Tuesday, June 1, 2010

After 41 Years, Tommy Irvin Will be Stepping Down as Agriculture Commissioner after the Elections

Georgia politicians come and go, but for more than four decades Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin has remained.

He's a walking 6-foot-5-inch storybook of Southern farming and politics. He was born to sharecroppers who bartered for what they couldn't produce, yet he regulated the massive industrial farms that make Georgia agriculture a $7 billion industry. The 80-year-old remained a loyal Democrat even as his party fractured over civil rights and Republicans swept into power.

Appointed by a segregationist governor, Irvin's career flowed easily into a new political era. He will finally step down in January after nearly 42 years in office, making him Georgia's longest-serving agriculture commissioner and among the longest-serving statewide officials in the nation.

"If you've been in office as long as I have, you're old news," said Irvin, who decided to step down because of a combination of age and the effects of Parkinson's disease. The illness sometimes leaves him unable to speak above a whisper.

Irvin was first appointed agriculture commissioner by Gov. Lester Maddox in 1969 after the Democratic incumbent quit the party and joined President Richard Nixon's Republican administration. A local newspaper editorial advised Irvin to just keep the seat warm.

Instead, he won the next election in 1970 and repeated that feat nine more times. Supporters praised Irvin for supporting campaigns to eradicate the boll weevil that once ate entire cotton fields, controlling livestock diseases like heart cholera in pigs and serving as a tireless salesmen for Georgia agriculture.

But his last years were marred by two serious outbreaks of salmonella poisoning, including a 2009 outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds more. The contamination was traced to a peanut processing plant in Blakely. Inspectors for Irvin's department found only minor violations there, but a federal team identified roaches, mold, a leaking roof and other sanitation problems.

In a recent interview, Irvin was unsure if any food producers had reported positive tests for salmonella under a new law he personally championed. And he was stumped when asked to describe the biggest shifts in farming during his tenure.

"I'm not sure," he said.

Waterloo peanut farmer Don Register, 71, questioned whether Irvin should have stayed in the job. He faults Irvin's department for failing to prevent the salmonella outbreak, a scare that Register said brought the value of peanuts down from $550 per ton to around $425.

"The demand, it just fell flat," Register said. "The business just about stopped completely."

Three candidates are competing for Irvin's seat. Republican Gary Black, a beef farmer and past president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, ran against Irvin in 2006 but lost. He took about 40 percent of the vote, and had roughly $220,000 in campaign funds by late March. His opponent in a July 20 primary will be GOP candidate Darwin Carter, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official who had nearly $600 in cash on hand.

Democrat J.B. Powell recently left his state Senate seat to run for Irvin's job. He has not yet been required to disclose his fundraising. Irvin has not endorsed anyone in the race, although Democratic leaders expect he will be offering financial support to the party.

Regardless of who wins the next election, the departure of Irvin will mark a generational shift.

Irvin was raised by sharecroppers and grew his own cotton patch as a child. When his father died in a sawmill accident, Irvin dropped out of school at age 15 to help provide for his family. His mom remarried, but Irvin stayed in the lumber business.

"The kinds of farms that I talked about when I was a lad do not exist in Georgia or anywhere else that I know of," Irvin said.

Elected a state lawmaker, he caught the eye of Lester Maddox, a politician infamous for closing his Atlanta restaurant rather than serve black customers. Maddox was elected governor, and Irvin became his executive assistant. Maddox appointed Irvin to become the state's next agriculture commissioner when the incumbent, Phil Campbell, quit the Democratic Party.

"He was never a racist, but he was a staunch segregationist," Irvin said of Maddox. "And it's hard for some people to understand the difference."

Zippy Duvall, president of the Georgia Farm Bureau, credits Irvin with advocating for more agriculture research, opening up new markets overseas and controlling the pests that severely curtailed the state's cotton industry.

"He has fought hard to make sure we control any diseases that might cross the state lines and has spent a lifetime doing that," Duvall said.

During his tenure, Irvin opened a trade bureau in Brussels and led an agriculture delegation to Cuba in 2000 in the hopes of boosting trade for Georgia, the nation's largest poultry producer. He met Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. He plans to make a similar trip to Cuba this summer.

"The meat of choice here is white meat," said Irvin, who thinks a trade embargo against Cuba should be lifted. "The meat of choice in Cuba is dark meat. And chicken has both."

He's ruled out working as a lobbyist after leaving office. He recently asked his Baptist pastor for advice on what to do after leaving state service.

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