Ron Sparks, currently running for governor of Alabama, is the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Industry.
By Alvin Benn
Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks probably pinches himself at times when he thinks about how far he’s come since his boyhood days when he’d collect empty soft drink bottles to make what he could for himself and his family.
He did a lot more than that in Ft. Payne where he learned the value of hard work and responsibility at an early age.
Now that he’s nearing the end of his second term as Alabama’s top farmer, Sparks has his eyes set on the state’s most important political position.
He wants to be governor and he’s convinced he can win, not only the Democratic nomination next summer but beat the Republican nominee in the general election.
"I’m the only guy in the running right now who has won two statewide elections," said Sparks, during a recent interview with AFC Cooperative Farming News. "I’m willing to work across the aisles with Republicans as well as Democrats."
Ron Sparks, right, with Teddy Gentry, left, and Charlie Daniels.
Prospective candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination have been dropping out of the running since first indicating they were interested, leaving Sparks and U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, as possible opponents in next year’s primary election.
The two men both have had humble beginnings, but it ends there. Davis, who grew up in Montgomery, went to Harvard University, returned to Alabama to practice law and now is midway through his third term in Congress after two unsuccessful attempts.
Sparks rose to prominence without an Ivy League education, but showed he had what it took to win local elections before taking over as Agriculture Commissioner in 2003. He easily won re-election, capturing all but five of Alabama’s 67 counties.
Relating to everyday Alabamians is what Sparks likes to talk about because he feels he’s walked in the same shoes as so many people with challenging starts in life.
"We never had much money and had to work hard to get what we did have," he said. "My mother, grandmother and I all worked at hosiery mills in Ft. Payne. Now that industry is almost gone in DeKalb County."
Trade agreements with foreign countries have devastated many once-successful U.S. businesses, according to Sparks, who cited the hosiery industry as a good example.
"Years ago, there were over 6,000 sock jobs in my little town," he recalled. "Now it’s down to about 1,500 jobs. My grandmother paired socks for 43 years. My mother worked at a hosiery mill for 30 years. Those jobs are disappearing fast because we’re sending too many of them overseas."
Sparks, 56, has spent the past seven years focusing his attention on agricultural issues, but is mindful, should he become governor, he’ll have to broaden his political horizons considerably.
That’s one reason he has been traveling the world in search of business for Alabama farmers, meeting with foreign officials on other matters and keeping an eye out for the next big thing in his political life.
Not long after his interview with AFC Cooperative Farming News, he and a group of Alabama industrialists boarded a jet for a trip to Mexico "where there are a lot of opportunities for us."
In the years since Sparks made his first visit to Cuba, Alabama has received millions of dollars in agricultural orders. He believes that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
His most recent trip included a visit with former Mexican President Vicente Fox and other leading Mexican officials. He’s also beaten a steady path to Cuba, bringing the Communist nation onto friendly turf in Alabama with agreements benefitting both.
Jerome Gray, one of Sparks’ top aides, often points to the Cuban connection as an indication "he’s got what it takes to be governor of Alabama."
"Not many would have done what the commissioner has done," said Gray, former field coordinator for the Alabama Democratic Conference and now a deputy commissioner of agriculture. "He’s opened other markets for our goods and has been traveling to Africa and Asia to expand his trade efforts. He is a visionary."
Sparks likes to point to many of his success stories, ranging from food safety efforts to child nutrition programs across Alabama.
"The Department of Agriculture touches so many lives," he said. "Alabama is now known nationally on issues we deal with daily, especially when it comes to food safety."
He has made it clear to food producers in other states that if they use methods in conflict with the way Alabama wants it done "we don’t want it."
"We were among the first few states in the country that started looking at child nutrition programs," he said. "We went from an ‘F’ to a ‘B-minus’ in less than two years."
Then, there were improvements to the diagnostic laboratories in Alabama. He said it had gotten so bad "they had to catch water in trash bags when it rained. Now, we have three state-of-the-art lab facilities."
Sparks said farmers represent an indispensable segment of American life and, as such, should be honored for what they do on a daily basis.
He makes it a habit of shaking the hands of U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan when he sees them at airports where he’s arriving or departing—thanking them for what they have done for our country.
"We also need to stick out our hands to our farmers for producing the safest, most economical food supply in the world," he said. "I have tremendous respect for farmers. I never miss an important meeting of the Farmers Cooperative."
He counts Alabama Farmers Cooperative President Tommy Paulk as a good friend and lauds him for "his outstanding leadership" in working with farming Co-ops around the state.
When asked about Sparks’s campaign, Paulk stated, "In his two terms as Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries, Ron Sparks has demonstrated tremendous courage in consistently taking the high ground on the many issues that have come before him. He is a man of great integrity who puts the citizens of Alabama first in every decision he makes. His progressive vision for Alabama and his unrelenting straight talk, rare commodities in today’s politics, promise to bring a breath of fresh air to the governor’s race in 2010."
Sparks is a perpetual motion machine, someone who gets by on little sleep as he moves from one farm-related event to another.
"When most people are going home at 5 o’clock, I’m going to work on my second job and that means traveling to a meeting or speaking somewhere in the state at night," he said. "It’s been a joy for me to serve as agriculture commissioner and when I walk away from this job, it will be with a smile."
Being elected governor would mean formulating a platform touching on just about every aspect of life in the state. He said he is working hard to prepare for that and will have more details about what he hopes to do "when I become governor."
"My priorities will be education and the economy," he said. "For one thing, I’m very concerned about the high drop-out rate of students and I’ll do something about it when I’m elected."
Sparks favors raising the drop-out age from the present 16 to 18, as well as implementing programs to provide vocational training for those not planning on going to college.
"It’s absolutely crazy to continue to let young men and women quit school at 16," he said. "What are they going to do on the streets of Alabama without the skills to take care of their family? I want to see them enrolled in a vocational school to learn a trade."
Sparks said teaching some kind of skills for directionless young Alabamians will help in a multitude of ways, including a drop in the number of prisoners in the state.
He said about 80 percent or more of those incarcerated in Alabama’s prisons are high school drop-outs—costing taxpayers about $14,000 a year for their upkeep "when we’re only spending $4,000 a year to educate our children."
"The more people we can put into the workplace and watch them move into a positive direction, the more the number of inmates will drop," he said.
Sparks enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard after graduating from Ft. Payne High School and received commendations during his four years in the service, spending much of it in search-and-rescue operations.
Later, he graduated from Northeast Alabama Community College and, at the age of 24 in 1978, became the youngest county commissioner ever elected in the state when he won a spot on the DeKalb County Commission—defeating the incumbent.
His ascendancy up the political ladder continued through the ensuing two decades leading to an appointment as assistant commissioner of agriculture in 1999. In that position, he ran day-to-day operations of the department.
The fact Sparks now is serving as president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture is testimony of the confidence colleagues across the country have in him.
"Alabama is not a big agricultural state when compared to others around the country and his national position speaks volumes about him," said Gray. "What he’s done in Alabama has made him well-known throughout America."
Running for agriculture commissioner is expensive, but not nearly as costly as seeking the governorship and Sparks, who is a proud grandfather, is well aware he’ll need much more than moral support to get the job.
"It could cost more than $5 million," he said. "But, I’ve campaigned for less. I’m willing to work 15 to 20 hours a day if that’s what I need to do. The way you get elected is to meet people, to understand their pain."
As a boy, he got pennies for each empty Coke bottle he returned to the store. He said it and other menial jobs he’s had through the years taught him a valuable lesson in life.
"You’ve got to work hard to succeed," he said. "I think I’ve shown I can do just that."
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.