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Hatcher off and running

Former state veterinarian settling into his role as the new Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture
Story and photos by: Chris Villines 3/22/2019


At the dairy farm five consecutive generations of his family have run since 1831, new Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture Dr. Charlie Hatcher pays a visit to one of the farm’s Brown Swiss cows.
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How’s this for an agricultural resume? Tenth-generation American farmer. Fifth-generation Tennessee farmer whose family runs a successful dairy. A veterinarian for more than 30 years and State Veterinarian for 10 of those years. And now, Tennessee’s 38th Commissioner of Agriculture.

These impressive credentials belong to Dr. Charlie Hatcher.

On Dec. 3, 2018, Hatcher was appointed by fellow Williamson County native Gov. Bill Lee to succeed Jai Templeton and head up the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA).

Sworn into office on Jan. 19, Hatcher lives on his family’s farm — established in 1831 — in College Grove with his wife of 40 years, Sharon. Son Charles, president of the Hatcher’s farming operation, and daughter Jennifer, who leads the on-farm vet clinic her father founded in 1993, also live on the farm with their families.

Dr. Hatcher has hit the ground running as commissioner, making numerous appearances across the state to get the pulse of Tennessee’s diverse agricultural climate. He also sat down with The Cooperator on a recent rainy afternoon at his farm to talk more about his appointment:

Cooperator: Before now, did you ever envision becoming Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture?

Never in my wildest dreams. But it’s in my wheelhouse, and I’m loving it. It’s kind of a dream job for me because I’ve been totally immersed in agriculture anyway and now I get to help farmers, foresters, and the industry even more.

Cooperator: When you found out you were appointed commissioner, what were some of the first tasks that came to mind for Tennessee agriculture?

I went to the interview with 10 priorities in mind, and we’ve since boiled those down to five, which are the same as Gov. Lee’s. First is rural economic development, which has always been a primary focus of TDA. Distressed counties are foremost on the governor’s mind, and TDA already tries to help rural counties. Second is workforce development — career/technical education, skilled trades, vocational ag. We’re going to work closely with other state departments and organizations like FFA, 4-H, and STEM on this. Third is effective and efficient government. I’ve been telling my people I want them to work hard and get things done just like farmers and foresters do. Fourth is healthy living. We’re deeply concerned with the suicide rates among farmers in some parts of the country. And finally, farm retention. The worst is dairies; they’re dropping like flies. Once a family farm is gone in the community, that’s a loss of people buying equipment, feed, and supplies and a loss of employees. One small agribusiness in the community makes a huge difference.

Cooperator: You mentioned the tough times for dairies. What is the solution to this problem, or is there one?

I’ve charged the Tennessee Dairy Producers Association with two things — one, to come up with what they want for dairy under the Tennessee Agricultural Enhancement Program and two, to recommend what can be done to improve the health of our dairy industry. There have been regional efforts that have produced some recommendations, such as possibly restructuring milk marketing administration into a two-tiered marketing system. We’ve got a pretty high utilization for fluid milk. If we can leverage that and try to keep milk in Tennessee, bottled in Tennessee, and sold to Tennesseans, that’s the goal. How do we get there? We don’t know yet. That might be something that has to be fixed on the federal level.

Cooperator: Explain how the new Tennessee Milk program plays into the efforts to improve our dairy industry.

TDA has developed a logo processors can use to promote their product, if it’s entirely sourced and processed in Tennessee. Along those lines, part of our economic development package is to promote Tennessee products — milk, meats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and more — in Tennessee institutions like schools and prisons. If we can get close to 20 percent of Tennessee products being used in school systems, that would be a home run. That could drive the Tennessee Milk effort because then there would be a reason for processors to bottle Tennessee-produced milk.

Cooperator: In terms of the Tennessee Agricultural Enhancement Program, what do you see as its future?

Hatcher: Part of what we’re putting in place right now is a Tennessee Ag Enhancement Program advisory group. We have representation from all the commodity groups — cotton, corn, soybeans, all the livestock. The advisory group is going to take a look at the current TAEP program and determine if there should be new programs or if some should be suspended for a year or two. There’s a lot of cattle equipment on TAEP — would they recommend maybe slowing that down or moving some money to a new program? Nothing is off the table for us. Instead of [TDA] trying to determine what’s best for TAEP, we’re going to let the stakeholders make suggestions. Their recommendations will be submitted to us so we can make the changes before the next TAEP cycle this fall.

