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Candidates square off in race for Texas Commissioner of Agriculture seat; March primary is crucial

Three Republican candidates have declared their intention to seek the office of Texas Commissioner of Agriculture in the November 2014 elections to replace the departing current officeholder, Todd Staples. No Democrat had officially entered the race as of Sept. 10 — and it likely will not matter if one does. In an overwhelmingly red state, the real battle for the commissioner’s seat will almost certainly come down to the March primary.

The Produce News conducted interviews by phone and e-mail with the three declared candidates: Uvalde, TX mayor, farmer and veteran of multiple state and national industry organizations J Allen Carnes; attorney and current state Rep. Brandon Creighton; and attorney, rancher and former state GOP Executive Director Eric Opiela.

Each candidate was presented with the same questions. Their replies are presented here:

THE PRODUCE NEWS — What are the top immediate priorities for agriculture in Texas?

CARNES — The immediate priority for Texas is keeping an atmosphere that Texas has always had: We’re one of the only places in the world that can say we can sustain ourselves. As we’re seeing the population of Texas double and strain some of our natural resources — and some overreaches in areas by regulation of the federal government — we’ve got to make sure we keep the same mantra we always have. We’re lucky enough we’ve never been dependent on foreign food; we know what it’s like to be dependent on oil. Texas has the ability to produce for itself. There are a host of issues you have to work on to make sure that remains the case. Primarily it’s the water issue, first and foremost. Agriculture needs a significant spot at the table and somebody up in front leading this issue and talking about agriculture and what it does for the State of Texas. It doesn’t matter if a person lives in downtown Houston or Uvalde, agriculture has a significant role in their lives and somebody needs to be bridging that gap. If we strictly look at it as a number of votes issue in the legislature, we’re behind the eight-ball. But this is an issue that crosses all across Texas and the role the agriculture commissioner has to play is to get people to understand.

CREIGHTON I will promote Texas agriculture products that are profitable for producers and safe for consumers, including both raw and processed commodities. Once these Texas products arrive on the market, I will advocate for them — as well as the entire Texas agriculture industry — through the GO TEXAN campaign. To maintain Texas’ position as a global leader in agriculture, I will work with state leadership to ensure that rural communities have access to economic development opportunities that are made available to larger municipalities. I will promote grant-funded programs designed to support agricultural research that develop new technologies and practices. These innovations will strengthen Texas’ more than $100 billion agriculture sector, which encompasses nearly 10 percent of our state’s economy and is responsible for one out of every seven Texas jobs. I will also protect decades of hard work by multiple generations of Texans by administrating programs to defend agricultural crops from harmful diseases and pests. I support the Feral Hog Damage Abatement Program, as I’ve personally felt the destruction feral hogs can cause to someone’s land. I have also been known to practice hog control on my ranch. My daughter loves to come hunting with me, so I hope I’m passing that along to the next generation.

OPIELA — Ensuring an adequate water supply for agriculture and rural residents as urban Texas continues to grow at a record pace is the number one issue facing agriculture in Texas. Rural water systems that provide drinking water for domestic and livestock uses are in state of emergency — two communities are currently trucking water for their residents and dozens more have less than 180 days of water remaining. Our groundwater resources are stretched to the limit. Our surface water resources are under attack from the federal government. Private property rights are not only being threatened by the Obama administration, they are also at risk every legislative session. Rural highways are being left out of state transportation planning priorities, and the poor condition of rural roads is not only an impediment to getting agricultural goods to market, but also a safety hazard for our residents, first responders and children who travel long distances every day on the way to school.

TPN — What are the top three long-term priorities for agriculture in Texas?

CARNES — Texas is going to double in population by 2060. Doing that, there are a lot of challenges, but there are also a lot of opportunities and the demand for some of the products and services that rural Texas is growing is going to double. As demand for goods and services coming out of rural Texas increases, Texas becomes a market in itself. I tell my kids, there are a lot of challenges in this business, but as we overcome them, this is great business to be in because people have to eat. Texas leads everyone in agriculture production when you roll it all together. Texas is a great place to be and we have to make sure we have the continued atmosphere and business atmosphere that and what has made Texas, Texas. They easily can see the connections when you tell a person we’re dependent on foreign oil — drill, baby drill — we’ve heard that play out over the last few years when it became so evident that the U.S. was getting to a place where it might be dependent on oil and the resulting turmoil that goes on around the world from that. When you make that play on food, some people don’t get it. Hold the horse a little bit. Back up. Wait until you see us dependent on food; when we can’t feed, clothe and provide for ourselves then you’ll see extreme problems. We’ve got to make some real serious choices in the state — is it more important to have a green lush yard in the dead of summer when our water resources are extremely short? Or is it more important to have a four-dollar gallon milk versus an eight-dollar gallon of milk that’s been imported? In the U.S. we spend less of our disposable income on food than anywhere else in the world per capita and that’s because we do so much of it here.

