Service To Agriculture Recipient Learned Lessons of Service
When he first took the oath of office in 2003, his grandmothers held the Bible at his swearing-in ceremony.”To some people, that might not mean anything,” Ron Sparks said, “but, to me, it meant the world. That was one of the few ways I felt I could show them how much I appreciated what they’d done for me.”Sparks, the 55-year-old commissioner of Alabama’s Department of Agriculture and Industries, says he’ll be forever grateful to the women who played a major role in his raising after his mother and father divorced when he was only 2.”If you wonder about Ron, that’s where a lot of my decisions come from — from things that they taught me,” says Sparks, recipient of the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Service to Agriculture Award at last month’s 86th annual meeting in Mobile. “They took me to church at a very early age, and taught me hard work, honesty, and that if your neighbors are in trouble, you do everything you can to help them.”It’s that lesson of service — whether to God or neighbor, public or private — that Sparks has taken with him into the Department of Agriculture & Industries, first as an assistant commissioner appointed in 1998, then as the publicly elected commissioner in 2002.Now in his second term after a landslide re-election in which he won 62 of Alabama’s 67 counties, Sparks quickly admits his knowledge of agriculture was limited when he first joined the department. A great grandfather had a poultry-cattle-and-fruit farm where a young Ron occasionally helped out, but that was hardly the training one might expect for a state agriculture commissioner.”I have to admit that when I moved to Montgomery, I knew little about agriculture. It certainly wasn’t easy,” he says of that first year in the department. “I just bowed up and worked at it, listened, studied and finally learned from experience.”If you’re willing to work hard, you can overcome a lack of education,” added Sparks, who holds an associate’s degree in business from Northeast Alabama Junior College in Rainsville. “I don’t try to match wits with others, but I’ll take my day’s work and compete with anybody. If you’re willing to do that, you can overcome it. But if you don’t have an education and you’re lazy, you’re in trouble.”It’s that work ethic that has made Ron Sparks among the most pro-active ag commissioners Alabama has ever seen.
In four years alone, he’s raised the public awareness of agriculture as he zigzagged his way 260,000 miles across the state, breaking ground on new diagnostic labs, implementing the Farm-to-School child nutrition program, pushing for disaster aid for farmers stricken by drought, storms and freezes, dealing with Alabama’s only case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, and establishing the Center for Alternative Fuels to aid in Alabama’s quest for biofuel technology.An advocate of country-of-origin labeling, he also expanded the department’s Food Safety Division to test more imported foods for harmful chemicals, and gained national attention when he prevented thousands of pounds of Vietnamese catfish tainted with banned chemicals from making their way to Alabama dinner tables.”There ought to be labor standards, there ought to be environmental standards, and they ought to have to follow the same standards that our farmers do,” Sparks reasoned. “And if they don’t, they shouldn’t be allowed to come into this country. It’s that simple. I don’t know that we do that. When you only check 2 percent of all the food products that come into this country, I don’t think we’re doing a very good job.”I believe in trying to help your neighbor,” Sparks continued, “but I also believe that there’s got to be fairness.”It’s a philosophy that Sparks has taken abroad as he seeks new markets for Alabama products in Africa, India, Italy and, of course, Cuba. “I’m not one of these who believes in getting a trade agreement just for the sake of getting one,” he said. “I’m a strong believer that if you’ve got a 25 percent tariff on my food going into your country, there ought to be a 25 percent tariff on your food coming into my country.”He’s met with his greatest success in Cuba, where he’s met President Fidel Castro on numerous occasions and built a personal friendship with Pedro Alvarez, chairman of the Cuban trade association known as Alimport.As a result, Alabama farmers provide Cuba with more than 60 percent of its poultry, 90 percent of its utility poles, as well as cotton and grain and other commodities.”Not only have we helped our farmers, but I’m a strong believer that we’ve helped 11 million hungry men, women and children,” Sparks said. “I know there are some who probably disagree, but we’ve got to be honest with ourselves — is there really a need to continue an embargo on a country for over 40-something years?”I wish this country would start communicating to make sure that when Fidel passes that there’s not another disaster there,” he adds. “And I hope that anything that we’ve done there will be a small part of making that transition better because I can tell you they understand Alabama better. I don’t know if they understand the American people, but they understand that we care about them.”It’s no wonder that Sparks — now well-versed in the agricultural issues that once overwhelmed him — knows well the impact global decisions have back home where 21 percent of Alabama’s workforce is part of an agricultural industry that pumps more than $40 billion a year into the state’s economy. Still, he says, few Alabamians are aware of that impact “because the farmers have done such a good job.””We still raise the safest, most economical food supply in the world,” said Sparks. “People just don’t realize how important it is for us to be able to feed ourselves, and farmers have made that commitment generation after generation, and it doesn’t get the respect that I feel it deserves. Governors don’t talk about agriculture anymore; presidents don’t talk about agriculture anymore. It’s not a cornerstone.”Farmers have been silently going on and doing their jobs and producing the food and fiber that we need. As long as we’ve got plenty to eat and our bellies are full and nobody in our family is going hungry, then we don’t think about the importance of that farmer.”