“These jobs don’t come with training wheels,” says Mike Strain.
A Republican from Covington, Strain is running for his fourth term as Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry. On this occasion he was speaking about the “imperative to educate” that’s part of his job, especially considering the upcoming turnover in the state Legislature.
With nearly three full terms under his belt, Strain, a veterinarian by profession, has developed comprehensive knowledge of the state’s agriculture industry.
“Last year, Louisiana’s agricultural and forestry products generated $8.3-billion in exports,” Strain stated. “That’s despite the China trade tariffs restricting the call for some of our biggest commodities, like rice and soybeans.”
For three of the four people challenging the incumbent this fall, their objections to Strain are essentially all factors of his embracing the philosophy of economic efficiency through the industrialization of agriculture.
Before delving into those points of contention, let’s look at the fourth challenger, Peter Williams (D-Lettsworth). He is a perennial candidate for one office or another. In 2011, as Peter “Coach” Williams, he ran for a seat on the Pointe Coupee Parish Police Jury. (He lost.) In 2014, he was one of 12 candidates for Congress in the 6th District, a race which Garret Graves ultimately won. In 2016, as “the Rev.” Peter Williams, he was one of 24 contenders for the open U.S. Senate seat. (John Neely Kennedy won that contest.) On his webpage for his current election effort, Williams describes himself as a “hardwood seedling/tree farmer and wetlands conservation specialists [sic] who has been advocating for rural farmers and communities for over 35 years.”
Williams never filed campaign finance reports for his federal races, nor has he yet filed any state campaign financials for this race. He personally paid for his police juror race in 2011, spending $1500 on the 309 votes he generated.
That’s a far cry from the “return on investment” Strain, the Ag Commish incumbent, proudly tallies.
“Since I took over the Department, we have paid off all debt. We have eliminated vehicles, including 12 planes, reducing annual fuel costs by nearly 70%,” Strain declared, when speaking to the media during election qualifying on August 6. ‘We’ve reduced our Department payroll from a thousand down to 500 employees, reduced the amount of State General Fund needed for our operations by 35%, thus saving the taxpayers of Louisiana more than a quarter of a billion dollars.”
Yet that’s exactly why Charlie Greer is running to unseat Strain.
“From day one, this administration has decimated the agency,” Greer says. “Seafood testing and feral hog programs have been cut into a corner. And because of the cuts, so many present and former state employees have suffered at the hands of a career politician.”
Greer is a retired former employee of the Agriculture and Forestry Department, having overseen forestry enforcement for more than 20 years, primarily under the previous Commissioner, Bob Odom. Greer ran for the office four years ago, with the same general platform – anger about budget cuts that pushed him into retirement, spending just under $17,000 in 2015. As of the most recent reporting period this year, Greer has just under $3200 in his war chest. And this time, Greer has updated his litany of complaints to include new agricultural crops, as well as his continued concerns about the timber division.
“This Commissioner has botched the rollout of medical marijuana and industrial hemp. And when it comes to forest fires, we’re one match away from catastrophe!” Greer insists.
Strain, who has himself sounded the alarm while speaking to legislative budgeting committees about cuts exacerbating wildfire dangers, was more about painting a picture of efficiency when speaking to the press about his re-election hopes.
“We have seen a 59% overall reduction in wildfires, and we’ve reduced the number of wildfire arson cases we investigate annually from 900 down to about 160.” Strain said.
He also acknowledged there have been hiccups in getting the state’s medical marijuana program up and running, though the first day of election qualifying was also the initial day of dispensing the long-awaited products.
“My opponents misplace their criticism,” Strain said that day. “The delays have been due to restrictions the Legislature has set in place, as safety mechanisms. They determined who would be eligible to participate in the growing and manufacturing, in the dispensing, and for which conditions the medications would be available. Our task at the Department of Agriculture is purely as the regulatory agency for the quality of the plants and the medicines derived from them.”
The incumbent Agriculture Commissioner says permitting hemp as a commodity crop is delayed due to promulgation of federal rules. They know there will be a rule as to how many “hot” plants (exceeding 0.3% THC) per acre will be allowed before requiring the entire acre to be destroyed. And, Strain says, they’re waiting for the spring 2020 availability of genetically certified seeds that comply with the restrictions on THC content for industrial hemp.
And while Greer laments the losses of state workers, Bradley Zaunbrecher, a rice and crawfish farmer from Egan, is running to focus attention on another type of loss.
“Mike Strain has been doing a wonderful job,” the Acadia Parish Republican said after signing up to challenge the incumbent. “But I need to speak for my area, and address the loss of our young farmers.”
Zaubrecher says young farmers, especially those just starting out with small tracts of land, are being priced out of the business because equipment for planting and harvesting has become so specialized and so expensive.
“Most family farmers don’t have enough land to support paying $400,000 for a combine to harvest corn, for example,” Zaunbrecher says. “You have to have a vast tract to afford that. And that means factory farms growing commodity crops, rather than family farms and smaller, affordable start-ups for our young people to produce.”
Many see factory-farming – including feed-lot operations for chickens, pigs and cattle, or commodity row crops (which require massive amounts of fertilizer to produce) – as a major contributor to climate change. And while he only touched on it lightly during his post-qualifying comments, Strain is the first statewide elected official we have heard openly acknowledge the fact of climate change, and talk rationally about some of the impact it is having on our state.
“We’re having to take a look at new crops, and consider planting different orchards than we were ever able to do before.,” Strain remarked. “Even as we’re working to save our peach trees from the oak root fungus that’s killing them, seeing the agricultural zones shift to the north. We think we’re going to be able to grow things like olives and avocados that have previously required a warmer, more temperate climate.”
Marguerite Green doesn’t view the impacts of climate change as being nearly that innocuous. “Climate change is a threat, and right now no one in state government is prepared to aggressively fight it,” Green says. “The Department of Agriculture and Forestry is uniquely suited to be at the forefront of preparing for climate change, while pushing to avert as much of its effects as possible.”
As a vegetable and flower farmer in New Orleans, Green, a Democrat, has practical experience with the changes being wrought by human-created alterations in the Earth’s atmospheric envelope.
“If we wait much longer, we won’t be able to prepare, only react,” she says. “We should be developing and promoting green jobs, along with maximizing our carbon farming and other sustainable agriculture practices. Instead, the policies our Ag Department now promote actually magnify climate change.”
(“Carbon farming” is a term referring to soil management and animal husbandry practices designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, capturing and holding carbons in the vegetation and cropland, instead. One example would be growing clover between corn rows to reduce moisture and carbon loss from the soil into the atmosphere.)
Green wants farmers encouraged to grow more vegetable crops, and the Department to assist with in-state marketing of the food we produce. She says that will help address known poverty-related quality of life issues like food insecurity and food deserts, especially when coupled with a “Victory Garden”-type campaign to get people in cities and suburbs back to growing some of their own food.
“If elected, I would work with local governmental officials to change zoning ordinances, and encourage growing vegetable gardens instead of lawns, along with permitting residential raising of chickens and goats,” Green explains.
Unlike Strain, who had more than $640,000 in his campaign war chest at the close of the last reporting period, Green had just shy of $11,000 available.
“Look, I know I can’t go toe-to-toe with Commissioner Strain, but I am hoping to raise enough to start the conversation,” Green says. “This office is often overlooked, and I want to give people something to think and talk about in this race. I hope to excite people about the possibilities.”