CREIGHTON (Did not answer specifically)

OPIELA — We are in a water emergency right now with regard to rural water systems, surface water resources and groundwater levels, but more importantly with the growth this state is facing over the next decade we need a long term, sustained effort to develop new water resources in a manner that protects agricultural use and rural residents who will provide the bulk of new water resources to urban Texas.  This is not just a question of funding; this is more importantly a question of policy.

Rural Texas and Texas agriculture in particular is facing a long term workforce crisis. As many farmers and ranchers are aging out of full time work, we lack a generation of young farmers and ranchers who have the desire and capacity to replace them and continue family farming and ranching operations. Some of the most overlooked, but vitally important, long term efforts of the Texas Deparment of Agriculture (TDA) involve the development of new domestic and international markets for our agricultural products. Government's role is not to supplant private efforts on behalf of producers to market their goods but provide support to producers as they develop new markets with Mexico and other trading partners.

TPN — Water — or lack of it — is clearly on everyone’s minds. Yet the 50-year projected water plan for the state of Texas allows no new water resources for agriculture.

CARNES — Cities are where most of our growth is going to happen in the state. There was an initial stab this legislative session to try to put 10 percent of that money in the rural areas and agriculture could figure into that. The real challenge is getting producers involved. The question comes back to how do we get agriculture involved in the next 50 years? One of the ideal situations is public-private partnerships. Here’s a hypothetical situation. We’ve got a problem down in New Rochelle with the fracking process for natural gas. This is not a short-term deal, they’re going to wind up having to refrack these wells and it’s a long process and uses a lot water. You’ve got an industry with a lot of margin but a water issue. Meanwhile, you’ve got municipalities like Uvalde looking for additional sources of water. You’ve got some producers around here who are short on water. By themselves, doing something like a brackish water desalinization plant doesn’t make sense. But when you start adding in all the pieces maybe something like that does work. There is no new water out there, but there are some alternative sources for agriculture and the municipalities. It goes back to trying to bridge the gap between urban and rural and why it’s in our best interest to sustain our economic growth as a state.

CREIGHTON — A long-term sustainable water supply is fundamental to protecting our economy.  Our economy is led and driven by agriculture and the food and fiber being produced as products for Texas and the world. I know the needs of our state in this area, as I’ve been a member of a local groundwater district and I served on the Texas House Natural Resources Committee for six years. In the last few months, we’ve made significant strides in providing long-term sustainable water planning for Texas.  I believe the newly created Water Development Board must pay special attention to the needs of agriculture and must constantly guard against becoming too influenced by urban or industrial water users. As your next agriculture commissioner, I will be a relentless advocate for the short- and long-term water needs of our agriculture sector and rural Texas. To do that, I will make sure that agriculture has more than just a seat at the table.  I want to see that we are well represented, and can negotiate with leverage as we develop effective plans to solve problems for municipal users, industrial users, and all others who also support the economy. While municipal and industrial users have valid concerns, I will make the argument that as our state’s second-largest industry in economic output, protecting agriculture needs must be among our state’s highest priorities.

OPIELA — The absence of agriculture from our state's water plan is emblematic of the lack of rural representation not only in the Texas legislature but on the Texas Water Development Board and the public planning process in general. As the only statewide elected official whose mission is to protect and preserve agriculture and rural Texas, our Texas agriculture commissioner must be focused on ensuring rural Texans have their voice heard as our state works to develop water policy. New water resources for this state will largely come from rural Texas and it is fair and appropriate that rural Texas and agriculture be adequately provided for as we expend immense public resources for their development.  

TPN — What can Texas do to make the most of its domestic opportunities and maximize opportunity for Texans based on its relationship with Mexico?

