A Texas Department of Agriculture meeting designed to gather input from Panhandle fruit and vegetable growers affected by new food safety regulations devolved into a full-blown shitshow Tuesday when a government attorney compared federal regulators to Nazis, derided a female department attorney and suggested arsenic-laced drinking water isn’t all that bad.
The man, who identified himself as Cochran County Attorney J. Collier Adams Jr., made the comments during a state ag meeting on the implementation of the federal Food Safety and Modernization Act. The measure, signed into law by President Obama in 2011 in response to a series of deadly cases of foodborne illness, is considered the most sweeping change to food safety rules in the last 70 years. The law, which aims to reduce contamination on farms, sets standards for the use of fertilizers and water that may contain bacteria such as E. coli.
The Lubbock meeting was one of seven the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) is holding throughout the state this month. Uvalde, San Marcos, Tyler and other cities are slated to play host to the forums. At the meetings, state regulators charged with enforcing the new rules tell producers what’s coming down the pipe and growers can relay their concerns about the new, mandatory site visits they’ll be subjected to. “I know for a fact that a lot of farmers are unhappy about the regulation,” said Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance.
Farmers are expected to blow off some steam at these types of events. Many probably resent what they perceive as big government tying them up with red tape. Richard De Los Santos, who gave TDA’s presentation Tuesday, had the unenviable task of trying to pacify Adams and a handful of other attendees by saying that the agency would be “working with the farmers” to implement the rule and would only issue fines as a last resort. But such assurances did not sway Adams, the Dark Horse of the Lubbock Farm Meeting, who charged headlong and unbridled on an open plain of righteous indignation, fascist accusations and overt sexism.
Adams, a bespectacled man with thinning gray hair, opened the public comment period by saying that he considered TDA’s entry onto private farmland for the purpose of measuring soil and water contaminants an overreach of government power. It’s not an entirely unreasonable point, seeing as how farmers in Texas have never before been subject to these types of inspections on a regular basis. Adams even drew some support from TDA Deputy Commissioner Jason Fearneyhough, who told the man, “I understand your concerns completely and probably share some of them when you start talking anything with government.”
But Adams didn’t stop there. He pressed on, comparing federal regulators to Nazis due to the unilateral nature of the new rules. He suggested the science of testing for contaminants in drinking water was hare-brained and that some of those contaminants, including arsenic (which has been linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs and skin), aren’t as bad as scientists make them out to be. “I would submit we’ve been drinking arsenic water around here for a heck of a long time without any adverse effect,” he said. Adams was aghast that “there are people who believe that CO2, a inert gas that is essential for life on the planet, is a pollutant.” And he said that the TDA’s inspection of farms to reduce food contamination is tantamount to preventing prostitution by “neutering all the females.”
“I know I’m throwing a skunk in the room, and I’m not trying to inflame anybody’s passions,” he said at one point. But inflame the passions Adams did, when, in launching into yet another misguided diatribe, he addressed Jessica Escobar, the TDA’s assistant general counsel, as a “lady lawyer” who “would understand this from your law school days, maybe...”
Because the year is 2018, and because those of us with human eyes and human brains agree that men are only superior to women in the category of being bad presidents, this comment understandably drew rebuke from a female attendee of the forum, Katelyn Kesheimer, a Texas A&M AgriLife extension agent who holds a doctoral degree.
“Maybe?” Kesheimer said.
Adams fired back. “I didn’t interrupt you when you were speaking.”
“You’re being insulting.”
“It was not intended as an insult,” Adams said, turning around in his chair to face Kesheimer, raising his voice and gesticulating with his arms. “And now you’re trying to get something started between me and [Escobar], so I’d appreciate you butting out.”
It was then that Fearneyhough, the TDA deputy commissioner, took the event, which had limped along for the last 45 minutes, off of life support. Time of death: 11:20 a.m. “I’m not listening to any more of this. Sir, you’ve brought in Nazis, rape and now you’re talking about women being less than everybody else. We’re not listening anymore,” Fearneyhough said.
If the TDA meeting were a party, Adams would have been the crasher. Or, considering how dull the Q and A could have been if Adams hadn’t shown up, perhaps he would have been the entertainment. Either way, the department gathered little grower input from the farm-and-ranch-themed Jerry Springer Show special. Of the five attendees who weren’t employees of the agriculture department, none I spoke to were produce growers.
That’s really a shame, because at least some area farmers are concerned about the new rules, Kesheimer said. The meeting was ill-timed — it’s early May, which means High Plains produce growers are busy harvesting greens and sowing squash, cucumber and watermelon. “The issue we’ve raised with TDA is that they’ve scheduled this right at the height of produce growing season,” McGeary said. “We sent it out on our [e-mail] list, but we haven’t gotten a lot of people RSVPing.”
Farmers have reason to be suspicious of the agriculture department’s regulatory programs, too. Last year, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller hiked fees charged to agricultural producers under the guise of funding regulatory programs. (A state audit found that fee increases were unnecessary because the fees brought in millions more than were necessary to fund programs.)
Tuesday’s meeting was the first of the seven statewide sessions to discuss the rules. The last will be held May 16 in San Marcos. In the meantime, perhaps TDA should develop some rules of decorum. Though the Dark Horse of the Lubbock Meeting certainly spiced up the session, his vapid ramblings aren’t going to do farmers much good.