State Sen. Tyler Harper, an Irwin County farmer now campaigning to become Georgia’s commissioner of agriculture, visited Statesboro on Friday and talked about how he wants to build on his past role in farming-related legislation to become the state’s leading official promoter of agriculture, its largest industry.
Current Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black is not seeking re-election but is instead one of the Republican primary candidates vying to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in the Nov. 8, 2022, general election. When Black announced his plans, Harper saw an obvious opportunity “to have a bigger voice in an industry” that he has “a passion about,” he said.
So far he is the only declared Republican contender for the office and the only agriculture commissioner candidate of either party who has filed a campaign finance report with the State Ethics Commission this year. But he noted that some Democrats are said to be running, and candidates don’t qualify until March for the May 24 primary.
Harper’s background as a seventh-generation Georgia farmer, past service as president of the Georgia Young Farmers Association and education have all helped prepare him, he said. He attained first an associate degree from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and then a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Engineering at the University of Georgia.
“And then my almost 10 years in the state Senate where I’ve been able to get results for Georgia agriculture and producers, farmers and consumers across the state, I think has set up and given me a good platform to run for ag commissioner,” Harper said.
Now 35, Harper was just 26 when first elected the Georgia Senate from the 7th District in 2012 and is now in his fifth two-year term. He has served on the Senate Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee since he first arrived in the Legislature and currently chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
Agriculture-related issues he has worked on as a lawmaker include “everything from water rights to private property rights” and “ensuring that tax policy continues to be fair and equitable for the ag industry,” he said.
One widely discussed piece of legislation he sponsored in the Senate was 2019’s House Bill 213, signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp as the Georgia Hemp Farming Act.
“I was one of the primary sponsors of working through the hemp legislation and bringing a new commodity to our state and allowing it to be part of the portfolio if ag producers in Georgia wanted to participate in that,” Harper said.
Not to be confused with medical marijuana legislation, the Hemp Farming Act authorized the growing and processing of hemp, with a strictly regulated low THC content, as an industrial product. The law set annual licensing fees and testing and bonding requirements for hemp growers and processors and authorized further research into hemp production.
Elementary school ag
Harper also backed at least one agriculture-related law administered through the state’s Department of Education. In 2018, he was one of 11 sponsors of a Georgia Agriculture Education Act that created a pilot program for agriculture classes in elementary schools, funded under the Quality Basic Education formula at approved schools.
As a senator, Harper has supported expansion of broadband internet service in rural areas. This is also something he says he would continue to advocate for as agriculture commissioner.
“Expanding rural broadband is just as important to agriculture, and I’ve been an advocate for expansion of broadband across this state and will continue to do so because in the ag industry it’s become more of a worldwide market today than it ever has been in the past,” Harper said.
So, reliable broadband has become essential for Georgia farmers and agribusinesses to remain competitive, he said.
“As a member of the Legislature I have a direct role in working on the issue, but as the commissioner you can continue to be an advocate and a voice in working to ensure that the needs are met for the industry,” Harper said. “I think that’s part of what being ag commissioner is about … trying to help address those needs in your capacity as the top advocate for the agricultural industry in the state.”
If elected agriculture commissioner, he said, he will continue to build on the Georgia Grown program, which he said Black has overseen with much success.
Enabled by various pieces of legislation over the years, Georgia Grown is a marketing program for products grown in Georgia or made from Georgia-grown produce. Producers and marketers pay fees to use the label. The program also includes efforts to encourage use of Georgia produce in school meals.
“We can continue to build on those types of things to ensure that our producers and farmers have a market and that consumers have reliability in the products that they buy because they know where their food products come from,” Harper said.
As commissioner, he would also work to “level the playing field” and ensure Georgia agricultural producers are “put first” where trade deals are concerned, he said.
Supply chain problems during the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the importance of supply issues to consumers as well as farmers, he said.
“By leveling the playing field, the consumer can be confident in knowing that their food supply is sustainable and safe but at the same time it’s cost-effective and competitive in the market place, but also is secure,” he said. “I think that’s part of the conversation … because that’s a national security issue at the same time.”
Part of meeting that concern should be “ensuring that we’re doing everything that we can to produce what we need within our borders,” he said.
Harper grows peanuts, cotton and timber and raises beef cattle on a couple hundred acres of family-owned land near Ocilla, he said. His father works with him and the family also maintains some commercial and residential rental property.
Tyler Harper has been playing the piano since age 5 and currently plays piano and guitar “almost every Sunday” at Satilla Baptist Church, where he is a member. He is unmarried and has no children. He said he has a plan to keep his farm in operation while serving in full-time state office.