‘The lack of understanding among people of where their food and fiber comes from’
by Tim Lockette
Dec 16, 2012 | 9275 views |  0 comments | 97 97 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A farmer works his fields in Cleburne County. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
A farmer works his fields in Cleburne County. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
John McMillan is a small-government guy with a big government office.

On Twitter, Alabama’s agriculture commissioner isn’t afraid to play the role of arch-conservative, cheering on the Tea Party and forwarding videos with titles like “Obama supporters: Vandals and Thieves.”

But in his day job, McMillan runs an agency that is almost a state government in miniature. Headquartered in a nondescript two-story building near Montgomery’s Garrett Coliseum — far from Goat Hill — the Department of Agriculture and Industries does the regulatory grunt work necessary in any modern technological state. Not just a farm agency, the department tests fuel and food for impurities, checks the scales used in grocery stores, counts acres of farmland and tracks how productive they are.

“Every citizen in this state interfaces with this agency one or more times daily,” McMillian said. “And they don’t know that.”

Despite his small-government ideology, McMillan seems decidedly comfortable in his role at the head of this agency, and with the global thinking it inspires. He’s glad that the state’s chicken farms feed Cuba and China, and wants to sell them more. He acknowledges that the state’s stringent immigration law caused problems for farms, and he’d like to see a guest worker program to fill in the gap. And he worries about a global population boom that could cause massive starvation if farmers can’t double their product in the next 40 years.

He’s also interested in modernizing the department, which McMillian said is operating under unmanageable rules from the 1920s, like the mandate to annually test every weighing or measuring device used in commerce.

“When I came in, we were five or six years behind on that,” said McMillan, who hopes to give the weights-and-measures job to a private company.

The Anniston Star sat down with McMillan in his office — a spacious wood-paneled room just steps away from labs where state scientists inspect peanut butter and ground beef — for an hour-long interview. Below are some of the highlights of that conversation, edited for space and clarity.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing agriculture in Alabama? What do you see as the biggest change?

A: We’re moon-gazing? Okay. First of all, the biggest concern that I have is the disconnect we have now between what I call the “city cousins,” the urban areas, and rural Alabama — and the lack of understanding among people of where their food and fiber comes from, and how it gets to them … while at the same time, they’re influencing policies that are adverse, or potentially adverse, to the agribusiness interests that feed them.

Beyond that, in the future — and I don’t think we’re talking about that long off — there are three things that are going to be critical, globally and in Alabama: food, water and energy.

For example, estimates are that our food supply globally is going have, I’ve heard double, and I’ve heard increase by 70 percent (by 2040) … so in the next 37 growing seasons, we’ve got to substantially increase food production if we want to feed the world’s growing population. We’ve got a growing middle class who want to eat meat and fresh fruits and vegetables like we get in this country …

We’ve got tremendous water resources, 14 river systems and tributaries and billions of gallons of subterranean water. Right now, Gov. [Robert] Bentley to his credit has appointed a study group to work a water resources planning program, which we’ve never had. In the water wars fight with Georgia, for example, we didn’t have the data we needed to justify our position ...

Short term, with the water issue, we’ve got to do more about irrigation in Alabama. We’re way behind. For example, Georgia and Mississippi both [have] about 1.5 million acres of row crop land that’s irrigated. In Alabama we’ve only got about 150,000, whereas we’ve got about 2.5 million acres that’s inducive to irrigation.

Q: How did that happen?

A: Nobody knows … Probably, at some point, some banker somewhere in Mississippi said, “Look, I’m not going to lend you money to grow these crops with unless you make an investment in irrigation.” Because it has the potential to triple or quadruple the production.

On the energy side … Where I see we’re going to play a major role with energy, and I don’t know whether it’s going to be biomass, or whether it’s going to be cellulosic ethanol or something else, but we’ve just got huge forest resources that are going to be a major factor in the U.S. energy issue. There’s a plant under construction in Mississippi right now, and it’s called Kior, that’s I believe is going to be in operation around the first of the year. Their process is going to produce hyrdocarbon liquid that can go straight to the refinery, just like oil that comes from the ground. If that all works out, that’s going to revolutionize Alabama and the Southeast, because we are the wood-basket of this country already.

Q: You mention in your bio online that you worked in a sawmill when you were young. How do you get across to people that this, too, is agriculture?

A: That’s part of that whole big issue about the disconnect between the consumers and the producers. Nobody’s figured out how to solve that yet … I always felt like, with the forestry side of it, we got a negative perception because a lot of city folks don’t really spend much time in the rural areas. They might go hunting once or twice a year, or they may go visit their family and drive — you know, we don’t even drive through the countryside anymore, with the interstates — and they see the forest landscape as a snapshot. If it happens to have been clear-cut recently, where it looks like a war zone, they may not come back even for several years, they may not see the rebirth of a forest there where it’s planted.

Q: We’ve heard reports that when the immigration law was implemented, there was a labor shortage on farms. Is that true, and has that been resolved?

A: Well, it’s absolutely true. Georgia had a lot worse problem than we did because their legislature passed similar legislation that took effect right during prime time — you know, peaches and whatever else. Our legislation was a little later, and it didn’t go into effect until even later. We immediately saw two or three things that were not anticipated. It had a big impact on our tomato harvest. It had an impact on our cotton gins and any intensive produce gathering, but not as dramatically as Georgia’s, where the governor even took prisoners out into the field and that sort of thing.

