Bucking the Odds CONVENTIONAL WISDOMthat flinty old cynicdoesn’t give Marvin Gregory much of a chance to unseat Rick Perry as Texas Agriculture Commissioner. But don’t tell Gregory, a 55-year-old Sulphur Springs dairyman. He hopes his oldfashioned, one-on-one politicking on the courthouse squares of small-town Texas will complement a statewide Democratic effort to get out the vote this fall and return progressive agricultural policies and consumer protections to the Texas Department of Agriculture. While Perry, the 44-year-old Democratturned Republican, and the big agribusinesses that call his shots are favored to maintain control of the TDA, which employs more than 500 people around the state, Gregory is a Republican-turned-Democrat who is making the rounds of small to mid-sized communities such as Abilene, Lubbock, Amarillo, Denton and Tyler where the farm report is still a local news staple. “By the time this campaign is over I will have been, probably, in every county in the state of Texas,” Gregory said in a recent interview. “We’ve probably been in 75 or 80 percent of them already and we’re doing the grassroots work that I think that as Democrats we need to be doing.” Gregory knows that top-of-the-ticket Democrats such as Gov. Ann Richards and U.S. Senate candidate Richard Fisher are going to get out the votes, but he believes it doesn’t hurt to work the farmers and local Democratic officeholders in what remains of rural Texas. Although Gregory is little-known and underfunded, Democrats deny that they have given up on winning back the TDA. They point out that Perry was a little-known Democratic state representative from Haskell when he was recruited to switch parties and ran against then-Commissioner Jim Hightower in 1990. But the monied agribusiness interests were upset with Hightower, who undertook to regulate pesticides and promote small farmers’ and consumers’ interests, so Perry had access to funds that enabled him to air TV ads, in four of the state’s major media markets, that connected Hightower with images of flag burners, Jesse Jackson and an election-year federal investigation of the TDA. Hightower’s lead evaporated in the last three weeks before the election. In the past year Perry and his campaign committee had raised $334,566 through July 15 and spent $152,043, while Gregory had raised $21,604 and spent $44,475, most of it from his own pocket. The owner and operator of a 900-acre dairy and beef farm, Gregory was Hopkins County Republican Chairman from 1985 to 1991, when he switched to the Democratic Party in disgust with Republican treatment of small farmers. In one case, he said, he was taken aback when he told a Republican senator’s aide that if dairy price supports were not increased, 30,000 dairy farmers would go out of business. The aide replied, “So?” “That was the attitude that I found in the Republicans. All I heard was ‘big business will take care of you,’ and ‘what difference does it make … as long as you have a place to sell [your mina?’ We tried to tell them that the more competition you’ve got the better off we are as fanners but they don’t see it that way, so I came back a Democrat.” He joined populist groups such as the Texas Farmers Union, where he won a place on its executive board, and the American Agriculture Movement. \(He also remains a member of the agribusiness-oriented Farm commissioner in January 1993 after he asked Perry for help with Section 22 of the federal farm bill on behalf of Texas dairy operators and found Perry was unfamiliar with the section, which includes the five basic supply management provisions that are designed to stabilize agricultural productions in the face of imports. They are to be phased out under the North American Free Trade “We asked Rick Perry to help us get some stabilizing programs put in before the GATT got in place, but his deal is free trade, `get big or get out,’ Gregory said. “Now Elsie the cow is dead because Borden is fixing to go out of business right now and as far as we’re concerned Perry killed Elsie the cow because he never would help them.” While Perry recently bragged about the opening of a knitting mill in Uvalde, representing 35 jobs, Gregory noted that the loss of price supports for wool and mohair threatens producers, as it already has for peanut and milk producers. Corn growers also are complaining that they cannot break even at the current market price of $2 a cotton growers getting 51 cents a bale are about two-thirds of their break-even price. “We’ve got real problems with GATT because we’re losing money today and we’re going to have to sell it cheaper on the world market,” Gregory said. The next step is the 1995 farm bill, which is expected to be a critical measure for survival of the 185,000 food and fiber produc ers who remain in Texasa large percentage of whom have off-farm jobs to pay their bills. Perry recently named a 13-member task force, heavily weighted toward major agribusiness interests, to advise him on how he should approach the farm bill. The task force contains no identifiable advocates of sustainable farming, which involves responsible production of food and fiber and emphasizes natural methods and processing. Gov. Richards also has a potential role as a spokeswoman for small farmers and consumers, although she has supported NAFTA and other efforts to open markets and increase trade with Mexico, which farmers and ranchers view with concern. “We’re going to be as active as we possibly can,” said Keith Jones, the governor’s adviser on agricultural issues and a former director of organic certification under Hightower. Gregory said sustainable agriculture may be the best hope for survival for small farmers in the face of competition from overseas and corporate dairies and feedlots. He said turning away from costly chemicals has helped him keep his dairy and cattle business going. “Since the dairy industry has collapsed, the only way I’ve been able to campaign the last two years was to go back to doing things like I did in the ’60s, letting clover go back to seed and put nitrogen back in the ground rather than buy fertilizer,” he said. He also sees hope in continuing Hightower’s efforts to find alternative markets for “truck” farmers, such as farmers’ markets, which Perry has virtually abandoned. “There’s still a good place for small farmers to sell truck crops that sell year-round and those small processing plants that cater to the big cities,” Gregory said, but Perry seems more interested in helping the big operators that can fend for themselves. One former Hightower aide who has tried in vain to interest Perry’s staff in alternative agriculture commented, “They have a very antiquated view of agriculture that begins with beef and ends with cotton. They’re very resistant to innovationeven when it’s pushed by consumer demand and even when it would help producers.” Gregory also proposed that the TDA sponsor projects to take vacant land inside cities and work with children to set up gardens and give city dwellers a connection with food production. Consumers also are being neglected by Perry’s TDA, Gregory said. He cited a milk recall in May, when dangerous traces of antibiotics were found in milk produced in 4 SEPTEMBER 30, 1994
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