Down on the Farm
The only life-long farmer in the GOP race for Texas agriculture commissioner struggles to be heard over an ideological foodfight.
People once took the post of Texas agricultural commissioner seriously. The ag commissioner is, after all, effectively the state’s chief advocate for the rural economy and rural communities. Many of the first men to take the job held it for a decade or more. One, John C. White, served for more than a quarter century before taking a similar role with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But read up on the Republican primary these days—which will almost certainly decide the race since the Democrats’ main prospect is Kinky Friedman, running on a pro-pot platform—and you won’t hear much about the farmer’s plight.
Former state Rep. Sid Miller, with Ted Nugent as his campaign treasurer, has taken the lead in the endorsement race with nods from Texas Right to Life—he wrote the state’s mandatory pre-abortion sonogram law—and Michael Q. Sullivan’s conservative purity PAC, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. Neither group bothered to mention agriculture policy in their endorsement announcements. Miller’s opponents: a Republican Party apparatchik named Eric Opiela, hoping to win his first elected office, and Tommy Merritt, a forcibly retired state rep whose main claim to fame is putting “under God” in the Texas Pledge of Allegiance. Miller and Merritt are currently engaged in a running tit for tat over whether Miller abuses horses.
Finally there’s J. Allen Carnes, the only candidate in the race with a career in agriculture. Carnes, a third-generation farmer, has put in years of volunteer work in agricultural professional associations—as president of the Texas Vegetable Association and as a board member of the Texas Produce Association. Since 2012, he’s been the mayor of Uvalde, a town some 80 miles west of San Antonio and a hub for regional agriculture, serving during Uvalde County’s worst drought in more than half a century.
The drought, Carnes says, has shown that Texas agriculture needs an advocate for rural interests in state office. He thinks he’s the man to do it. But his refusal to engage in the kind of tea-party populism that dominates Republican primaries make it unlikely he can beat his more ideological opponents.
“This is a serious race for a serious job that’ll have a great influence on what Texas looks like in the future,” he says. “As a candidate for ag commissioner, that’s what you need to be focused on: not on some of these other issues that may or may not entice the pro-life people, may or may not entice Empower Texans. All that’s for the lieutenant governor candidates to talk about. I’m not saying that I don’t have strong opinions on those issues, but that doesn’t come in for this office.”
Carnes, whose grandfather started tilling the area’s soil in 1950, is the president of Winter Garden Produce, which ships crops from Uvalde to the rest of the country. As he walks around WGP’s quiet warehouse on the city’s northside—they’ve had to slow operations due to the drought—he cuts a tall and lanky figure. Handsome yet plain-featured, he looks like central casting’s idea of a Texas farmer. When he talks about the many problems facing Texas agriculture he reveals an impressive and nuanced understanding of farm policy. In other words, he doesn’t sound like a man running for state office.
Ask Carnes about the problems facing Texas agriculture, and he’s got no shortage of answers. “Water issues,” he says when asked about the biggest problem facing ag. That’s been his primary focus as mayor, and he’s seen the health of Uvalde and the area’s farms sink together. J-27, the well that measures the health of Uvalde’s corner of the Edwards Aquifer, has charted plunging groundwater levels for years, and now sits some 32 feet below the historical average. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has been warning that the city could run out of water within 45 days.
Facing mandatory water-usage cuts, the Carnes family farms have suffered. This year, they’ve lost more than 400 acres of onions, and 700 acres of cabbage. They’ve given up planting lettuce. With the farmers’ declining fortunes, the rest of Uvalde is hurting in turn. “Everything from the tractor dealers and seed dealers,” he says, “to their employees having less dollars [to spend] at the grocery story and the local car dealership.”
Carnes has had to balance the needs of the city with the needs of irrigators—a tough task, even in farm country. “I grew up in this town. Went to every public school here,” he says. “I thought pretty much everyone knew me and liked me. But you institute restrictions on whether someone can water their St. Augustine grass and you find out that you’ve got enemies real quick.”
Even putting water aside, though, Carnes has profound concerns about the future of Texas agriculture. Texas is losing farmland faster than any other state—and the average farmer is older than ever. Young people don’t believe they have a future in the industry, Carnes says. Then, there’s the guest worker shortage. The Carnes’ family farms have lost “sizeable portions” of their onion and cabbage crops in the past decade because there’s no one to pick them. Though he describes himself as a conservative, he sees a role for government to play in ensuring the success of Texas agriculture—a potentially unpopular concession among the ideologically–driven activist organizations that largely decide primary elections like this one.
The Texas Legislature created the state Department of Agriculture in 1907, with four employees and a budget of $17,038, to collect information that would help farmers make better business decisions. But strong advocacy from the first several commissioners turned the department into an agency that offered Texas farmers active support. In the years before and during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, the department helped match sellers to buyers; fought against the citrus canker and the boll weevil; helped farmers conserve water; and distributed high-grade mules and horses around the state for the purposes of breeding, hoping to give Texas farms a bridge to survive the lean years.
