After 41 years in office, Tommy Irvin prepares to step aside

Chip Carter
The Produce News

ATLANTA — In 1969, Apollo 11 carried the first men to land on the moon, the Beatles released Abbey Road, The Brady Bunch premiered on television, and a man named Tommy Irvin became commissioner of the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

Mr. Irvin was appointed by the governor to finish the term of the departing agriculture commissioner. The Atlanta Journal & Constitution ran an editorial suggesting that he was merely keeping the chair warm until the next election.

A reappraisal might be in order. After Mr. Irvin completed that first term, Georgia voters elected him to 10 more, spanning 41 years. Still clad in his trademark cowboy boots, he will step aside in January as the longest tenured agriculture commissioner in the United States and the longest-serving public official in the Georgia government.

"I'm going to try to keep that seat warm a few more months," Mr. Irvin cracked during a May 4 interview with The Produce News from his office here in the courtyard of the Georgia Capitol.

Mr. Irvin spent his early years working in his father's sawmill and hauling peaches by the truck-full to the old Atlanta farmers market. Years later, under his guidance, the state would expand the Atlanta market into a million-square-foot marvel that employs more than 3,700 people and generates revenues of over half-a-billion dollars per year — a program Mr. Irvin lists among the great accomplishments in a career full of them.

"My family was sharecroppers, poor folks," Mr. Irvin said. "We had one pair of overalls, and they were patched. You had one pair of shoes, and you'd put pasteboard in them when they wore through. We'd go barefoot in the summer - that was part of Georgia history. But we always had plenty to eat." Mr. Irvin left school to run the sawmill after his father was killed in an accident there. He built it into a highly profitable concern before he heard the call of public service.

In 1956, Mr. Irvin was elected to the school board of Habersham County, GA, where he still resides. He served four terms in the state House of Representatives, where he introduced the bill that led to the first school lunch program in the nation, before being appointed ag commissioner in 1969. Mr. Irvin was in office when a peanut farmer from Plains, GA, took up residence at the Georgia governor's mansion in 1971. He was still there when Jimmy Carter parlayed that post into the presidency in 1976, an event that thrust Georgia — and agriculture — into the American spotlight.

Mr. Irvin's status grew commensurately. In Georgia, he towered over most other politicians, figuratively and literally, at six-feet, five-inches tall. In a state as agriculture-centric as Georgia, Mr. Irvin's wood-paneled office was a center of power for decades.

"Aside from the paraphernalia on the walls, this office is the same as it was the first day I walked in. It's a nice office," he said. "I've been pretty close to the center of political power and had as much influence on it as any one man should. I recognized early on, power is dangerous in the wrong hands. If you misuse power, it'll strike you back. You use power to influence people to do the right thing. We only used power to make people do what they ought to do in the first place. If somebody's trying to pawn off bad product, if someone's not following food safety procedures, I can stop that in its tracks."

Mr. Irvin's office has been untouched by scandal. "I knew I'd get criticized no matter what I did — I had to make sure the criticism was unwarranted," he said. "We've been sued quite often. We don't lose often."

Over 41 years, Mr. Irvin has learned "the great value of agricultural research. For every dollar we spend, we get a return of seven-to-one." When he took office, Georgia farmers had corn yields of a dozen bushels per acre. That number is now 200. Peanut yields have tripled. "Who benefits from that? Everybody in Georgia," he stated.

"When I was a child, we grew our own corn. My mom would can tomatoes in a Mason jar, we'd strip sugar cane for syrup," Mr. Irvin recalled. "We've moved from that to what we have today in my lifetime. I think [the Georgia Department of Agriculture] has kept pace. I can't think of much I would do differently."

He continued, "Innovation in agriculture marketing has been a great asset to the American consumer. The modern produce mart is a miracle. Nowhere else on the face of the globe do you have the presentation and availability we do. We further process the food now. We specialize. Who would have thought 20 years ago — or 41 years ago — that you'd have cutting rooms at the Atlanta market, ready-made salad in bags, all the value-added items?"

Global marketing has become a major part of the Georgia produce picture as well. The state has international offices around the globe, and Mr. Irvin said, "If we didn't have a world market for our food, we wouldn't be near where we need to be. It's been very helpful to our industry. We wanted to market our products and serve them at dinner tables all over the world. We've done it."

Still, Mr. Irvin stated, "The biggest change that has happened in my time here is the safety of our food. We have the safest food modern science can provide. We've been a leader in that."

Along the way, he said, "We were great conservationists. If I had to name my legacy, I'd want it to be in that field. I've been involved at the county, district and state levels making policy."

Mr. Irvin was quick to note, "I didn't do any of this by myself. I took a positive approach that had an impact. I've tried to build relationships. It's much harder today; there's too much partisan politics. And the legislature for some reason doesn't think agriculture is important any more."

Slowed by Parkinson's disease diagnosed four years ago, when Mr. Irvin leaves office, he will spend more time with wife, Bernice, and their five children, 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He will also leave the door open to other projects.

"I don't need a job. I have a pretty good pension," he said. "But if there's something I can do to make mankind better, I'm open to it."

One grandson, Chris Irvin, is running for the state House of Representatives. this fall. "I may spend some time campaigning for him. I told him, 'Make your commitment to serve the people and try to make things better,'" he said. "I'm very satisfied with what we've done here. Challenges and opportunity go together. For the people of Georgia, I've been very content to be here 10- and-a-half terms," Mr. Irvin declared.

"When I retire, I'd like whoever comes into this office to be comfortable if I stop by to say hello," he added. "On the second Monday in January, my successor will be sworn in. If it so works out, I'll walk back in, hand him the keys to the desk, the keys to the door and the keys to the car. Just have somebody get me home."

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