CARNES — Domestically, one thing that is a strong calling card with me and something I would try to push as much as I could and as quickly as I could in my time in office is marketing. Going back to the independent producer, the industry as a whole we need to do a better job of selling ourselves. The Texas 1015 sweet onion is a perfect example. We grow the same onion they grow in Vidalia, GA — in fact it was bred at Texas A&M. But go up the road to Kansas City and they’re not talking about 1015s, they’re talking about Vidalias. We can do a lot at the state level and there are a lot of things we can do in our own industries, these public-private partnerships, to expand our footprint a little bit. In Texas, there’s a lot of hay to be made spending a little time on marketing. We’ve got a great program with GO TEXAN but some things need to be done outside of the state also. For your domestic product it all comes down to selling ourselves. We have a great opportunity to produce — we have to sell ourselves a little bit.

With Mexico, the opening of the Baluarte Bridge and Federal Highway 40 is going to open up a whole new set of opportunities. People ask me if it’s more competition. I think the competition with Mexico is already there and that’s not going to help or hinder or anything. What it is going to do is turn Texas into a one-stop shop, which California has been for a long time. It’s going to allow Mexico to flow product through Texas that Texas doesn’t produce. The economic possibilities of it are mindboggling.

CREIGHTON — Mexico is the number one trade partner for Texas, and I believe in maintaining this relationship by promoting Mexico not only as trading partner, but as a friend. Over the past five years, I have participated in several trade missions to Mexico City to promote Texas and to promote our industries and our stakeholders.  The knowledge and experience I gained on these trade missions was invaluable as I helped establish and then served on the first international trade committee for the Texas legislature. I believe there are additional opportunities for exporting Texas agriculture commodities to new international markets, and I will work with state and federal agencies to facilitate additional exports that will support Texas growers, producers and our state economy.

OPIELA — Texas can make the most of domestic agricultural opportunities by telling the story of Texas Agriculture and the persons who work hard every day to provide a safe, abundant food and fiber supply for all Americans. TDA already has effective programs such as GO TEXAN which market our agricultural products to domestic consumers, but these programs can do much more by joining hands with the Farm Bureau and commodity specific trade associations to create a "We're Texas" campaign across all Texas agricultural commodities that emphasizes the people behind the products consumers purchase at the store and build a relationship between urban residents and producers.

Since the passage of NAFTA, Texas has faced challenges related to the large quantities of Mexican produce and fruits flooding Texas markets. TDA must work daily to re-balance agricultural trade with Mexico.

TPN — Given that relationship with Mexico, the immigration issue is different in Texas than elsewhere. What are your views on immigrants and how should the situation be handled at the state and federal levels?

CARNES — We plowed up a 40-acre block of cabbage one year because we didn’t have the workers to harvest and it was time to shift to onions. We’ve got to make sure we have that workforce. Having a sustainable legal work force will solve a lot of the issues we see at our borders. The longer we go without some viable ways to, say, harvest a squash crop, the more likely it is that farmer may not grow that squash crop next year. That can translate into Mexican product really quickly and once we lose that market-share it’s going to be really hard to get it back. The longer we go in an illegal manner that’s got employers scared and trying to find a legal workforce and employees out there trying to cut corners and get in the shadows, we’re creating a negative atmosphere for Texas agriculture.

CREIGHTON — I do support legal immigration and I am in favor of enforcing the current laws, including the H-2A visas that are available for temporary agriculture workers. After our border is secure, it would then be appropriate to have a conversation regarding the proper number of legal worker permits that should be made available to provide for an adequate labor pool.  

OPIELA — United States immigration policy cannot be described as anything but an abject failure, and ironically encourages more illegal immigration while negatively impacting our border security.  Misallocation of resources on the federal level, and an unworkable agricultural visa system has turned President Reagan's immigration reforms on its head over the last three decades. Rather than have a legal, seasonal and temporary workforce, the federal government has encouraged illegal immigrants to come and stay in the United States rather than returning to their own country after their work is done.  Even worse, it has so mismanaged border security in a fashion that encourages illegal migration of women and children to this country as well, creating strains on social services and schools. Unfortunately, Democrats in Washington have been fixated on granting amnesty, and ultimately citizenship, for those who have broken our laws. Immigrants already in the United States who seek to remain here as noncitizen residents must come forward, register, submit to a criminal background check, pay a considerable and just penalty for their prior violation of our laws, voluntarily waive the right to apply for and receive financial assistance from public entitlement programs while residing in the United States, and secure legal employment.  

TPN — The threat of border violence has been a major issue during Commissioner Staples’ tenure. What are your thoughts on that situation?

