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Phillips seeks Commissioner of Agriculture seat

By By Georgia E. Frye / staff writer
July 28, 2003
Max Phillips is seeking the Republican nomination for commissioner of agriculture and commerce and the chance to challenge incumbent Democrat Lester Spell in November.
Phillips ran unsuccessfully for the same job in 1991 and 1995. In the Aug. 5 Republican primary, Phillips faces Roger D. Crowder, Kyle Weston Magee and Fred T. Smith.
Phillips taught vocational agriculture in the Meridian public schools for 21 years. He met with The Meridian Star editorial board last week to discuss his campaign and vision for the future of the agriculture industry in Mississippi.
The Star: Tell us a little about why you decided to jump in this race this year.
Phillips: I debated long and hard and spent a lot of time in prayer with my wife. I considered it a long time before we made the decision to do this. The bottom line is that there are some needs in agriculture that are going unattended.
The present commissioner has been popular. He's been effective to a degree, but there's some things that are really of concern to people across the state that deal with the success and the preservation of the farm family that are not being tended to.
We think that a new leadership with a fresh vision for the future could have a very positive effect on that.
The Star: What specifically is going unattended?
Phillips: Mississippi has a wonderfully diverse agricultural economy. It seems that more teaching is given to the traditional areas, and some of the lesser traditional areas are going without attention. Organic farming is an area that needs some support and some assistance. Another area is direct marketing of agricultural products, whether it be truck crops or livestock enterprises. It is an area that we think could be supported more strongly.
The Star: So are you saying that direct marketing and organic farming are two areas that the current commissioner is just not focusing a lot of time and energy and attention on?
Phillips: From the feedback we're getting from the people across the state, they are not getting enough assistance and attention in those areas.
The Star: Are there any other areas that you think are being ignored or are not getting a lot of attention by the current commissioner?
Phillips: Something that really stands out to me as a glaring issue in this campaign is a need for the industry. The average age of a Mississippi farmer, and we're talking about full-time farmers and ranchers, is approaching 68 years of age and getting older every year.
We have to achieve a playing field where young people find hope for economic success in agriculture. Otherwise we're going to be at risk in Mississippi to maintain our current level of agriculture production.
The Star: How do you make farming attractive because it is a lot of manual, hard work. How do you attract young adults, teenagers and high school students to want to get in this field?
Phillips: I appreciate you recognizing the fact that hard work is a very key component. Most people today elect to work a 40-hour week and have nights and weekends off and have vacations with their families as opposed to a commitment of a full-time life on the farm.
But agriculture today is so much more than plows and cows. There's a lot of wonderful opportunity for young people in agriculture. Agriculture is the largest industry in our state. It employs 28 percent of our workforce when you combine agriculture production and agricultural related occupations. We want to get that message out to the young people.
Another thing we want to try to work out is the method of transfer of family assets from one generation to another without having to sell the farm to pay the inheritance tax on it. We think that is a terrible travesty.
The Star: If you have a family who has built up a farm over generations and the parents die and the kids want to run the farm, do they have to pay an inheritance tax on everything the parents left them?
Phillips: That is a common occurrence today for families. A mother and father who have farmed all their lives and built up assets when they pass away, sometimes children have to sell the assets to pay the inheritance taxes.
The Star: Is that different from other kinds of businesses?
Phillips: I'm not sure if there is a difference but in the case of farm assets. I just know that usually they give the lion's share of those assets.
The Star: There is a growing number of illegal aliens in Mississippi, mostly from Mexico, and a lot of them end up in the poultry industry. Does the Department of Agriculture have any responsibility to them or that situation?
Phillips: To what extent we have responsibility, I'm not sure. I think we have an obligation to work with that situation. First of all, I'm very saddened by the fact we don't have a workforce that can supply our needs for labor in this state. We used to could do that, therefore they have brought in cheaper laborers.
What bothers me about that is that we have lost our work ethic in this state in this generation that is coming into the workplace today. I taught my former students that there was one thing they could make money at and it is spelled w-o-r-k. No matter what you go into, if you work at it, you will make money.