BY GARY PERILLOUX
Lester Spell, a veterinarian by trade, succeeded Mississippi fixture Jim Buck Ross as the state's commissioner of agriculture and commerce in 1996.
Both Ross and his predecessor, Silas Edward Corley, logged seven terms or 28 years at the helm of Mississippi agriculture. Now vying for his third term, does Spell envision himself the stuff of Mississippi legend?
At 60, Spell is too focused on the job at hand to worry about his legacy yet.
"Our increase in the work output is 18 to 20 percent higher than when I first came into office," Spell said. "But we have over 30 percent fewer employees. ... We've been able to use technology to do our business smarter and better."
Spell must hope Mississippians take note of such efficiency, that they're pleased with his department's regulation of everything from gas stations and grocery stores to food processing plants, and that they're satisfied with his advocacy of farmers and their production.
With no Democratic opposition in the Aug. 5 primary election, Spell has clear sailing to November's general election showdown. There, he'll face one of four Republicans and a Reform Party candidate. Here are their stories.
At 75, Bob Claunch of Diamondhead - a community of 8,000 on the Mississippi Coast - is the oldest of the candidates and he stands out in at least two other ways. He's a candidate in the Reform Party - once identified with Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan - and he's the only candidate who approaches agriculture from a product engineering background.
Claunch staunchly believes Mississippi has dragged its heels in the hunt for alternative fuels.
He advocates development of fuel plants that would boost production of Mississippi corn and other grains. Ethanol is a cleaner-burning, higher-octance alcohol fuel that's most often used as a gasoline extender. It's usually distilled from corn, but now costs slightly more to produce than gasoline.
"We're lagging behind," Claunch said. "There are 27 states that are ethanol states now and they receive federal funding. There are 2.8 billion gallons of ethanol in production capacity in the U.S. right now."
Mississippi has yet to fund a 20-cent per gallon subsidy to producers of ethanoleven though the Legislature passed a bill allowing the incentive last year, Claunch said.
"Our current agriculture and commerce people and the governor are behind the times," he said. "I see this as having a great future because of all the money we send to the Arabs (for petroleum). We could keep our share of energy here in Mississippi."
Spell counters that his department has been the lead agency in the state in promoting ethanol possibilities.
"The private sector is going to have to come up with a lot of capital," Spell said. "What you generally have is (an ethanol plant that will cost) at least 30 to 40 million dollars."
It would take 20 percent of Mississippi's annual production of 550,000 acres of corn to supply one such plant, he said. Still, Spell is negotiating with one major company that could launch an ethanol plant in the next two to three months and is talking to others.
Claunch said a model ethanol plant would be 60-percent farmer owned, with local bank financing helping create 30 plant jobs and rapidly raising farm production within a 25-mile radius.
"My background is in developing products and processes so I understand what you have to do," Claunch said. "The only way you're going to get this to happen now is it's going to take government to do it. It has to be the incentive of the leaders of this state to make it happen."
A former Democrat and Republican, he said the Reform Party is more grass roots-oriented and less greed-driven. "Altruism seems to be disappearing from our daily lives and that's what it takes to be a government servant," Claunch.
Crowding the polls
Republican Roger Crowder of Louisville came close to upsetting Spell's victory parade in 1995, when Crowder drew 47.5 percent of the vote and nearly became Mississippi's first black statewide officeholder.
He handed out bags and bags of peanuts then and in 1999 and continues to find clever slogans. "Crowd the Polls for Crowder" is a frequent battle cry but he makes no bones about mounting an utterly serious campaign.
"The question of qualifications is not an issue; to me, race is not an issue," said the 55-year-old retired county agent. "I think just having the (financial) resources has been my limiting factor."
Crowder knows his field, pointing out that one in four Mississippi jobs is ag-related; the value of the state's raw production is $5 billion; its value-added worth is $20.5 billion; "and when you look at the fact that this state has only a 52- or 53-billion dollar (gross product), you see the impact of this department."
"The number one thing I want to do for the agriculture producers and for the citizens of Mississippi is to help alleviate one or our major problems to my way of thinking - and that's jobs," Crowder said, explaining that Mississippi can expand its economy exponentially by turning over dollars with greater use and wider marketing of its natural resources.
The key, he said, is keeping the added-value processes at home.
"The point I'm trying to make is that if we are to move Mississippi forward economically we must process our raw agriculture production and resources in the state to the final stage," said Crowder, who would scrutinize all department regulations and consider changes. He pioneered agriculture incubator projects for Mississippi State and Alcorn State universities and wants to expand that work.
"We've got some of the strongest universities in the country and the world here that can provide technology and resources," Crowder said. "We just need a leader with a broad-spectrum knowledge of the industry."
Young and eager
Twenty-two-year-old Kyle Weston Magee of Mize has one more year to complete his University of Southern Mississippi degree before pursuing a career in teaching history and coaching basketball.
But he'd gladly take a detour to the Department of Agriculture and Commerce. It's precisely because his father's 650-acre vegetable farm can't support a family by itself that he's seeking the office. Clyde Magee, who grows watermelons, tomatoes, bell peppers and cantoloupes, was himself an unsuccessful candidate for ag commissioner in 1987 and 1995.