Now, there’s a common understanding that agriculture commissioners are mostly looking to climb the political ladder. The current commissioner, Todd Staples, has spent the last several years generating unorthodox and Republican primary-friendly interpretations of his responsibilities, including a multi-year crusade against narcotrafficking. In March 2011, he unveiled a taxpayer-funded website, Protect Your Texas Border, replete with border porn for fearful Texans, including interviews with Texas Rangers and footage of night-vision chases of drug traffickers. The site’s still up, despite the attention it garnered when racist and violent messages—“Killem all!!!! They are destroying or [sic] great country”—flooded the site’s forum after its launch. Staples is now running for lieutenant governor.
Staples’ fascination with the border continues to permeate his tenure with the department. The government shutdown in October postponed the release of that month’s USDA crop report, which traders, distributors and farmers use to make important business decisions. Cotton prices fell 4.4 percent in the first week of the shutdown—a dramatic change that some pegged to the missing crop report. That price drop hurt already-struggling Texas cotton farmers.
Todd Staples was worried about the shutdown, too. The day before it ended, his office released a statement and two letters he had sent to U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, urging them to restore funding—for the U.S. Border Patrol. “I commend Congress for the current stand against Obamacare,” he wrote to Sen. Cruz, on Department of Agriculture stationary. “In the fray regarding the current shutdown, there are many questions about what are the essential functions of the government. Border security is absolutely at the top of the list.” Then he plugged his website.
But the job’s current applicants make Staples look like a plodding policy wonk. Three are men who lost their most recent bids for the Texas Legislature. There’s Eric Opiela, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Texas and a former legal advisor for GOP redistricting efforts, who unsuccessfully ran for state representative in 2002 and 2004. On his website, Opiela touts his red-meat opposition to “Washington bureaucrats and radical environmentalists.” There’s former state Rep. Merritt, a one-time postal inspector and founder of Greg Industrial Insulators, who added “Under God” to the Texas pledge before getting kicked out of the Texas House in 2010.
Then there’s Sid Miller, the cowboy-hat-wearing calf-roping champion who authored the mandatory sonogram law before his constituents tossed him out in 2012. His campaign’s use of Ted Nugent, the bow-hunting rock star, is perhaps the pre-eminent example of the whoever-gets-furthest-right-wins mentality that’s come to define GOP primaries in Texas.
Miller, Opiela and Merritt all have connections to agriculture—a requirement, in fact, to run for the post. But it’s hardly been the sole focus of their professional lives. Miller owns a 120-acre tree nursery near Ft. Worth, along with other land, but has drawn income from a variety of sources—including partnerships in companies he co-owned with lobbyists he met during his stint in Austin. Opiela comes from a ranching family but has spent much of his adult life as a lawyer working with the Republican Party. Merritt’s biggest professional accomplishment outside of the Legislature seems to be the success of his industrial contracting company.
Carnes seems amused by the tone of the race so far. But he also seems a little irritated that a race that could be spent discussing issues of fundamental importance to him—including, maybe, the future of the city he runs—has been overtaken by triviality.
“They don’t have a full grasp of what’s going on,” he says of the other candidates. Even on his website, Carnes refuses to use the bright, bold language that would benefit him among GOP primary voters. Government, he says, has certain roles to play to ensure the long-term viability of the water supply, the transportation network and the labor force.
“Even such Republican conservatives as Coolidge and Hoover or Lincoln and Eisenhower were believers in the state’s role in maintaining and enhancing infrastructure,” his site’s issues section says. “There are some who in the interest of ‘conservative governance,’ which they equate exclusively with reduced spending, seem content with such retrograde solutions as turning portions of our once prized Farm-to-Market roads to gravel and reducing the speed limit to 30 miles per hour.”
When Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, a group affiliated with conservative political gadfly Michael Q. Sullivan’s Empower Texans, evaluated Carnes, it credited him for his “welcome youthful energy” but added that he “lacks depth in his understanding of conservative movement politics.” Then the group endorsed Miller, despite the fact that, as Texas Monthly’s Erica Grieder pointed out on Twitter, Empower Texans cheered Miller’s 2012 election defeat as evidence of perceived moderate House Speaker Joe Straus’ waning influence: “[Miller] bet big siding with Speaker Straus’ leadership… and lost even bigger.”
If agricultural producers have had a hard time finding good political representation, it’s in part, Carnes says, because farmers and ranchers may not be accustomed to making their collective voices heard. “One of the great things about Texas agriculture is its independence. But that’s also one of the hardest things to overcome in trying to cultivate leaders for the ag industry and trying to have a unified voice,” he says. “As far as being part of a group, they don’t do a whole lot of that. That’s a very big problem.”
That’s perhaps an acknowledgment that farmers could make a less dependable constituency in this race to represent them than the Texas Right to Life mailing list—which says much about what the job of ag commissioner has become. But if Texas farmers are going to have the vibrant future Carnes hopes for, it’s a problem they’ll have to solve.