Decades of growth: Georgia agriculture commissioner ends long run

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

Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin 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.  File/Associated Press
File/Associated Press
Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin 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.

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He's a walking 6-foot-5 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 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 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, Ga. Inspectors for Irvin's department found only minor violations there, but a federal team identified roaches, mold, a leaking roof and other problems.

Waterloo peanut farmer Don Register, 71, questioned whether Irvin should have stayed in the job. He faults Irvin's department for not preventing the salmonella outbreak, a scare Register said brought peanuts down from $550 per ton to around $425.

"The demand, it just fell flat," he 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, taking about 40 percent of the vote. He 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, though Democratic leaders expect he will be offering financial support to the party.

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 Maddox, a politician infamous for closing his Atlanta restaurant rather than serve black customers. Maddox was elected governor, and Irvin became his executive assistant. "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."

Irvin'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.

"I think I have a lot of opportunities to be helpful," Irvin said. "At what level, I don't know."


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