Beyond that, in my travels and the feedback I get, it seems to have worked itself out pretty well. Don’t forget, that issue goes way beyond agriculture and agribusiness and into the service industry, with hotels and restaurants and construction. I don’t have any feel for what’s going on there, but (farmers) have either been successful in bringing in workers from the other parts of the world. But those are the larger operations. The people that are affected now are the smaller operations, where they only need five additional workers for a limited season of the year.

Q: So there would be people from other countries — other than Mexico — that would be working?

A: I understand a lot of people are coming over from Africa to work, with different forms of (identification). I don’t understand all that federal stuff, or even the state for that matter. I haven’t even made the connection of how much of our law’s been thrown out and how much is still effective. I know the E-Verify part is still intact. We have to deal with that here.

Q: I’ve heard we’re the largest exporter of chicken feet to China. Is that actually true?

A: I’m not sure we’re the largest, but there’s a good chance we would be. We’re the largest broiler-processing state. The last time I toured a processing plant, they told us the feet — they call it the paws — were the highest-profit-margin item that they shipped. [Editor’s note: USDA figures show that the U.S. is the largest exporter of chicken paws to China, but those figures aren’t broken down by state.]

Poultry has a great potential for growth. With the port in Mobile, they’re getting more refrigeration there, and private shippers are getting more capacity. South Alabama has little to no poultry production, so we’ve got the potential to grow that sector.

Q: How did the storms last year (April 27, 2011) affect poultry production?

A: We’ve recovered, basically, but the tornadoes were tough on poultry, especially in heavy poultry counties like Blount, Marshall and Dekalb.

Q: Is production back to where it was before?

A: As far as the supply-demand equation, I think it is. You know, their business has been off a good bit. They’re not producing as much as they have the capability to produce. As far as the situation with the tornadoes, if you had five poultry houses and two were damaged, you’re going to make the decision, based on whether you’ve got insurance and whether you’ve got another generation coming in, it’s a personal business decision whether … you’re going to try to build back.

Q: How’s our relationship with Cuba? Where’s it going?

A: The only areas we are allowed to do business with Cuba are food, medical supplies and forest products, and that’s doing well. I have not visited Cuba yet, but I intend to pretty soon … I think the whole economy is going to see a big change when things, through whatever set of circumstances, really open up down there.

Q: What would you say to someone who’s wondering whether or not they should follow their family into the ag business? Or someone who’s just getting started?

A: That’s two different issues, really. As far as following up and staying on the family farm, if they’ve got any inclination at all toward doing that, I think they need to do it, because of how dependent we’re going to be on farmers for our food supply. The prices of food are going to go up, I think there’s no doubt about it. It’s going to be a very attractive business to be in.

The other side of it, with the new folks … is how do we create some type of mentoring program, with new farmers and young farmers. There’s more and more interest in that, not only by us but by a lot of other groups ... We’re seeing more and more interest in restaurants that want to focus heavily on local foods. That’s all a good thing, because if you go back to the old days, a lot of people had a garden and grew a lot of what they ate. That’s what we’re seeing more and more interest in.

Q: You mentioned policies that are detrimental to the producers, early in the interview. What would you like to change?

A: We have the same disconnect between legislative bodies, including Congress, that we have with the population in general … When I was first in the Legislature, years ago, there was a pretty good sprinkling of hunters and fishermen in the Legislature. And today, there’s not. There’s not more than two or three — less than you can count on both hands in the House and Senate.

Q: What would you like to see for Alabama in the next Farm Bill?

A: This is another area where that misconception pops up. I think most people think the Farm Bill is just to subsidize farmers and pass out money to farmers. I think something like 80 percent of it is to food programs, nutrition programs and stuff like that, that nobody related to agriculture ever sees ... For farmers to get anything out of the Farm Bill, Congress has to pacify all these urban Congressmen and address all the things they want to see — you might say, buy their support, with these things that only benefit urban populations, for the most part.

Q: Is there a way people can labor in the fields and come home with a living wage?

A: Are you talking about the farmer himself or are you talking about his employees?

Q: I’m talking about the employees.

A: It depends on what kind of farming you’re doing and what you’re producing, first. With the large crops like cotton, soybeans and corn, they’re a lot less labor-intensive than they used to be. If you look at these new cotton machines, they’re putting out these big rolls. You ought to go ride on one of those things, they’re virtually computerized. I talked to a pretty large farmer up here in Elmore County ... He bought one cotton-picker, it cost about $600,000 or $700,000 and it replaced three employees and four small cotton-pickers. So, that guy that’s running that cotton-picker, he’s doing fine …

Then you go to the cotton gins, and that’s seasonal work. That’s where this immigration thing gets into the equation, because what we really need is truly seasonal, legal immigrants that are willing to start out picking oranges in Florida or whatever it might be, then moving to Alabama and through Georgia and picking peaches and winding up their year’s labor in the Carolinas harvesting tobacco.

And they’re willing to do that. And not many Americans are willing to do that kind of work. At any price. Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just the way it is.

This Q-and-A first appeared in the Winter 2012 edition of Business Calhoun County, a product of The Anniston Star.
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