Q&A: Georgia’s new ag commissioner says agriculture is more than ‘cows, sows & plows’
Tyler Harper makes no apologies for vigorously preserving and guarding Georgia’s farmland.
“Agriculture at the end of the day is national security,” Georgia’s newest agriculture commissioner told State Affairs. “We've got to ensure that we’re protecting our food supply and providing the food, the fiber, the shelter for ourselves right here at home.”
Harper became Georgia’s 17th agriculture commissioner in January, making him head of the nation’s oldest state agriculture department, which has 550 employees and an annual budget of about $70 million.
Agriculture “made me who I am,” said Harper, a bachelor and farmer with a penchant for cowboy hats.
Agriculture also made the Peach State what it is. The $75 billion agriculture field is Georgia’s No. 1 industry, providing paychecks for roughly 1 in 7 Georgians.
A native of Ocilla, Harper is a seventh-generation South Georgia farmer with a peanut, cotton, beef cattle, and timber operation on the same land his family has farmed for over 125 years. He makes the three-hour trek from Atlanta to his hometown most weekends.
State Affairs caught up with Harper on his family’s 1,500-acre spread to talk about the widely-anticipated federal Farm Bill, building an education-to-ag pipeline, a stronger farm-to-fork path in Georgia, and the significance of Agriculture Week, aka “Ag Week”, which starts today and runs through Sunday. (This year’s theme is “Celebrating Farmers, Food & Fiber.”)
The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What are the top issues facing agriculture?
Some of the big issues that impact us and all agriculture are issues out of D.C. Federal overreach and federal policies make it more difficult for the agricultural industry, farmers and producers. In the end, it increases costs at the grocery store and causes more issues for the consumer.
We’re talking about WOTUS — the Waters of the U.S. — ruling that the EPA most recently put out that will cause increased cost on the farm and, in turn, it causes increased cost to the consumer at the grocery store. We’re talking inflation, which has been a significant issue in agriculture, from fertilizer prices, seed prices, feed prices. It has really made it a lot more difficult in the ag industry. I understand that in my role on my farm because that’s what I’m dealing with every day, just like every other producer across the state and that inflation turns into issues and the food supply chain at the grocery store.
Those are things that, if we have the right type of policies on the federal level, help us ensure that we’re producing more of our fertilizer here at home.
We’ve seen this [fertilizer] issue come out of the Ukraine-Russia conflict. I think most folks are starting to realize how much dependency we have as a nation on global commerce, which is important and vital, as part of our economy. But we need to be as energy-independent and food-independent as we can be. Having federal policies that help guide us in that direction will help make that happen.
In his first 60 days in office, Harper has:
- Made key staff hires. A chief of staff, inspector general and a policy director.
- Restored the agency’s law enforcement division. Traditionally, the Georgia Department of Agriculture had a law enforcement division which was discontinued under the previous commissioner. Harper and the newly appointed inspector general, Harlan Proveaux, restored this critical function of the Department.
- Took immediate action on soil amendments. Harper initiated a 90-day review of the department’s rules and regulations within the Soil Amendment Program to ensure the new rules do enough to address the issues raised by residents, community leaders and industry professionals. Harper also worked with House Speaker Jon Burns and House Appropriations Chairman Matt Hatchett to secure an additional $550,000 in the state budget to help strengthen the Soil Amendment Program.
What can Georgia do to make that happen?
We can ensure we have policies on the state level to help offset issues our producers and those in the ag industry are faced with. [We can do that] by allowing our farmers and producers to have a level-playing field in the state as best as we can. We can encourage consumers to buy Georgia Grown products. We do that by ensuring that we build the Georgia Grown brand.
We work every day to ensure that we’re preserving the family farm and addressing labor and workforce development issues as best we can. We’re working to ensure individuals have the best level of education when it comes to the ag industry and [letting] young men and women know they can get involved in the agricultural industry and that there are opportunities for them.
We’ve done that by extending the agricultural education curriculum in our state. Last year, we passed the bill to permanently extend that to the K5 classrooms. So now in Georgia, it’s possible to get an ag education from kindergarten to adulthood.