Cooperator: Hemp is an emerging, hot-button topic right now. What is the department’s stance on hemp?

The passage of the Farm Bill has opened things up to where hemp can be sold and moved interstate. The department is fully supportive of this. More than 3,300 applications have come in [for a grower’s license and processer registration]. People should understand, however, that like any business you want to get into, you need to do homework. This is not the magic answer for income. It’s high risk with potentially high reward, but there are all kinds of factors involved. You have to make sure there’s a market for your product. If the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) level gets too high, you have to mow it down so you could potentially lose all you’ve invested. But there’s a lot of optimism for hemp. Tobacco farmers or those who have grown tobacco in the past can use some of the same equipment for hemp. And there are all kinds of ways to harvest it. We’re going to do all we can to support the interest in hemp.

Cooperator: What do you think the main challenges are in terms of Tennessee agriculture right now?

The issues we’re currently dealing with are hemp, the Food Safety and Modernization Act, dicamba, and farm income. Far and away, the biggest issue I hear about when I travel across the state is farm income. It’s a tough, tough time for every group except forestry, lumber, sawmills, and the nursery business. Row croppers, beef, and dairy are being affected by this downturn. Even so, people are optimistic about Gov. Lee because of his enthusiasm and support for agriculture. You can look at his executive orders and tell that agriculture is a big part of his agenda. Part of our objective is going to be to decrease regulations and regulate responsibly so people can have a safe, affordable food supply and get what they’re paying for when it comes to fuels and weights and measures. We want the right balance of regulations and customer service.

Cooperator: Are there any other specific challenges for TDA?

Foremost on my mind with this opportunity is that I don’t want to be at the end of the administration and not accomplish what we could have. That’s why I want to make sure people know the priorities and the benchmarks, and then we can execute them on the county level. That’s going to take coordination among several different state departments. We don’t want to duplicate efforts; we want to work together and follow through on the governor’s priorities.

Cooperator: With your background in the veterinary industry, are there key areas of focus in terms of animal ag going forward?

One thing we’ve done — Commissioner Templeton really started this — is look at the cattle herd health program that is in a pilot phase right now. There were some preliminary discussions, and after I got in office we’ve formalized what was already being talked about. The pilot program started in March with between 35-40 cattle producers to try it out and see how it works. Then we’ll roll it out in full this fall with a vaccine/disease/herd health component included. And even though I’m livestock oriented, I’m going to do my level best to include all of agriculture and forestry in initiatives. We all have to be united to implement these potential changes.

Cooperator: Talk about reconnecting people with agriculture, such as those who want to know where their food comes from.

Hatcher: With my value-added background [at Franklin Farmers Market], I recognize that all Tennesseans are customers of agriculture. We have to be transparent and forthcoming as an industry. It’s an opportunity for us to tell our story, to shout it from the rooftops. People need to know where food comes from and the hard work farmers, ranchers, and foresters put in so folks can be in a comfortable house and have something to eat. For the most part, people are three to four generations removed from ag. They think their food comes from a store. Our educational challenge is to make ag relevant again for people so they realize the importance of our industry, the No. 1 industry in our state. As [U.S. Agriculture] Secretary Perdue says, “We put food on the table and we want to be at that table.” Part of my job is to be an advocate and make sure we’re at the table.

Cooperator: How have your predecessors as commissioner helped you get adjusted to the role?

Hatcher: Commissioner Templeton was very gracious and gave me a fabulous briefing. He had a notebook of documents already prepared. Everything was laid out. I’m forever grateful for that. I’ve also picked Julius Johnson’s brain, and he had a list of things he told me not to do! That was very helpful. I’ve talked with Ken Givens on numerous occasions as well as Terry Oliver.

Cooperator: How do you view the role of cooperatives both today and in the future?

I think cooperatives are extremely important because the average farm is so small. Take livestock, for example, where the average herd size is 30 head — the way farmers can take advantage of cooperatives is through buying power. They can get supplies cheaper. On the selling side, you take advantage of alliances where you can group calves or commodities together. It’s farmers working together cooperatively. It gives you economies of scale you wouldn’t have otherwise because you’re a small farmer. And not only that, cooperatives are entrenched in the communities and can educate their members on all kinds of things. In my mind, the way we can keep building on the base and make agriculture stronger is through cooperatives. They’re critical.

Cooperator: Is there anything else?

I love agriculture. It’s in my blood. I will be an advocate for agriculture as long as I’m breathing because I know what farmers go through — I’ve been through it, too. I’m one of them.

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