He can't run again because his other job as a utility investigator for the Public Service Commission ethically prevents him from seeking the office.
"We're trying to get some issues out there about NAFTA and the country-of-origin (labeling legislation pending in Congress)," Kyle Magee said. "We're running strictly on the issues. We're just trying to get things better for the Mississippi farmer, especially the small farmer. Because NAFTA - the way it's set up now - has really affected people like my father. ... He was a big tomato farmer. Now he's got to stick more to watermelons because after NAFTA was passed the tomato prices started dropping. You just can't make anything on them."
Magee is Republican primarily because of his pro-life stance - his parents went against medical advice he be aborted - and he wants to work closely with federal officials to effect positive agriculture change.
"With the country of origin labeling act, I believe that ... most people would want to know where their food came from," he said. "It gives them a choice. And there are some higher-ups who I think are trying to stop that act from going into effect. We're just worried that somebody's going to put a halt to it, but it's something that would help the consumer as well as the producer."
Max Phillips' chief claim to political fame is the serious run he made against Jim Buck Ross in 1991 when he claimed 43 percent of the vote. A lifelong farmer who now focuses on cattle, timber and his Taylorsville Feed Seed and Garden Center, Phillips also has taught and worked in farm banking.
A conservative Christian, Phillips said he's running as a Republican because the party's core values are close to his own.
"I want to promote economic development through agriculture and specifically by focusing on assisting producers in marketing their products," Phillips said. "We're doing that already but we're not doing it to the extent we need to do it."
Phillips, 56, would promote more direct ag marketing associations and launch a Buy Mississippi First program to encourage citizens to spend more at home.
"Right now, Mississippi enjoys the best food buy of anybody in the nation," Phillips said, "We only spend 10 or 11 cents on the dollar out of our disposable family income on food. That's a great situation, but we want to assure consumers of the quality and safety of our food supply."
Phillips, too, wants to press forward with country-of-origin labeling.
"We're flooded in this state with a lot of imported food," he said. "And, of course, that food comes in at lower prices than our domestic food in many cases. But it's also inferior and sometimes not as safe as our domestically grown products."
Phillips would develop a long-term strategic plan and form a statewide TeamAg of grass roots members from every county who would spark two-way communication with the department.
Fred T. Smith, 73, ran unsuccessfully for the ag post in 1995 and 1999 and is the lone candidate from Northeast Mississippi. A retired Air Force munitions superintendent, he would focus heavily on educating young minds and training young people to enter agriculture-related fields.
"I'm not saying our system is broke or is all bad," he said. "I'm just saying we need to do better and can do better. ... We've got good highways but there are more trucks coming into Mississippi to feed us than we have going out from Mississippi to help us make our living."
Mississippi needs more incentives to encourage young farmers to get into agribusiness, he believes. He hails the work state Sen. Jack Gordon and others have done to establish a sweet potato cannery in the region.
"If they go with very strong quality before they get too big on quantity, I think that will be a real big thing for all of those counties from Chickasaw to Yalobusha," Smith said.
Smith is critical of Mississippi labeling programs, saying they haven't gone far enough. He would bring all the state's fish producers under the umbrella of a universal Mississippi-made packaging concept - and he'd extend that to other commodities.
The state also needs to create more canning and food production industries, Smith said.
"I realize that it's got to be private enterprises handling this," he said, "but I believe the commissioner of agriculture ought to do a better job of helping small companies and large companies. ... I think the job of commissioner of agriculture should be one of improving the quality of the food we have as well as having a high-quality control system for the freezing and canning of the fruits and vegetables that we can sell to our people."
Smith favors sending all Mississippi students on field trips to the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson, and he'd like to help establish civility, safety and manners training for schoolchildren.
Spell points out he's already addressing the issues raised by his opponents and progressing with a better department.
More than 90 inspectors check the quality of food produced in Mississippi plants daily.
His Make Mine Mississippi program has certified more than 800 ag-related companies for labeling as Mississippi-made producers.
This year, he worked with the federal government to sell hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Mississippi fruits and vegetables directly to schools, a first.
He's co-chairman of the Mississippi Land Water and Timber Resource Board created by the Legislature in 2001 to spur ag-related job creation. An early success is $5 million it contributed to a $35 million beef processing plant in Oakland that will create 350 jobs when it opens next year.
He helped establish catfish labeling and he administers a bar-code inspection team to ensure that grocery store prices are correct. More than 70,000 fuel pumps a year are checked to make certain customers are getting the proper amount of fuel at the pump.
Those and other measures will generate more income for producers and better value for consumers, Spell said.
Asked what he wants to do for producers, he said: "I think the main thing that concerns us today is how do we return profitability back to the producer. Our farm numbers and the number of acres are shrinking, but production is going up because of new technology and better ways of doing things.
"But to keep this country strong, we've got to keep people involved in agriculture - and our big challenge is finding ways to return profitability to it."