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In Ag Commissioner Race, Focus Not on the Farm

Farmers and ranchers in Texas are in trouble, according to recently-released data, but the candidates for Texas agriculture commissioner are talking more about conservative credentials and pot than farming woes.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Runoff candidates for the nomination for Texas agriculture commissioner, from left to right: Republican former state Rep. Tommy Merritt, Republican former state Rep. Sid Miller, Democrat Jim Hogan and Democrat Kinky Friedman.

Farmers and ranchers in Texas are in trouble, according to the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture report, which is released every five years. Cropland and cattle herds are on the decline, and while the farmers and ranchers who tend them are rapidly aging, few are stepping into the fields behind them.

Nearly a month after the report's release, not one of the four candidates on the ballot to become the next state agriculture commissioner had read it. In the race, farming and ranching have often taken a back seat to other hot-button issues, like gun rights and pot legalization. 

Republican candidate Sid Miller, whose website says that he "earns his living from the land raising crops, cattle, horses, and trees," said he has been too busy campaigning to read the latest report about the state of agriculture in Texas.

“I have this project I’ve been busy working on for the last few months,” he joked, referring to the runoff election. The former state representative from Stephenville is facing off with former state Rep. Tommy Merritt, of Longview, in the Republican runoff Tuesday. Merritt said he hadn't seen the report, either.

Both candidates have been more focused on bolstering their conservative credentials — touting their anti-abortion and pro-gun stances, and chastising the federal government — than on discussing critical agriculture-related issues like the Texas drought, which is forcing many farmers and ranchers to fallow land and sell off cattle. 

One of Miller’s highest-profile moves since the March primary has been a trip to the Texas-Oklahoma border, where a land dispute gained national attention. Along with other Texas Republican politicians, Miller had blasted the federal Bureau of Land Management for laying claim to 90,000 acres of land along the Red River, much of which Texans had long managed. Miller later told The Texas Tribune that he had initially misunderstood the issue and had come to realize that the federal government was acting on court orders.

In a two-minute endorsement video for the candidate, Gov. Rick Perry, a former agriculture commissioner, says nothing about Miller’s vision for agriculture, but calls Miller a “true conservative.”

Merritt has focused his campaign on alleged irregularities in Miller’s campaign finance filings, including allegations that his opponent personally profited from a campaign loan he made to himself that he later paid back at a handsome interest rate. The Texas Ethics Commission has not found that Miller committed wrongdoing.

The Texas Farm Bureau has declined to endorse either Miller or Merritt in the runoff — the first time the powerful agricultural lobbying group has not endorsed anyone in a race for Texas agriculture commissioner. The organization had backed Uvalde Mayor and farmer J Allen Carnes in the March primary, but he finished last among five Republican candidates.

"In many ways it demonstrates how urban our state has become,” Gene Hall, a Farm Bureau spokesman, said after the primary election. “It was apparent to us that social issues played a big role in an agriculture commissioner's race, and that is unprecedented. It was hard to get the attention of Republican primary voters on those issues that concern farmers and ranchers.”

Informed of the Census of Agriculture’s findings, both Merritt and Miller said they would work hard to preserve agriculture in Texas, promoting water conservation techniques to sustain those careers.

“This is not permanent,” Miller said of the industry’s dwindling influence and of losses from the drought. “We'll be back, and we'll have water for everybody again. I don't know if it'll start today or tomorrow."

Merritt said he believes the state should provide more incentives for farmers to continue growing crops and raising animals. Repealing inheritance taxes would help, too, he said, allowing land to stay in one family over several generations without the burden of high taxes.

Kinky Friedman, a musician and comedian who will face Jim Hogan in the Democratic runoff Tuesday, also was unaware of the U.S. Census of Agriculture figures. But he said his top campaign issue — legalizing marijuana and its sister crop, hemp — would help keep farmers afloat because the plants need relatively less water to grow and are in high demand.

“Let’s let the farmers decide what they’d like to grow,” Friedman said. “Hemp will rapidly become one of the biggest cash crops in Texas.”

Hogan, an insurance agent and farmer from Cleburne who has distinguished himself by refusing to openly campaign or to accept endorsements, didn't read the Census report, either. But he said farmers deserve the help of the government to ensure they have adequate water supplies. He said agriculture has already done more than its fair share of conserving water, he said.

In another sign of the low public priority of agriculture, fundraising numbers were low for all of the candidates in the latest campaign finance reports. Miller, the top fundraiser, reported a total of about $162,000 in contributions between Feb. 23 and May 17, while Merritt raised about $94,000 and has taken on loans totaling almost $1 million. Friedman received $13,500 in campaign contributions, and Hogan raised nothing.

Disclosure: The Texas Farm Bureau is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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