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Black has big shoes to fill as new ag leader
Commissioner-elect plans different management style, priorities
A trailer adorned with Gary Black campaign advertisements sits on the agriculture commissioner-elect’s 68-acre farm in Commerce. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

The Times Interview

View the full interview between reporter Carolyn Crist and Agriculture Commissioner-elect Gary Black or watch a short highlight video from the interview.

Gary Black is the state’s new face of agriculture for the first time in 40 years.

And he has a few new ideas for the commissioner position that oversees Georgia’s broad reach of agriculture: food safety, grocery scales, animal protection, pest control groups, seed and fertilizer products, motor fuel quality and agricultural inputs and outputs.

“I have tremendous respect for the past ... but this is not about the past, it’s about the future,” Black said during a recent interview on his beef cattle farm in Commerce. “What we’re seeing is the desire from employees to have a different viewpoint and to adopt a different management style.”

Though Black plans to use some of the practices employed by longtime Commissioner Tommy Irvin, he wants to update policies when it comes to technology and food safety.

“If you have to get a license from us in 2011, you ought to be able to get it online,” he said. “The way we communicate has changed.”

As Black takes on the new position, he’s facing two important overarching questions: What does the agriculture commissioner do and how does he carry out those priorities?

“I heard that on the campaign trail all the time. ‘I’m not a farmer, I don’t even know if I can vote for that,’” Black said with a smile. “Agriculture impacts every consumer, every home and every farm everyday.”

Raised on the Commerce farm he now owns, Black grew up in an agriculture education environment. He was the statewide FFA president in high school, worked with the Georgia Farm Bureau, took over Harmony Grove Farms when his parents were ill in 1993 and served the last 21 years as president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council.

“I’ve been actively engaged in agriculture my entire life ... and over the course of time I’ve felt like the state department needed a 21st century vision,” he said. “We’re dealing with a wide range of challenges at the federal and state level, and the call was there to step forward and serve.”

Black ran for the spot four years ago and worked on a grass-roots effort before running again and winning on Nov. 2. He has already named food safety as his top priority.

“People have to be confident in the marketplace that professionals are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and an amazing thing happens — they consume,” Black said with a laugh. “That means Georgia farmers have a market. When consumers lose that confidence, terrible things happen and we’ve seen that happen in Georgia.”

Upon taking office Jan. 10, Black will announce a 40-member strategic planning group that will evaluate every aspect of the state’s agriculture department and create goals for the next four years by July 1.

“The committee, with a wide range of stakeholders, will look at what the department does well and what we can improve on. There are some things we should stop doing or can no longer afford to be doing,” he said. “Then we will have a solid strategic plan for the department. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. That’s a motto I’ve lived by for a long time.”

Black, who had a campaign office in all of Georgia’s counties, won 125 of 159 counties on Election Day. With the idea of “safe food, strong farms and responsible government,” Black built up strong support across the state, including in Hall County.

“Gary has the knowledge and vision for what can be done with the department in the 21st century,” said Steven Thomas, manager of downtown Gainesville’s Market On the Square, who first met Black when he worked with the agricultural technology research program at Georgia Tech.

“The thing about agriculture in Georgia is that no matter what level you’re at, it’s one big family,” Thomas said. “Gary has always been extremely helpful and knows everybody.”

Thomas is looking forward to Black’s leadership, especially after his decision to employ Hall County Extension Coordinator Billy Skaggs as his chief operating officer.

“That shows leadership in that normally commissioners of agriculture want for everything to come from them, but Gary is so secure in what he’s doing that he can delegate some of that to other people,” he said. “Those of us in Hall County are sad to lose Billy in that capacity, but if I had to pick the best person for the job, it would be him.”

Black’s focus on local farmers’ markets and school nutrition are also a big plus, Thomas noted.

“There are a lot of opportunities for small and medium-sized farmers that aren’t being done in Georgia,” he said. “There are new and innovative things happening in other states, and Gary is very open to ideas.”

Black will also create a joint task force on school nutrition with State School Superintendent-elect John Barge to involve local businesses and fresh foods in school diets, Thomas added.

Thinking of the state’s tough budget concerns, Black is lining up his legislative priorities and keeps in touch with Gov.-elect Nathan Deal.

“This is going to be a team effort. There was a team victory on Nov. 2,” he said. “There’s somewhat of a cabinet approach to government and working together.”

Black plans to address water and irrigation issues, organic foods, locally-produced foods and growth in the agritourism industry, but all will fall after food safety concerns.

“Everything else is secondary. We have an emphasis on making sure Georgians are getting safe and wholesome food,” said Skaggs, who first met Black when he started working at the Hall County Extension Office in 1997. “But agriculture is a $65 billion industry in this state, so we’re not just looking at the food side.”

Skaggs is looking forward to Black’s leadership style, which he says avoids micromanaging.

“Gary is very much a visionary who wants to lay the cards out and let people know what his thoughts are. I think the agriculture industry is in good hands with him at the helm,” Skaggs said. “He’s been in this his entire life and is doing this for the right reason. I can promise you that.”