Agriculture commissioner candidates agree on the need for locally produced food, differ on best approach

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Both candidates for Agriculture and Commerce commissioner say the department affects all Mississippians.

In their bids to head the Department of Agriculture and Commerce this November, incumbent Andy Gipson and his Democratic challenger Rickey Cole agree on the importance of local food. 

It’s their approaches to bridging Mississippi producers and consumers that diverge.

Gipson, the Republican nominee who has led the agency since April 2018, frequently touts the new “Genuine MS” branding program that helps consumers more readily identify Mississippi-made products. Likewise, Gipson has changed certain agency regulations to help remove barriers for farmers trying to get their products to market, he said.

(From left) Andy Gipson , Rickey Cole

“Fact is, more and more people of all backgrounds want to buy fresh, local food, wherever they can get it,” Gipson told Mississippi Today in an interview, citing the growth of farmers’ markets in the state in the last decade, from 10 to over 100. “We are responding to that.”

Cole, a former chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, has floated a different solution: removing the 7 percent grocery tax on foods produced in Mississippi.  

“That 7 cents doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s the difference between profit and loss for producers and retailers in the business,” Cole said in an interview. “It’s also that many more cents per dollar that the consumer can spend on food rather than pay in state taxes.”

Cole said such a change largely wouldn’t impact the state budget, but would be an important seed money investment in job creation. For every $1 million Mississippians spend on food from in-state producers, 13 jobs are created, drawing on statistics by the Mississippi Food Policy Council, Cole said. By those calculations, keeping just $1 billion of the $6 billion Mississippians spend on out-of-state food each year in the state would yield 13,000 jobs, he added.

Though Gipson, a trained lawyer and former state representative from Braxton, argued that such a policy would be unconstitutional, Cole noted that in a program under Gipson’s watch – the state farmers’ market in downtown Jackson – consumers already do not have to pay sales tax on goods purchased.

Both candidates acknowledge that the scope of the Department of Agriculture and Commerce impacts all Mississippians. The agency promotes and regulates agriculture in Mississippi, the state’s largest industry at $7.72 billion. In practice, agency responsibilities range from checking gas pumps and grocery scales to tracking down cattle rustlers and tractor thieves.

Gipson was appointed to the office in 2018 by Gov. Phil Bryant, following the appointment of former commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith to the U.S. Senate. Previously, he chaired the House Judiciary B and Ethics committees in the state House of Representatives. He has owned and managed a cattle operation and a tree farm; Gipson currently lives on a working farm in Simpson County with his family.

During his tenure as agriculture commissioner, Gipson has also focused on advancing Mississippi’s role in international trade. Though Gipson acknowledged the difficulty President Donald Trump’s tariffs have posed on Mississippi farmers, he said he believed “it’s going to result in a win-win ultimately.” In the meantime, Gipson has explored new markets, he said, describing a recent shipment of Mississippi chicken to India and a two-year soybean and corn deal secured with Taiwan.

Cole, who chaired the state Democratic Party from 2001 to 2004, currently farms 160 acres of family land in Jones County, mostly raising cattle. Cole has recently returned to school, completing an agricultural economics program at Jones County Community College.

In nine months’ worth of campaigning, Cole said the biggest concern he has heard from voters is that the cost of eating healthy is too high for most Mississippians, an issue directly related to Mississippi’s food deserts. 

One way to alleviate the problem is to make administrative changes to cut down on the number middlemen between producers and consumers, he said.

“I want more money for the producer and I want better prices for the consumer,” Cole said.

As Cole campaigns, he often modifies the title “Department of Agriculture and Commerce” into the “Department of Food.” Cole’s focus is less on the enforcement and entertainment aspects of the job, he said; a focus on providing better access to local food products can encourage farming entrepreneurship, eliminate food deserts, create jobs and combat diet-related illnesses.

On his part, Gipson said his inspectors have already begun to enforce a new state law banning companies that produce non-meat foods from labeling those products with meat-related wording. Plaintiffs of a lawsuit challenging the law have told him they will withdraw their complaint, Gipson said.

Both candidates agree that agricultural education should begin earlier in classrooms. Cole suggested giving elementary schoolers seed packets, and expanding the agriculture programs at local community colleges.

“We need some good community college programs geared toward agribusiness and practical training so that current and future producers can learn the business side of what they want to do as a career,” Cole said. “I know that farming and growing things can be lucrative if we do it right.”

Gipson said bolstering the state’s agricultural workforce is also a priority of his. There are 15,000 unfilled agriculture jobs in state, Gipson said, referencing a report he commissioned from Mississippi State University research center NSPARC. He aims to work with community colleges and the State Workforce Investment Board to develop certification programs for specific agriculture jobs. 

Such programs can help keep young people in the state, Gipson said.

Gipson, the Republican in the race, has raised $122,876 so far this year, per the latest campaign finance report filed with the Secretary of State’s office at the end of October. He has spent $65,462.

Cole, the Democratic nominee, has raised $84,539 and spent $27,127.

For information on all candidates running for statewide office, view our #MSElex Voter Guide.