Farmers Market flap drives Dept. of Agriculture race

Democrat accuses incumbent of "secretive deals"

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The race for the state's agriculture commissioner in 2006 was a case of David vs. Goliath — a self-made farmer vs. a dairy farm magnate. Challenger Emile DeFelice ran on a platform of empowering backyard farmers to make a living off their crops and as an advocate for eating more locally grown produce. Voters instead picked Hugh Weathers, the owner of a large dairy farm and dairy truck empire with experience in Columbia.

This year's challenger, Democrat Tom Elliott, doesn't have a grand vision for a barnyard renaissance like DeFelice. Instead, Elliott seems singularly concerned about Weathers' involvement in the new State Farmers Market in Lexington County, part of an $85 million, 174-acre development.

A drawn out debate over where to put the market ended in 2008 with the Department of Agriculture abruptly pulling out of a deal with Richland County and heading to the new site off Interstate 26. The largest market vendors moved in last month.

"In my many years holding public office, I have never run across a public office holder that is more arrogant, high handed, and more blatant with his secretive deals than our present agriculture commissioner," says Elliott on his campaign website.

A scandal in the office of the agriculture commissioner first brought Weathers to the position. Gov. Mark Sanford appointed him after fellow Republican Charlie Sharp got mired in a money-laundering scandal. Weathers went on to win the seat easily in 2006.

The threat of development on farmland was among the issues Weathers campaigned on in '06, noting "very good tomato farms are now growing houses." Yet it was Weathers who worked with private developers to bring the farmers market from urban Richland to rural Lexington County.

That deal angered Richland County officials, upset that their offer to buy land for the market was rebuffed in a last-minute switch to Lexington. Weathers has argued that the Richland site offered no room for expansion and was rejected by the market's larger vendors.

The legislature supported the move, but an April review by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Council raised questions about the relocation and the state money that went into it. The report noted the Department of Agriculture had already spent money on the new site prior to the legislature's approval. It also claimed recent delays in construction appeared to be due to the contractor failing to supply enough manpower.

Weathers continues to laud the project and highlights plans to relocate the rest of the vendors and complete construction of a retail building, demonstration kitchen, 400-seat amphitheater, and 200-seat conference center. On his campaign site, Weathers claims the shift in location saved the state $15 million by encouraging private investments.

Elliott is not impressed. Under a tab on his website labeled "Values and Vision," the candidate only gives 700 words of angry questions about how the project was handled and a vague promise that "there are many more questions to (be) answered" if you elect Elliott commissioner.

It's not that Elliott isn't qualified — his family owned a grocery and he touts himself as Midlands farmer. He also knows his way around public office, having served as a Richland County Councilman, a county treasurer, and a Statehouse representative. But he's obsessed with the trouble he sees out at the farmers market. There's no doubt that there is smoke; the question is whether there's a fire. We may never know.

Meanwhile, Weathers is campaigning on the same slogan that carried him to victory in 2006: "Ask Any Farmer."

The formal opening for the new market will come during the Midlands Fall Plant and Flower Festival, Oct. 8-10 — less than a month before election day. Weathers is also campaigning on his 50 by 20 plan — making S.C. agriculture a $50 billion industry by 2020.

In November, we'll learn if voters move on to another issue as vendors and farmers continue to move in to their new digs.

For more info on Tom Elliott, visit elliottforagriculture.com.

For more info on Hugh Weathers, visit hughweathers.com.

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