Georgia’s first new ag leader in 41 years revamps business plan

03/21/2011 01:49:39 PM
Jim Offner

For the first time in more than four decades, Georgia’s agriculture industry has a new government leader.

Gary Black took over as Georgia’s commissioner of sgriculture on Jan. 10, succeeding Tommy Irvin, who had occupied the office since he was first appointed to the job in 1969. Irvin retired after his term was completed in 2010, citing age and ill health as reasons.

Irvin was the longest-tenured state officeholder in the country.

More is changing than the name on the commissioner’s office door, said Black, 52, who, with his family operates raise cattle at Harmony Grove Farms in Commerce, Ga.

Black said his first order of business is to make the Atlanta State Farmers Market, Forest Park, Ga. — and the entire agriculture department — more efficient, particularly in a time of budget austerity.

“We’re busying getting the department into the 21st Century,” Black said. “People just in four weeks have already responded in a remarkable way.”

Black said he is not a micromanager. He has brought in a team of experts to run various aspects of the department and maintain a full-time presence on the terminal market in nearby Forest Park, Ga.

Billy Skaggs, for example, is the department’s new chief operating officer.

“From a marketing standpoint, Billy has been intimately involved with farmers markets for years,” he said. “On the ground, he has been working with producers in their own markets. That’s going to be a very positive plus.

Marketing is just one of the departments operational programs,” Black said.

Jack Spruill has been brought in as division director of marketing, a position formerly held by now-retired Bobby Harris, who was Irvin’s assistant commissioner.

The marketing program that Spruill will run includes the farmers market, international trade, commodity commissions, the George Grown program and the Vidalia onion program, Black said.

“He’s got a great background in international and domestic work. He’s got a lot of practical experience and management background that’s going to help us tremendously.”

The department also has hired Paul Thompson to manage the farmers market and serve as a full-time liaison, Black said.

Thompson has been the Haralson County extension coordinator. He replaces market manager Craig Nielson, who is moving back to the Consumer Protection Division of the department.

“He’s just a solid, hard-working managerial professional presence that we’ll bring to the market,” Black said of Thompson.

The division of responsibilities also makes sense, since experts will handle specific areas that fall within their own expertise, Black noted.


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