Farmers First

On the Stump

Standing by a flickering backyard torch light in his jeans, crisp white button-down shirt and tie at a pot luck supper at Austin's Boggy Creek farm, Patterson spoke recently about the key to saving rural Texas -- "supporting the 'kiddos'" in farming. In some rural areas, he says, the chief source of income for residents is Social Security payments. All the young people have left the farms, and the older generation is retiring. "When all of us die off," he asks, "who will be taking our place?"

Patterson says the powerful Texas Farm Bureau -- which has endorsed Combs -- doesn't support the family farmer, and current Ag Commish Perry hasn't looked out for the little guy, either. Patterson wants to change that. "We need to level the playing field for the family farmer," says Patterson. "I fear the day five corporations do all the food production."

There was a time when farmers and ranchers and agriculture interests decided the race for Texas agriculture commissioner, an office that oversees 500 employees and manages a $23 million annual budget. Now, however, farmers and ranchers comprise about 2% of the Texas population. While the shrinking voice of rural Texas still carries some political clout, if Patterson wishes to defeat the big money and name recognition of Susan Combs, he knows he needs to attract urban and suburban voters who may not see any immediate connection to the ag race.

It is with that in mind that he has made food safety a big focus of his campaign. Patterson wants to put in place an inspection system to guarantee that food imported into Texas meets the same standards of purity and safety that food produced in this country meets.

Though he is a bit too quick to say "I don't claim to be an environmentalist," Patterson does support the Soil and Water Conservation Board and other agencies monitoring land and water use for environmental concerns, and encourages development of "new" crops like kenaf -- which is related to cotton and okra, and offers a way to make paper products without cutting trees.

Among urban and suburban voters, Patterson is hoping purveyors and consumers of organic foods -- as well as those who produce them, like Carol Ann Sayle and Larry Butler, owners of Austin's Boggy Creek Farm, will be his people.

An ever-growing number of consumers who seek out organics -- out of health consciousness or concern for laborers who are exposed to harsh chemicals and dangerous conditions on many conventional farms -- are encouraged by his interest in supporting organics; it is an area of food production that the Perry-led Texas Dept. of Agriculture has truly ignored. Supporters in Austin say they are pleased that Patterson is talking organics; it is still considered a niche market in the farming world, but one important to local growers and consumers, and to the younger would-be farmers Patterson wants to attract.

"He's no Jim Hightower," said more than one Austin supporter, comparing Patterson to progressives' gold-standard for ag commish. "But at least he's talking about our issues." The question remains whether that will be enough to catapult Patterson to victory.

While a recent Scripps Howard Poll shows him only a handful of points behind Combs, the conventional wisdom seems to be that Gov. George Bush's coattails, and the demoralizing hit the Democrats are taking on the national stage, will be too much for Patterson to overcome. Still, Patterson and his supporters remain optimistic that his experience and his message will click with voters.

"I think he may be the dark horse that surprises everybody," says Lowrey.

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