December 1 , 2006
Getting to know Texas' new ag commissioner
Todd Staples (right) visits with his father and business partner, Cecil Staples, at their Anderson County Ranch.
By Bobby Horecka
Most everyone has that favorite teacher, the one who inspired us to pursue greater callings while we fidgeted in our desks waiting for the school bell to ring.
For newly elected Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, that favorite teacher was a man named Harold Gilbert, his high school ag teacher.
But it wasn't time in the classroom that Staples remembers best. Rather, it was years after he left those uncomfortable desks behind.
Born and raised on his family's East Texas ranch, Staples was well on his way to entrepreneurial success by age 25.
He had gone to Texas A&M, where he received a degree in agricultural economics. He then returned home to start his own retail plant nursery and landscape business, as well as partner with his father to expand their cow-calf operation, and, later, teamed with another lifelong friend to establish a registered Brangus operation. To top it all off, he was in the process of starting with his own land appraisal and brokerage firm, dealing in farm and ranch real estate.
But even as he sauntered past the black and rust colored cattle during a recent visit to his ranch, his eyes still sparkle when he recalls his political start.
"My high school ag teacher called me one Saturday morning and asked me to run for the Palestine city council," he says. "Although I thought I was too young to get started in that, he said `Todd, we gave to you and it's time for you to give back.'
"So I did what most former FFA students do to their ag teachers," he adds. "I said, 'yes sir.' "
And he hasn't looked back since. After serving a while on city council, Staples says his community encouraged him to run for state representative, where he served three terms before becoming a state senator in 2000.
After two terms as a senator, Staples ran for agriculture commissioner, winning 2.3 million votes for the statewide office in the Nov. 7 election.
"It's a tremendous honor to have the opportunity to represent all of Texas as commissioner of agriculture," Staples says. "Texas has very rich heritage of farming and ranching. It is a big part of the past, but it is an extremely important part of our future as well."
Winds of change
As the newly elected commissioner took a few days off after the year-and-a-half-long campaign trail in mid-November to spend time at his Anderson County ranch, record winds raked across his land giving song to old oaks and flurries of fall leaves.
But even after so many months on the road, Staples knows well the real work is yet to come.
"As our population doubles in the next few decades, it's so important that we plan ahead, take advantage of opportunities and that the agricultural community plays a leadership role in the state of Texas," he says.
Several issues are facing Texas, and Staples says he intends to advocate the voice of farming and ranching families of Texas.
Former Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, now Comptroller-elect, began several initiatives to benefit Texas farmers. Staples praised her work in programs such as Go Texan, Yes! Texas, and other value-added initiatives, pledging to carry them forward.
But the winds of change are also blowing on renewable energy fronts, Staples says, and much work lies ahead in developing the field.
"Renewable energy and biofuels offer economic opportunity and job growth that will help not only the farming community with additional income, but our urban areas as well as they address clean air issues," he says.
Additionally, bioterrorism and border security will have to be addressed, working with all levels of government to ensure Americans are kept safe while services are still offered as efficiently and affordably as possible.
But his biggest task lies with farmers, Staples says.
Working with producer commodity groups and planning economic summits to boost development will be just part of his plan for the future, Staples says.
"What this job is really about is partnering for progress," he says. "It's about being a partner with producers all across Texas.
"Agriculture is about business," he adds. "It's about productivity and profitability. And if we're going to have a bright future, I intend to partner with producers across Texas to create new markets and greater opportunities for exports all over this state."
On the issues
Several hot button issues are on the table as Staples claims his new post.
Drought and the need for disaster assistance across commodities will be a priority, as well as water policies to ensure agriculture's needs are met without burdening producers with undue costs.
Animal identification will also be a top concern. Staples criticized the national mandatory system for its lack of consumer input. He says he supports a voluntary plan where producers can respond to the marketplace to ensure safe and reliable products.
"We know that we need a rapid trace back system, but we also know that costs are too great and the plan is not thought out well enough for producers to voluntarily participate," he says. "As technology increases and more producers have input to the process, I think we'll see a voluntary plan that is responsive and allows for adequate trace back."
Finding transportation solutions for a growing Texas will also top his priority list.
"I am not a proponent of the Trans-Texas Corridor," he says. "But I will say that with the doubling of the Texas population, it is inevitable that roads will be built. We must build those in a way that is private property friendly.
"We need to make certain that when new roads are built, we follow the existing footprints whereever possible in order to avoid disturbing pristine farming and ranching and wildlife habitat," he says.
But private property protections need to go well beyond transportation plans, Staples says.
"To take private property from one person and give it to another, all in the name of economic development, just flies in the face of the very reason our country and state was founded," he says. "It is so important that we clarify in law and pass a state amendment that restricts and prohibits government and other entities from exercising eminent domain solely for economic development purposes."
In dealing with these population growth concerns, Staples says farmers must be vigilant in protecting the incentives they have. And one of the biggest defenses against urban sprawl lies in the protection of agriculture valuations in the tax code, he says.
"If we want to preserve the heritage of Texas, we need to make sure our tax policy supports the heritage that we have," he says. "It's so important that we make certain that land remains in agriculture production. If those incentives were removed, the price of food would dramatically increase and you would see urban sprawl spread all across the state at a very rapid pace."
But perhaps his biggest task ahead lies in offering leadership and support to those who work the fields day in and day out.
"We need to make certain we are developing leaders all across Texas who are involved in production agriculture, who have a relationship with the land and who are there helping make decisions," Staples says. "We need to make certain we have a seat at the table as environmental solutions are found for dilemmas we face today."
"Ag producers are the best stewards of the land that I know of," he adds. "And I can't encourage Farm Bureau members enough to get engaged at the local level and help come up with those solutions."
Down memory lane
Harold Gilbert has seen several capable sorts pass through his classroom who went on to become doctors, lawyers, preachers and teachers.
But it was a quiet young man named Todda fellow Gilbert says already had a knack for making things happen when he was in high schoolin whom he saw potential in plenty.
Of course, Staples days of leadership came long before that Saturday morning prod to run for city council, Gilbert says.
"I remember meeting with him one morning at school and encouraging him to run for president of the student body," Gilbert says. "He wasn't real sure, but I stayed on him and he wound up winning, twice, as a junior and a senior."
Gilbert says he also urged the young man to rise to leadership within FFA, and before his high school days were done, Staples served as state vice president for that organization.
And in all casesstudent president, city councilman, state legislator, and now agriculture commissionerGilbert says his reasons for supporting Staples have remained the same.
"He's somebody who is honest, has integrity and will listen to what people have to say," the 78-year-old retired school teacher says. "And that's never changed about him. He's a really good young man, and it has always been my privilege to offer him my endorsement."
Always the gentlemen, Staples is quick to pass such praise along, and in matters of integrity, he points to his raising.
"My parents have been a very big influence in my life," Staples says. "They are people who believe in hard work, responsibility, and serving your fellow neighbors. My parents taught me these values, and I hope to pass that along to my children as well."
No doubt, they're values he'll take with him as he heads to Austin.
"I never dreamed I'd have this opportunity to serve my fellow Texans as commissioner of agriculture," he says. "It's a job I take very seriously, and one I know is very important to the future of our state. And I'm excited to get to work with Texans from all across our great state."