CARNES — He’s taken an agriculture issue and said, “Hey, this is how we can be part of the solution.” Coming up with viable means that help agriculture can help the border, that’s entirely correct, every bit of that’s correct, nothing can be argued where it doesn’t help the border. Unfortunately you’ve got agriculture producers that are on both sides of this argument — they’re needing a viable work program to harvest the crops in Texas, and they’re the same guys that are dealing with “bail-outs” where they have drug or human traffickers cut through their fences and run through their fields and scare their employees. They’re the guys dealing with both sides of it. If you look at some of organizations, they’re talking about security and guest workers all in the same breath. They’re two separate issues, but they’ve been married because of the atmosphere and climate right now. You’re going to have to have the guest worker aspect to resolve the security aspect in the way we want it resolved.

CREIGHTON — The border that Texas shares with Mexico is not secure, and while securing the border is a federal responsibility, the failure to do so continues to result in problems for Texas.  Landowners in South Texas everyday experience the dangers that come with an unsecured border.  The status quo is unacceptable.  As Washington continues to debate immigration reform, I remain opposed to any legislation that would reward bad behavior and grant amnesty to those who have broken our laws by entering our country illegally.  

OPIELA — South and West Texas residents should not have to live in fear simply because of where they live and operate their farms and ranches.  Commissioner Staples has not only focused the state's attention on our state's border security problem but also has taken proactive steps…to equip law enforcement and landowners with cost-efficient surveillance equipment that acts as a force multiplier for local law enforcement fighting border violence. The federal government's mismanagement of border enforcement has driven cartel-based human and narcotics smuggling into the farms and ranches not only along the border, but significantly inland as well.  

TPN — We know about the challenges. What are the opportunities for Texas agriculture in the next five-to-50 years?

CARNES — First and foremost I see myself as an agriculture commissioner that’s out in front of these issues, that’s being an advocate; not just reacting to some problems that agriculture has, but being an advocate for agriculture whether it’s in Austin or DC, doing the same things I’ve always done from a volunteer standpoint in state organizations. I want to lead the charge for Texas. It takes us from being an agency to a fighter. I see an organization that’s trying to lead the charge as far as marketing goes but also water issue at home and issues in DC like the Farm Bill, farm policy in general, I see that office taking that role. In five years and 10 years I see it creating an atmosphere to try to help producers to want to be in this game, stay in this game, want their kids to be in this game and continuing to meet the demands of the growing population. The average age of a Texas farmer is 59 and the largest segment is 70 plus. We’ve got to make 15-17-18 year old kids think agriculture has some real possibilities in it: “I don’t have to be a doctor or lawyer, I can grow something and do some big things in that atmosphere. It’s also a great place to raise my family.” We’ve got to create that atmosphere and to do that you’ve got to have an agency that’s fighting the big fights, that’s right in the middle of it all, as opposed to somebody in there worried about making the right choice so the next race is open for them.

CREIGHTON (Did not answer specifically)

OPIELA — In the next five years, the biggest opportunity for Texas agriculture will be taking advantage of new free trade agreements with Panama, Columbia and South Korea. In the next 10 years, energy prices will continue to be a major factor in agricultural productivity and economic viability — yet not the way most people think. While a few years ago, people were talking about peak oil and perpetually rising prices, the dramatic expansion of shale oil in Texas, North Dakota and other parts of America holds the possibility of stabilizing oil prices, reducing American dependency on foreign oil and insulating American farmers and ranchers - not to mention consumers - from large price fluctuations caused by instability abroad.  In the next 20 years, agriculture will benefit from new technologies. While we can only guess what…technologies will come about in that time, we do know one thing: they will save labor costs and increase yields. And that means more money in the pockets of Texas farmers and ranchers.

TPN — The Commissioner of Agriculture seat in Texas has been used by many as a springboard to higher office. Do you have political aspirations beyond Ag Commissioner?

CARNES — I’m in this game for the job. I want the job. I don’t want a step on the ladder. I’m not looking at the future at all right now. I have a career, my career’s in agriculture. If there’s something else beyond this, we’ll talk about that then. But I don’t even want to begin to talk or think about any of that right now.

CREIGHTON — (Did not answer specifically)

OPIELA — I'm not a professional politician. I'm a fifth-generation Texas rancher who wants his son and daughter to keep it going into the sixth generation and beyond. There is no other job in Texas politics that I want. This takes someone who will put his nose to the grindstone, not keep one eye on the political horizon.

TPN — Are there any other topics you’d like to introduce that have not been covered here?