At the same time, we’ve got to work to give them access to capital so they can get in the business. We’ve also got to work to preserve the family farm on the back end, preserving the family farm and working to ensure our farmers and producers have the resources and tools they need as well as the protections they need to be successful every single day.
Is the federal Farm Bill slated to come up this year?
Yes. We’ve been having conversations with some of our colleagues on the federal level about how it impacts Georgia and what we would like to see to help protect and ensure Georgia farmers or producers are protected and that they have the resources they need.
What Georgia issues would you like to see as it relates to the bill?
The peanut program is significantly important to Georgia. Fifty percent of the peanuts produced in the nation are produced in Georgia. So, obviously, that is a very critical part of the Farm Bill.
But it’s not just peanuts. It’s all the commodities: cotton or corn or anything in between and the programs that impact our row crops, commodities, our livestock industry, and also [we’re] working to include for the first time some provisions related to our fruit and vegetable industry in the state. That’s an industry that typically has not had the same resources other commodities have had in the Farm Bill.
What ag-related bills are you keeping an eye on in the Georgia Legislature?
Senate Bill 220 which is being carried by my good friend and Senate Ag Committee Chairman Russ Goodman. It’s the Georgia Farmland Conservation Fund. This would establish a fund in Georgia, similar to what’s happened in 29 other states, to protect farmland for generations to come.
We’ve got to ensure we’re protecting our food supply and providing the food, fiber and shelter for ourselves at home. Land is one of the most vital components of agriculture.
We’re keeping our eyes on other bills, like SB 132 — the foreign ownership of farmland. We’ve been very involved in that conversation and ensuring that farmland here in Georgia is owned and operated by those who live here.
We’re involved with conversations related to the hemp program in Georgia. We oversee that. We also have a citrus commodity commission that we’re pushing through.
You championed the “Freedom to Farm” law through the General Assembly last year. The law appears to make it tougher for people who live near agricultural producers to file nuisance claims over things like noise and smells. What was your intention with this bill? And how do you square that with the realities people face when living near ag producers?
It’s important we protect our state’s No. 1 industry, family farms and operations and producers. Agriculture is national security. We’ve got to work every day to ensure farmers and producers have the resources and tools they need to ensure that we’re providing the food, the fiber, the shelter as much as we can here. [The law] gives you opportunities to ensure that you’re operating every single day in the normal operations of agricultural business.
Sure, but what about people who may have to live next door?
At the end of the day, if farmers and producers are in violation of the Clean Water Act, if they’re in violation of environmental policy, if they’re in violation of EPD [Environmental Protection Division] rules and regs and laws that protect water quality and air quality, there are lawsuits and actions that can be taken against those producers that violate those statutes. This [law] does not protect [ag producers] from egregious actions. It doesn’t protect you from doing things that are illegal.
We’re going to work to ensure the department, our rules and regs ensure farmers and consumers are protected and our No. 1 industry is successful. And that food is on the grocery store shelves and our food supply chain is safe and secure.
Earlier this month, the Georgia Senate passed the Food Insecurity Eradication Act. If it becomes law, it would set up the Security Food Security Advisory Council to end food insecurity in Georgia. How closely will you be involved in this issue and how is the state ag department currently tackling food insecurity?
We've been tracking that legislation and trying to see what that would look like. At the department, we’ve been involved in working to tackle food insecurity in our state. We’re working to provide the needed resources not only for farmers and producers but families and consumers alike. We’re working to bridge that divide between the farm and the fork. Our team is doing that every single day whether it’s through the Farm to Food Bank, an $800,000-a-year program, or the Local Food Procurement Assistance program, which is financed with a $23 million grant from the federal government.
This week is Ag Week. What is the significance of Ag Week for Georgians?
Ag Week is extremely important in our state. It’s an awesome opportunity for us to tell the story of agriculture to those who don’t understand or know what agriculture is about. We look forward to spreading the message across the state that Georgia agriculture is way more than cows, plows and sows. It’s a dynamic industry with opportunities for individuals with a wide variety of skill sets and backgrounds.
