Monday, March 25, 2013

Sowing Success with Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin

Few people could tell us more about agriculture in Georgia than Tommy Irvin. From his humble beginnings as the son of sharecroppers in White County, Irvin would go on to become Georgia’s Commissioner of Agriculture in 1968. Maintaining this post until his retirement in 2010, he would be the longest serving agriculture commissioner in the U.S. In the opening minutes of his interview for the Reflections on Georgia Politics Oral History Collection, Irvin speaks about his qualifications for the job:

"I know when I was chosen as Commissioner of Agriculture, one of the editorial writers for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wanted to know what I knew about farming.  I said, “Well, you know, I guess I knew everything that you needed to know. I knew how to tie a handspring and I knew “gee” and I knew “haw” and knew what that meant. And I knew how to keep the cow -- keep the horse from walking on the cotton when it was young and step on it. And I knew how to put on a set of Johnson wings.”  He said, “What’s that?”  I said, “Well, I thought that’s where I’d lose you!”

For the uninitiated, “gee” and “haw” are verbal commands for steering a plough horse. To learn what Johnson wings are you’ll have to check out the interview yourself (about 3 minutes in).  These tidbits may seem irrelevant and stuck in a bucolic past, but as Irvin continues about his memories and his life’s work, it becomes clear that such experiences informed the career of a statesman who shaped agriculture policy in Georgia for over forty years. And on more recent matters, Irvin is no slouch. He goes on to discuss a number of contemporary issues that affect agriculture in Georgia and beyond, including food safety, foreign trade, food prices, and the role of illegal immigration. Aside from his work with agriculture, Irvin has also been a huge advocate for education, serving on local and statewide school boards and collaborating with Richard Russell to implement the School Lunch Program. And it all started with Johnson wings.

Post by Steve Armour, Intern, Russell Library

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