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Ag commissioner candidates predict change

JACKSON — Joel Gill and Cindy Hyde-Smith predict changes with either one’s election as the state’s next commissioner of agriculture and commerce.

Gill, a 60-year-old Democrat, says he believes the department lost its vision in the waning years of Dr. Lester Spell’s four terms. Spell isn’t seeking re-election.

“I’ve been a businessman the past 42 years,” said Gill, mayor of Pickens in Holmes County.

He and his family operate a cattle buy-sell business and know the ups and down of agriculture. But he says he aims to be more than an administrator.

“The people are hiring a voice to speak up for the Mississippi producer and the Mississippi consumer,” he notes.

Hyde-Smith, a 52-year-old Republican in the livestock business with her husband, insists she’s rediscovered the department’s ability to recruit jobs in agricultural research, not something traditional economic developers think about.

“With 25 percent of Mississippi’s jobs related to agriculture,” she says, “I’ve realized that this part of our economy can be expanded, with a concerted effort.”

The out-going state senator from Brookhaven says she’s meeting with decision-makers in agricultural research companies, and she’s optimistic something good will come of those efforts.

With no primary opponent, Gill’s campaign reports raising $36,620, with $17,167 on hand as of Oct. 9. Hyde-Smith won her party primary outright and still had $63,379 in the bank Oct. 10, from a campaign total of $295,563.

Gill says his experience with the Mississippi Beef Council and the Mississippi Livestock Markets Association give him a long-term perspective on agricultural and business issues.

“I bring creative thinking and foresight” to the job, he says.

He recalls criticism a few years back when he opposed the state’s backing of a beef processing plant in Yalobusha County. The project failed quickly and principals went to prison for illegal activity associated with its construction.

One of the department’s big responsibilities is operation of the Mississippi State Fairgrounds in Jackson. Hyde-Smith and Gill agree they want to take a look at how it’s operated and make improvements, where needed.

Hyde-Smith says that with predictable growth in world populations, Mississippi must be a bigger player in helping feed the world.

Gill voices concern about the future of Mississippi farms, saying he’d like to institute a mentor or apprentice program to pair young farmers with senior farmers who lack heirs or family interests in continuing their operations.

Both say they have good working relationships with the Mississippi Legislature, from whence the department’s revenue comes.

Hyde-Smith’s comes from two terms in the state Senate as its agriculture committee chair. Gill says his municipal experience brings him in close touch with legislators.

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