Our goal at the department is to ensure we’re making Georgians’ lives better, whether it’s at the gas pump, the grocery store, a farm, a fuel pump or everywhere in between.
What’s your favorite state festival?
The Sweet Potato Festival. That’s my hometown festival. It’s in October every year. And, obviously, the Georgia National Fair is always a favorite of mine.
As ag commissioner, you get to set the opening day for the Vidalia onion season. When does that start?
April 17 will be the kickoff for the state.
The Tyler Harper Files
- Title: Agriculture commissioner of Georgia
- Age: 36
- Birthplace: Irwin County, Georgia.
- Hometown: Ocilla, Georgia.
- Education: Associate's degree in agriculture from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture.
- Career: Member of the Georgia State Senate representing the 7th District, 2013-2023; elected agriculture commissioner in 2022 and took office in January 2023.
- Hobbies: Hunting, fishing, flying (“I’m rated to fly helicopters and airplanes.”), playing piano and acoustic guitar and watching the Georgia Bulldogs play.
- Family: Single.
- What job would you want to be doing if you weren’t in this one: I’d be enjoying more time on the farm.
You can reach Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected]. Joyner is State Affairs’ senior investigative reporter in Georgia. A Georgia transplant, she has lived in the Peach State for nearly 30 years.
Learn more about what the agriculture industry means in Georgia with our fast facts on the Georgia Department of Agriculture.
Header image: Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper, a seventh-generation South Georgia farmer with a peanut, cotton, beef cattle, and timber operation, walks through a wheat field on the family farm. (Credit: Georgia Department of Agriculture)
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How to be your own lawyer in Georgia (and when you shouldn’t)
In his inaugural State of the Judiciary address in March, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs told lawmakers, judges and others assembled for the joint legislative session about challenges the state faces in providing access to justice for Georgians.
The first is an “astounding” backlog of civil and criminal cases, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said will take some county and state courts years to catch up on. The second is a statewide shortage of lawyers.
Fulton County alone has 4,000 pending indicted felony cases, and 14,000 unindicted felony cases, Boggs said.
Defendants awaiting trial sit in jail for months, or even years. In Dougherty County, more than 200 people who’ve been charged but not convicted have been in jail for more than two years.
As for judicial access, of 159 counties in Georgia, 67 have 10 or fewer licensed practicing attorneys, and seven — all rural counties — have none at all.
Boggs said the legal workforce shortage significantly impacts civil cases such as divorces, child custody and eviction proceedings. He also noted that there is no right to appointed counsel in civil cases. “The basic right of access is denied to many during their most dire life challenges,” said Boggs.
One imperfect solution to this lack of legal representation is for people to represent themselves.
It’s not a new practice — people have done it for decades, from contract disputes in small claims courts to major felonies in superior courts. In 2021, 1.1 million people led their own cases in criminal and civil courts in Georgia.
But the outcomes aren’t always good. Former Georgia Supreme Court Justice P. Harris Hines said in 2017 that self-represented litigants often lack basic legal knowledge, are more likely to lose their cases, and tend to slow down court proceedings.
Since then, the Access to Justice Committee of the Judicial Council of Georgia has led a statewide effort to create more resources to help people of low and middle incomes to represent themselves better, and to make courts more user-friendly, including an expansion of online legal resources.
Georgians can now access free legal forms based on Georgia code, related how-to videos and detailed instructions for common legal matters in family law, probate law (such as wills, guardianship and estate settlement), landlord-tenant law, advance health directives and name changes.
Most county courts have some online forms, as well as physical law libraries with printed forms and legal research materials available to the public.
Over the past five years, more than a dozen libraries around the state have expanded to become legal self-help centers staffed by paralegals or other trained personnel who can walk people through the maze of forms and explain how to complete and file a legal document properly. Nancy Long is one such legal “navigator,” working at the Southwest Georgia Legal Self-Help Center in Dougherty County in Albany. Southwest Georgia has many counties considered to be legal deserts, including four with no active, licensed lawyers.