CARNES — Our campaign all comes down to sustaining what we have and to do that one of the biggest aspects is going to be tying that person in Houston to that person in rural Texas or making that person in Dallas or San Antonio understand why they need to pay attention to what’s going on in the agriculture commissioner race, why it’s important to them and not just to the farmer. That’s going to help solve the issues like water and natural resources we have in the state. The others are going to be working with some of our elected officials on the federal side and some of the regulatory aspects we have to face and making sure they don’t put us in a situation that we don’t want to be in.

CREIGHTON (Did not answer specifically)

OPIELA — What sets me apart from the other candidates in this race is my blending of experience in agriculture and public policy. I'm a fifth generation Texan, rancher, and attorney. I grew up on a working family ranch of over 2,000 acres, and know the joys, the pains, the pride and the heartache of a life in agriculture. As an attorney, I've used my expertise to fight to defend property rights of landowners and defend the State of Texas from overzealous federal bureaucrats. A few unelected officials in Washington D.C. have the power to do more damage to Texas agriculture than all the droughts, parasites and boll weevils combined.

TPN — Why should you be the next Commissioner of Agriculture for the great State of Texas?

CARNES — If some leader in Delaware or Connecticut talks about this or that, people really don’t pay attention. But if somebody in Texas stands up, people across this country realize and recognize just because Texans are in the middle of a lot of this and have a lot at stake. We’ve got to have leaders out there who not only solve issues that are going on in Texas, but can also shape a lot of what’s going on across the country. That’s not to say the rest of the country is going to follow Texas, but they’re going to pay attention to Texas and it will start a dialogue in other places. We need a voice out there that not only knows where we come from and has had real experience with this, we need a voice that knows where we can go and understands the possibilities and knows what needs to be done to get there. I come from a place that gives me a perfect opportunity to do this right now. I can be a vocal leader for agriculture who understands what the producer’s going through because in one form or fashion I’ve been through it. I’ve got a level of understanding that really lends itself to this job.

CREIGHTON — If I have the honor of serving as the next Texas agriculture commissioner, I will bring a distinct combination of proven legislative advocacy and family heritage to this office. I am a rancher, a businessman, an attorney and a proven conservative who will continue to defend our state’s sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment as I have done for many years.  I will also fight against government overreach, whether it is from an EPA determined to overregulate Texas businesses and destroy jobs, or eminent domain abuses that trample the private property rights of Texas landowners.

I am an eighth-generation Texan with a lifetime of agriculture experience. I come from a long line of Texas ranchers, businessmen and public servants.  Dating back to the 1800s, eight generations of my family have called Montgomery County home. Prior to Texas statehood, my family farmed cotton and tobacco along the San Jacinto River. Members of my family have served the community in several roles including Texas Ranger, sheriff, judge and legislator. Eighty years ago, in the 1940s, my family began to transition to cattle and forestry operations, which have continued to this day.

Growing up, my brothers and I worked our father’s ranch operations in two different states.  Our family owned and operated a ranch outside of Las Cruces, NM, and a ranch in Montgomery County that is still owned by family members today.  As a life-long stakeholder in the industry, I developed a passion for Texas agriculture, as well as the understanding and knowledge of Texas’ position in the global market and the risks faced by operators in our state.  My wife and I own and operate a ranch in Madison County.

I have been dedicated to public service my entire adult life. I was a policy advisor in the Texas State Senate. I’ve worked for both the Texas attorney general and the Oklahoma attorney general. In 2006, I was elected to represent Montgomery County in the Texas House of Representatives. Since 2009, I have represented Texas as a member of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Energy, Transportation and Agriculture Committee. Recently, I served as the House Republican Caucus Chairman during the 83rd session of the Texas legislature.

I fought for traditional Texas values since joining the Texas House.  I received national acclaim for defending Texas’ sovereignty and for passing landmark tort reform legislation. I have been a constant champion for Second Amendment rights and for protecting the sanctity of human life. I have also focused on keeping Texas the top job-creating state by securing a stable, long-term water supply and providing an educated workforce.

OPIELA — I am the only candidate who knows agriculture and knows how to fight the federal bureaucrats who threaten it. While the professional politicians may talk about states’ rights, they don't know much about agriculture's needs. I know those needs, because my family has been living and breathing agriculture for five generations. While professional politicians see property rights in terms of suburban easements, I see them in terms of a sacred tie to the land - family farms going back generations. Texas agriculture is worth fighting for and it needs a fighter who puts agriculture first and politics second.