CHRIS TOMLINSON, Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — J. Allen Carnes knows all too well that most of the people who elect Texas’ agriculture commissioner know little about farms or ranches, but the third-generation vegetable farmer says that’s why he should get the job.
Knowing how to grow and make money from cabbage, broccoli, onions and cotton is more important than rubbing shoulders with Republican kingmakers, Carnes told The Associated Press in an interview.
“I’m the only ag guy in the race, its dealing with issues that I’ve been dealing with day-in and day-out,” the part-time mayor of Uvalde said with a South Texas drawl. “I’ve got some political background, but I’m not an insider by any means.”
The other candidates for the Republican nomination for agriculture commissioner include Eric Opiela, whose family has a 2,000 acre ranch and Conroe state Rep. Brandon Creighton, who operates a small ranch in Madison County. Both men, though, have spent most of their careers in politics.
Creighton worked in the Texas Senate and for the attorneys general of Texas and Oklahoma. He was elected to the Texas House in 2006. Opiela is an associate general counsel to the Republican Party of Texas, a former state party executive and served as a redistricting attorney for the Texas House Republican Caucus.
Carnes returned to his family farm after earning a finance degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He says his practical experience and work as president of the Texas Vegetable Association and director of the Texas Produce Association make him the better candidate.
“The majority of the voting bloc is looking for someone who has real-world experience,” Carnes said. “Farmers are very solutions-based people.”
But that pragmatism could hurt him in a Republican primary where having wealthy connections is important and most candidates are moving as far to the right as possible.
Carnes said he has lobbied to add vegetables to the federal Farm Bill, which subsidizes mostly grain farmers and provides food to the needy. Tea party Republican lawmakers in Washington want to eliminate the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP, and eliminate those subsidies.
Carnes also favors a comprehensive solution to the country’s immigration system that will make guest workers available to Texas farmers.
“We’ve got a void in our lower skill jobs in agriculture just like we do at McDonald’s, so you’re going to have a way to backfill that gap,” he said.
The competition between big cities and agricultural interests for fresh water also presents a challenge, Carnes said. He supports a constitutional amendment to spend $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to finance the State Water Plan, but said that can’t be the only step and he staunchly defends a landowner’s right to the water underneath his property.
“But I do believe there is a conversation to be had about conservation and about being good stewards,” he said. “Turning water assets over to a governmental entity and away from a property owner? I’m definitely not for that.”
Most of all, though, Carnes said his priority is protecting agriculture in Texas.
“If we’re going to continue to be able to feed ourselves in the future … we’re going to have to create an environment that entices young people to come into this industry,” he said, pointing out that the average farmer is 59 years old.
He said the commissioner should fight for better schools and health care in rural areas as well as playing a key role in marketing the state’s products. But the state must also make sure Texas farmers can compete in the international marketplace, even if that includes government protections for farmers.
The bottom line, Carnes said, was to make sure the state’s city folk understand the importance of agriculture.
“There will be more people in urban areas, more votes in urban areas and more of our policies will be decided in urban areas,” Carnes said. “The ag commissioner is the main advocate for farmers.”