Long, a paralegal, said many people come into the center “afraid and intimidated by the legal system, and we help them figure out the forms and the legal terms, explain what things mean, and guide them through the system.”
Recently the center helped a man who wanted to legally acknowledge his child so the child could inherit from him. The staff provided information about the legitimation process, and he successfully represented himself in court.
The Southwest Georgia center also has tech set up for people to attend court hearings remotely via Zoom, which enables many residents without internet to access the courts and legal counsel in other cities.
A Word of Caution
When it becomes clear that someone can’t handle their case themselves, either because of literacy issues or the case is too complex, Long said the staff refers people to a list of attorneys in the area, some of whom are willing to represent clients for free or at a reduced cost. One such pro bono attorney is Vicky Kimbrell, who leads the family law unit for Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit serving low- and moderate-income clients in the 154 counties outside of metro Atlanta. Atlanta Legal Aid Society serves a similar clientele within the five-county metro Atlanta area.
“Pro se” or self-representation is better suited to uncontested divorces, said Kimbrell. “It works best when you have some agreed-upon structure, and when you file the divorce, both parties can agree and sign acknowledgments. People can walk through that pretty simply.”
The website of the Judicial Council provides comprehensive legal packets for divorces with and without children, and includes eight videos that explain how to complete the complex child support calculator worksheets.
“In a disputed custody case, that’s not enough,” said Kimbrell, who also serves on the Judicial Council’s Access to Justice committee and has helped to develop self-help resources for family law cases, including uniform legal forms for divorce that are accepted in courts statewide.
“If you’ve got a couple of kids or a house, it gets really complicated. If your husband has a lawyer and you don’t, and you’re standing in court, and whether or not you get custody of your kids depends on how you can maneuver this court process, that’s a scary place to be,” she said, advising people to seek out pro bono or low bono counsel in those cases.
People who are experiencing domestic violence or stalking and who need a temporary protective order (TPO) should call one of the legal aid programs or the domestic violence hotline, said Kimbrell. “It’s pretty dangerous to file your own TPO, and these are the kinds of cases that we prioritize.”
|SELF-REPRESENTED LITIGANTS IN GEORGIA|
|More than 1 million Georgia residents represent themselves in civil and criminal courts
each year. Here’s the breakdown of self-represented litigants in Georgia courts in 2021.
|Source: Judicial Council of Georgia|
Kimbrell noted that legal aid organizations take on clients with household incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level, which is $29,160 for an individual and $49,720 for a family of three. Cobb County Magistrate Judge Tabitha Ponder, who also serves as staff attorney for the Georgia Judicial Council’s Access to Justice Committee, advises people to “try using free legal resources first, before making a decision to represent yourself.”
She said self-represented litigants do well in small claims court, where they often face other pro se parties. But she considers them at a disadvantage when trying a case against someone who has a lawyer. That distinction is most notable in dispossessory cases, she said.
“Most landlords are represented by counsel,” she said. “And I would say 90 to 95% of the tenants are not represented. And sometimes, sitting on the bench, I see they have legal arguments they can make, and there are some things they may be entitled to, but as a judge, our hands are tied; we can’t give advice from the bench. And this is important for folks who are facing evictions because our eviction process is really quick.”
In Cobb County, tenants fending for themselves can take advantage of mediators and free legal aid attorneys who are always present in the courtroom during eviction cases.
“We’ve got a person there to speak with both parties and see if they can work out an agreement,” said Ponder. “And the [tenants] can get some sound legal advice. So that’s extremely helpful. What I’ve found with self-represented litigants is that most of the time, these folks don’t require a lawyer to represent them in person. They just need some advice and some resources to help them … it’s usually just one or two issues or questions on a form that they struggle with.”
Lawyers offering “limited scope” or “unbundled” services who are willing to take on just the part of a case that a person can’t handle for themselves can be the key to success or failure for a pro se litigant, she said. “Unbundling really works, and it’s something we need to see more support for statewide.”
