The Georgia Department of Agriculture, with more than 850 full-time employees, is the state’s oldest independent executive agency. It was established in 1874 to promote the state’s agricultural enterprises, which had struggled since the end of the Civil War (1861-65). Although most executive agencies are under the auspices of the governor, the Department of Agriculture is headed by an elected commissioner. The commissioner, who serves a four-year term, is responsible for overseeing all functions of the agency. Tommy Irvin, a native of Habersham County, served as commissioner from 1969 until 2011, longer than any other Georgia official chosen in a statewide election. In 2011 he was succeeded by Gary Black. Like other elected agency heads, the commissioner is responsible for enforcing all laws related to his agency. The commissioner works with the governor and the Georgia General Assembly to develop policy related to food production, consumer safety, and livestock.
The mission of the Georgia Department of Agriculture is “to provide excellence in services and regulatory functions, to protect and promote agriculture and consumer interests, and to ensure an abundance of safe food and fiber for Georgia, America, and the world by using state-of-the-art technology and a professional workforce.” Under this mission, the agency is charged with a variety of functions, including issues directly related to agricultural production and those related to product delivery and consumer safety.
In the production and regulation of plant agriculture and livestock, the Department of Agriculture assists Georgia’s farmers and ranchers in several ways. It has been instrumental in developing technical resources that help farmers grow better crops and bring them to market more efficiently. It operates extension offices throughout the state and works closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to keep Georgia’s food supply stable. The agency also makes sure that the food sold in Georgia grocery stores has been inspected for both safety and quality in accordance with standards set by state and federal laws.
The department also seeks to promote the interests of the state’s agricultural industries across the nation and around the world through its Office of International Trade and Domestic Marketing. Georgia leads all states in the production of poultry, pecans, peanuts, eggs, and rye. It is the number two cotton-producing state in the nation. The state is also recognized for its peaches, tomatoes, and watermelons. South Georgia, around Vidalia, is world renowned for its sole production of a sweet large onion, the Vidalia onion. One of the responsibilities of the department is to expand production and locate markets for these products statewide and nationwide. Through the Georgia Grown program, the Georgia Department of Agriculture has placed “Georgia Grown” sections, which feature Georgia products, in several hundred grocery stores around the country. In state, the department operates a number of farmers’ markets throughout the state so that consumers can buy directly from farm producers. The agency, working through its staff of consumer economists, prepares innovative recipes using Georgia produce.
Additionally, the Office of International Trade and Domestic Marketing conducts research for Georgia companies looking to enter new markets, and facilitates contact between buyers in foreign markets who wish to purchase Georgia products and the companies within the state that can provide the requested commodities. The office examines a variety of issues, including entry barriers, tariffs, import documentation, customs procedures, and business climate in foreign markets. The department also provides free advertising for Georgia producers in its quarterly publication, International Advertiser, which is distributed worldwide.
The Georgia Department of Agriculture is also responsible for ensuring that all measurements related to the sale of commodities are fair and accurate. In this role the department deploys inspectors to determine if gasoline pumps at every service station in the state are correctly calibrated so that consumers are not overcharged. It also sets standards for quality for leading Georgia products like dairy, peaches, peanuts, and poultry.
The Georgia Department of Agriculture is also charged with helping local governments make sure that both livestock and pet animals are cared for in an appropriate manner. By providing support for the Georgia 4-H program, sponsored by the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension Service, the Department of Agriculture seeks to recruit young people to careers in agriculture so that the food supply will remain steady for future generations.