Ag commissioner candidates spar over sludge spreading controversy

Next commissioner will be tasked with leading Georgia’s top industry

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By Drew Kann

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Image Credit: Georgia Public Broadcasting

October 18, 2022

 

The three candidates seeking to become Georgia’s next Agriculture Commissioner took the debate stage Monday, sparring over nuisances that have besieged parts of the state and their readiness to guide the state’s powerhouse agriculture industry.

 

Republican state Sen. Tyler Harper, Democrat Nakita Hemingway, and Libertarian David Raudabaugh all participated in the 30-minute debate hosted by the Atlanta Press Club. Hemingway and Harper are the favorites to win in November, but Raudabaugh could pull enough support to prevent either candidate from clearing the 50% vote share threshold, which would force a runoff.

 

Harper, a seventh-generation farmer who has served in the state Senate since 2013, came under fire from his opponents for supporting legislation they say has hampered local officials’ authority to regulate use of “soil amendments.”

 

Soil amendments encompass both traditional soil additives including manure and mulch, as well as sewage and industrial waste.

In recent years, the category of allowable soil amendments has ballooned, including cheap or free alternatives to traditional fertilizers like wood pulp, chicken processing scraps and even sewage sludge. But some rural Georgians are increasingly concerned about their impacts on human health and the environment. A soil amendment spill in June on a farm between Athens and Augusta killed an estimated 1,700 fish.

 

Hemingway immediately went after Harper over his support of the “Freedom to Farm” bill passed by the General Assembly this year, which critics say limits landowners’ ability to sue over noises, smells and other nuisances on farms near their property.

 

“What that “Freedom to Farm” bill does is it allows chicken processing plants to spread industrial waste all over farmland in the state of Georgia and it is impacting counties throughout the state,” Hemingway said.

 

Harper said his opponents were misrepresenting what the legislation actually does.

“This is a bill that actually supports and ensures that agriculture continues to be our number one industry, it ensures that we protect the family farm,” Harper said. “... At the end of the day, it ensures that the consumer can rest assured that they’re going to get a safe and secure product on the grocery store shelf at a lower cost.”

 

Harper sought to portray Hemingway — who also comes from a long line of farmers and runs a cut flower farm — as too inexperienced for the role. At one point, Harper asked Hemingway if she knows how many employees the Department of Agriculture has or what the state’s top four commodities are.

Hemingway said there are 656 employees, which appears to be accurate, and said the state’s top commodities were broiler chickens, blueberries, timber and cotton. Though estimates vary from year to year, UGA’s latest industry snapshot shows broilers, cotton, peanuts and beef as Georgia’s most valuable commodities.

 

Raudabaugh, meanwhile, acknowledged he does not have a traditional farming background, but played up his experience founding multiple cannabis companies and leading a cannabis-focused health and wellness company. He said he hopes to grow the industry in Georgia.

 

“There is no one on this stage who is better suited to let us realize the monetary value and impact that crop (cannabis) can have on our economy, our health and our ecology,” he said.

 

Whoever wins the election will lead an agency tasked with regulating and marketing Georgia’s massive agribusiness industry, which contributes an estimated $74 billion in economic impact annually.

 

They will also take over a department that has seen few leadership changes over the last half century. Since 1969, the agency has been led by just two men: Democrat Tommy Irvin, who served as commissioner for more than 40 years, and his successor, Republican Gary Black, who is stepping aside after his third term as agriculture commissioner and an unsuccessful U.S. Senate run.

Early voting began Monday and Election Day is Nov. 8.