Agriculture commissioner’s race centers on local food

Rickey Cole and Andy Gipson (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. — The Democratic challenger for Mississippi agriculture commissioner is pitching a local food revolution, while the Republican incumbent seeks more incremental change.

That’s one big divide between Democrat Rickey Cole and Republican Andy Gipson.

It’s not that Gipson opposes local food, touting an online effort to connect producers and consumers. Cole, though, wants to exempt local food from the 7% state sales tax and use department employees to market local food to stores. He also wants to ease rules and promote in-state food processing.

“It turns out that 90% of the food we eat in Mississippi is produced outside of Mississippi,” said Cole. The 53-year-old ran unsuccessfully for agriculture commissioner in 2007 and is the former chairman of the state Democratic Party. He divides his time between Jackson and Ovett.

Gipson was appointed to the statewide post last year by Gov. Phil Bryant while serving his third term in the state House of Representatives. The Braxton lawyer, now 42, succeeded Cindy Hyde-Smith, who became a U.S. Senator. He said the department’s Genuine MS website and marketing program is successfully linking consumers and producers. He said the focus on “local food for local people” as well as an online presence are a change from previous food marketing campaigns, such as the long-running Make Mine Mississippi.

“We’re reaching people who are online and on social media and who want to buy local food,” Gipson said. “We brought it more into the modern era.”

Gipson notes his efforts to get more people trained for agricultural careers, saying a partnership with community colleges could pay off at the time that the typical farmer is aging.

“It is an issue that it we don’t tackle it, we’re going to have a crisis in 10 years’ time as to who’s going to run these operations,” he said.

Gipson also points to efforts to open up new international markets for Mississippi products, noting a recent shipment of chicken to India and a trade deal with Taiwan. He acknowledges that soybean growers and others are being hurt by tariffs imposed and selective buying imposed by China in retaliation for President Donald Trump’s own tariffs. Gipson, though, expressed support for Trump’s policies.

“There’s no doubt prices have suffered as part of the trade war,” he said. “At the same time, I support what the president is doing.”

Cole, though, is focused on trying to improve farmers’ prosperity by selling more products in the state, saying his goal is for Mississippians to spend one dollar in six on “locally produced, fresh, healthy food.”

He said that farmers too often sell their products to out-of-state processors at low prices, losing much of the value that consumers pay at retail. He said department regulations on slaughterhouses, for example, could be reworked to help cattlemen sell beef locally

“I’ve got 40 calves in the pasture,” Cole said. “I can’t legally sell my neighbor a steak.”

Cole has raised $84,000 through Sunday and had $57,000 on hand. Gipson has raised $123,000 this year and had $70,000 on hand.

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