NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – Washington County farmer Jeff Aiken said he missed his Telford cattle farm when announcing he wouldn’t seek another term after six years as Tennessee Farm Bureau president. Thursday, though, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture announced Aiken will become Tennessee’s deputy agriculture commissioner March 1.
“I’ve enjoyed the few weeks that I’ve been back there wading mud and snow and feeding cattle,” told News Channel 11 Thursday shortly after the announcement. “It was nice.”
Aiken said when the opportunity arose, though, he thought about the commitment Gov. Bill Lee’s administration has shown toward the state’s largest economic driver.
“I don’t know in my lifetime that there’s ever been another governor that has supported agriculture as strongly as Governor Lee and Commissioner Hatcher, and I just thought it was too good of an opportunity to not be part of the team and try to have an impact for Tennessee farmers.”
In a release, Commissioner Charlie Hatcher said Aiken brings “a wealth of experience and unwavering commitment” to a role that was filled for 35 years by Tom Womack prior to his recent retirement.
Aiken will oversee many of the department’s day-to-day operations as well as assist in policy development, staff oversight and supporting programs and services.
Aiken told us he sees several primary opportunities and challenges facing Tennessee’s agriculture industry that the department can help guide farmers and others in the industry through.
“COVID kind of highlighted some, not production problems for ag commodities but processing challenges, weaknesses in the supply chain,” Aiken said. “That has been a strong focus and will continue to be a strong focus to continue to address some of those weaknesses.”
Figuring out effective ways to help the industry shift where necessary is easier said than done, and the problems existed before COVID, Aiken said.
“None of us had ever truly seen it because there had not been empty grocery store shelves. A light went off for everybody that these are things that we need to be addressing.”
Hatcher lauded Aiken’s skillset and connections as the department seeks to advance both agriculture and forestry through economic development, stewardship of natural resources and technological innovation.
“As we aim to build resiliency in our food, fuel, and fiber industries and bolster rural economies, Jeff will be instrumental in furthering the department’s goals,” Hatcher said.
While he doesn’t know exactly what skill sets Commissioner Hatcher looks to draw on from him, Aiken said he has strong relationships with the agriculture community due to his years of involvement with the Farm Bureau and other ag-centric organizations.
“Not to imply that that hasn’t existed, but I think to strengthen communications, and the commissioner has said he would intend for me to put a little greater focus on agriculture in East Tennessee,” he said.
The challenges facing East and Northeast Tennessee farmers aren’t terribly different from those facing farmers everywhere, Aiken said.
“We’re talking about supply chain issues and needing processing facilities and those type things,” he said.
As those issues are confronted, prices for inputs like feed, equipment and fertilizer are increasing even faster than the overall inflation rate, he said.
“We’re going to be looking at record costs for ag inputs in 2022, and that’s a problem that exists nationwide. I’m not sure it’s one that the department can address, but it’s one that we’ve got to be cognizant of and at least explore any opportunities to help our farmers where we can. Fertilizer prices are going to be double or more.”
Not everything on the horizon is gloomy for Northeast Tennessee, Aiken said. A renewed and strengthened desire for people to want to know where their food comes from and who’s producing it provides a distinct opportunity related to the reality of agriculture in this part of the state.
“That could translate into more of a focus on farmers’ markets. When you get to East Tennessee, a lot of smaller producers, and I think they will have the opportunity to benefit from consumer demand to know who and where their food’s being produced.”