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.
“We’re going from a pretty central-controlled area to one where you empower managers to make decisions on the ground,” he said. “That’s a model that works very well in private business, and I believe it can in government circles, as well.”
Upgrades on the terminal market will be scheduled as regularly as budget constraints allow, Black said.
“We’ve been fortunate for a number of years we’ve been told we can have a regular maintenance schedule,” he said. “We believe it’s the management style to bring relationships along. That’s where we’re going to have our gains this year, in efficiencies.”
Black said he does not want his department to be an obstacle to vendors on the market.
“We want to make sure our customers can still operate well. We’re not here to balance the budget on the backs of the customers,” he said. “That’s not the way to do it.”
Efficiency is central to Black’s mission as commissioner, he said.
“One thing we’re looking at, departmentwide, we have a wide range of inspectors and this has a little application in produce,” he said. “My view is one inspector from the department should be cross-trained to do it all and leave the business owner alone. That’s not the case now.”
Enforcement will stay the same, but it will be less cumbersome, he said.
“Our regulatory responsibilities don’t change,” Black said.
The department’s 43-member steering committee met for the first time under Black’s administration Feb. 28. The committee’s role is to seep into every nook of responsibility the department has and look for better ways to see those duties through, Black said.
“That’s where I respect those who will help us set those priorities that are essential, and we’ll set our resources on those needs,” he said.
The department operates on a budget of about $40 million, but that also has been adjusted to reflect a decline in revenues.
“It’s a different formula of give and take,” Black said. “We’re not going to be totally made whole by that process, but we’ll get pretty close.”
Black has a background in beef production, but he’s no stranger to produce, which is due in part to his 21 years as president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, he said.
“I worked with growers for years and have a pretty extensive policy background on a lot of issues,” he said.
Black says he is drawn to market initiatives, but he said he wants to be smart about it. That includes targeting specific markets for Georgia-grown produce, particularly Vidalia onions.
“We want to be laser-like there,” he said.
The Atlanta Farmers Market is a key tool that can grow, Black said.
“I still think it’s an asset we’ll have to polish up,” he said. “There are a lot of people who rely on it. There’s tremendous business there, and it’s been there for years and years and years. We need to be there in everything we do. Location is an asset in these times, and we’ve got to take this hard asset and make it the best it can be.”
Vendors said they look forward to the new era on the market.
Mike Jardina, president of J.J. Jardina Co. Inc., said he likes what he has seen in Black’s first weeks on the job.
“I’ve had some conversations with Gary, and we’re on the right track to at least clean up the market, and we’re going to have some discussions down the road as to how we’re going to move forward,” he said.
“We’re sort of in a transition period now, and there are not a lot of details. But we’re going to put some groups together to have discussions over the next couple of months. It’s a little early to know what Gary has up his sleeve.”