippians $55 million.
Spell says he’s very disappointed in the way it turned out but that is was a sincere effort to help one part of agriculture. He also passed along blame to others, including the Mississippi Development Authority, who he says reviewed all invoices from his department’s Land, Water & Timber Board.
“Political leaders from that part of the state and a study from Mississippi State University supported the project,” he said. “It’s not likely to happen again. It was an unusual move for the Legislature to guarantee funds for the project.”
Cole, however, says there’s only one office on the ballot that had responsibility for the costly failure. He feels Spell will always be remembered for the Beef Plant.
“It was a business venture that was doomed and any first-year business student could see that,” he said. “A lot of people looked to the incumbent for leadership and went along with it. He could have stopped it, but he didn’t exercise his leadership. Most of the powers that be in Jackson listened to him on it.”
He goes on to say that the plant would have produced the cheapest and lowest grade of beef. “It was only going to be hot dogs and potted meat,” he said.
Political analyst Marty Wiseman was asked if the failed Beef Plant would be a significant campaign issue. “If it is possible to do so, Rickey Cole will make sure it is,” he answered. “He’s got a hot-button issue there. He’s intelligent and has sought out all the adjectives to make it a colorful and interesting race.”
However, Wiseman says Cole may not have the campaign funding to push the issue to the forefront of voters’ minds. “I have not seen anything that would indicate what voters think of it as an issue,” he said. “A lot of Democrats supported the Beef Plant too and I don’t know if it will be a blowback on his party.”
Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, does hear rumblings that perhaps the commissioner of agriculture & commerce should be an appointed office.
“I’m not going on record as a supporter of that, but I do think it’s a valid point,” he added. “Is it better to have someone who wins a popularity contest — which is what an election is — in charge of this office, or someone who has expertise in this area?”
Spell, whose background includes practicing veterinary medicine and serving as mayor of Richland, points to his accomplishments as commissioner,
“The department was basically bankrupt when I came into office in 1996,” he said. “I assessed where we were, and now we have one-third fewer people working but the work output is 20% higher. We re-organized and cross-trained people to become more streamlined.”
Cole doesn’t think fewer department employees are the answer for an agency charged with the important task of food safety and timber theft. “We’ll never be able to police all the food as a small agency,” he said. “Last year there were 4,400 inspections done by only ten people. That can’t be very thorough.”
He also feels the department’s nine investigators are hard put to police the state’s 20 million acres of timber and thefts of chemicals and equipment on the 42,000 farms. “We are having an explosion of crime in rural Mississippi,” he said, “and I will ask for more investigators.”
Spell points to the almost $7 billion shot in the state’s economic arm that comes from farm income.
“It turns over four times in the economy, and that’s good for Mississippi. We’ve made the department run more like a business. We’ve promoted marketing and added value to products,” he said. “We’ve also worked hard to preserve agriculture and keep family farms. The surrounding states have had a decrease in the number of farms, but Mississippi has had an increase. I think that’s due to diversifying.”
He is also pleased with the Farm to School Program that has schools buying fresh fruits and vegetables grown in Mississippi. “In four years, we’ve put $1 million in the pockets of our farmers,” he said.
He touts the Make Mine Mississippi program with 1,000 companies participating in the marketing campaign. Cole says the program could do much more.
“We’re missing the boat by not finding ways to connect producers with retailers,” he said. “I want to create relationships.”
The Democratic challenger says fresh produce is a $140-million industry in the state out of a $36-billion industry nationwide. He feels the state can do better.
“We’re so much better situated for this than California,” he said. “We’re closer to the East Coast, have a long growing season, rich land and people who don’t mind working. Big companies are looking for growers, and we’ve got to modernize.”
Cole, from Ovett in southeastern Jones County, spent most of his adult life working a family farm where he produced and marketed fresh vegetables to 40 retail outlets in South Mississippi and New Orleans. He also served as chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party for three years.
In addition to continuing existing programs, Spell says if he’s re-elected he will look at producing alternative fuels in the state and making food safety a top priority.
Paul Leslie Riley of Pontotoc is also running for this office as the candidate of the Mississippi Constitution Party.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.