AP Interview: Hyde-Smith will focus on jobs

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Cindy Hyde-Smith wants to emphasize the “commerce” part of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

The Brookhaven Republican, sworn in Thursday as the state’s first female agriculture commissioner, sees a chance to increase not only the quantity of food grown in Mississippi, but food processed in the state as well.

“There’s always a demand for safe, affordable food,” Hyde-Smith said.

In addition to using her office as an economic development tool, she said she hopes to promote agritourism, make sure farmers have a voice in any state immigration legislation and improve revenue at the state fairgrounds.

Hyde-Smith is Mississippi’s first female agriculture commissioner and one of two women in statewide office, along with new Treasurer Lynn Fitch. But she downplays the gender difference, joking that the state’s gas pump inspection stickers will not be pink.

Hyde-Smith, 52, was first elected to the state Senate in 2000 as a Democrat, and switched to the Republican Party in 2010. She served two terms as chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and has a close relationship with the Mississippi Farm Bureau, the state’s top agriculture group.

She handily beat Democratic Pickens Mayor Joel Gill and Reform Party candidate Cathy L. Toole of Biloxi in November’s election.

She succeeds Lester Spell, a four-term agriculture commissioner. The post pays $90,000 a year.

Hyde-Smith operates a cattle farm and livestock auction in Brookhaven with her husband, Mike Smith. She says 25 percent of all jobs in Mississippi already are agriculture-related, and she believes the state can build on that strength by working to attract more food processors. Mississippi already has more food processing employees per capita than all but one Southern state, according to the Mississippi Economic Council, although it has been losing those jobs in recent years.

“We have a work force out there who needs those jobs as well,” she said. “Why can’t they be here?”

The incoming commissioner wants to work with the Mississippi Development Authority to recruit industry.

“We will definitely be knocking on doors,” she said. “Let me show you what Mississippi has to offer.”

One part of her economic development plan is to do more to promote agritourism, farming operations that supplement their income by welcoming visitors.

“You can see the interest that city folks, city dwellers, have in agricultural production,” Hyde-Smith said. For example, she cited corn mazes, a dairy farm that lets guests help milk the cows, and farm tours for schoolchildren.

Some Mississippi lawmakers are considering efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, an effort that could affect farmers, if last year’s experiences in Alabama and Georgia are repeated. In those two states, fruit and vegetable growers complained that much of their crop rotted in the fields for lack of skilled pickers.

“I think the producers need to be heard on this. Everyone wants legal immigration,” Hyde-Smith said. “But the process of verification needs to be in tune with how farmers hire your help.”

Hyde-Smith said she supports a federal guest worker program, which would allow people to work legally in the United States on a temporary basis. “Definitely, if that’s what it takes for the farm community to have their needs met.

Hyde-Smith said she’s looking into selling naming rights to the Mississippi Coliseum, the aging arena at the state fairgrounds in downtown Jackson. A 2009 report by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review suggested that, among other measures, as way to raise more money for the Mississippi State Fair Commission. Hyde-Smith will chair the commission, which relies on its own efforts for funding, even as it acts as the public face of the Agriculture Department for thousands of visitors.

“A lot of people see the agency through the fairground,” she said.

But Hyde-Smith emphasized that most Mississippians interact with the department through its regulatory efforts, such as inspecting meat and produce or making sure gas pumps and scales give correct readings. She said that many are unaware of other functions such as investigating livestock, equipment and timber thefts, regulating pest-control. Hyde-Smith said that she aims to spend much of her early tenure shadowing the department’s employees.

“I want to ride with these employees,” she said, “getting to know their jobs.”

Click video to hear audio