Cobb County also offers a free monthly family law workshop via Zoom covering divorce, contempt, paternity and legitimation. The workshop is mandatory for self-represented litigants, who can ask a family law attorney general questions via the chat, and have the option afterward to pay $100 for a 1.5-hour consultation with an attorney.
Other sources of support include:
- The Cobb Second Chance Desk helps individuals with a criminal history who may be eligible to restrict and seal their record.
- The Georgia Justice Project (GJP) helps people with record restrictions and pardons, offering free online workshops on how to clear criminal history. It also regularly runs free on-site legal clinics at law libraries and justice centers around Georgia.
- The Fulton County Probate Information Center helps Fulton residents understand how to manage a deceased family member’s estate with free 30-minute consultations with a probate attorney. The Council of Probate Court Judges is a statewide resource offering dozens of standard forms for common probate issues in Georgia, as well as how-to videos and guidance on guardianship for minors and adults.
In Macon, the Middle Georgia Justice Center serves people in Bibb, Houston, Peach, Crawford, Monroe, Jones, and Twiggs counties. It handles heirs’ property, probate, property, guardianship matters, divorce, legitimation, criminal history relief, as well as ID card and driver’s license issues.
The center helps people whose income is up to 300% of the federal poverty level, which is $43,740 for one person and $74,580 for a family of three. People apply for legal aid online or in person, and then learn if they’ll receive support to use the center’s self-help resources, direct representation by a staff attorney or a referral to a pro bono or low bono lawyer. The center has expanded from three to six full-time employees this year with more than $500,000 in funding from corporate grants, local donors and federal funds.
Ponder said the Access to Justice committee has just completed a new set of uniform landlord-tenant forms and how-to videos that should make it easier for people to represent themselves. They’ll be posted once approved by the Magistrate Court Council later this year. Their next project is legitimation forms that can be accepted in any Georgia court.
And the committee is currently working with Georgia Legal Services Program to create kiosks offering printable legal forms and instructions that will be placed in seven to 10 courthouses and self-help centers “strategically around the state, in legal deserts,” said Ponder.
“I’m a firm believer that when people have the right resources, they can have success with any kind of case,” she said.
SELF-HELP, FREE AND LOW-COST LEGAL RESOURCES IN GEORGIA
JUDICIAL COUNCIL OF GEORGIA – Free forms, instructions and how-to videos on family law and landlord-tenant law and a list of Georgia’s legal self-help centers.
GEORGIA LEGAL AID – Offers dozens of free forms, guides and resources to handle legal issues.
GEORGIA LEGAL SERVICES PROGRAM – Nonprofit that serves low- and moderate-income clients in the 154 counties outside metro Atlanta.
ATLANTA LEGAL AID SOCIETY – Nonprofit that offers free legal aid in civil matters for low- and moderate-income people across metro Atlanta.
STATE BAR OF GEORGIA – Find an attorney. Tip: Use pricing filter to select limited scope, pro bono, fixed price, etc.
COUNCIL OF MAGISTRATE COURT JUDGES – Free forms generator guides you through questions to create free, customized forms to take to the Magistrate Court.
COUNCIL OF PROBATE JUDGES OF GEORGIA – Offers statewide standard forms and how-to videos for common probate issues, including wills, estates, and guardianship for minors and adults.
GEORGIA JUSTICE PROJECT – Free resources and attorneys to help people with clearing criminal records, obtaining pardons and early termination from probation.
GEORGIA COALITION AGAINST DOMESTIC VIOLENCE – Information on finding a shelter, finding a lawyer, how to be safe in court.
24-HOUR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINE IN GA – 1-800-334-2836
Calls to the hotline are automatically connected to the caller’s nearest Criminal Justice Coordinating Council-certified shelter.
GEORGIA SUPERIOR COURT CLERKS’ COOPERATIVE AUTHORITY – Free standard statewide forms on family violence, protective orders.
Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on Twitter @JOURNALISTAJILL or at [email protected].
Header image: The Georgia Supreme Court (Credit: Joy Walstrum)