Four years ago, Mike Strain ran for state commissioner of agriculture and forestry as an alternative to the agency’s longtime leader.
He won the race when Bob Odom dropped out of the runoff, after leading the agency for nearly 30 years.
Now it is Strain’s turn to face opposition in the job of overseeing agriculture and forestry in Louisiana.
Two opponents — Democrat Jamie LaBranche and Reform Party candidate Belinda “B” Alexandrenko — are challenging Strain in the Oct. 22 primary.
Neither LaBranche nor Alexandrenko appears to have a well-financed campaign.
LaBranche reported no campaign activity last month. Alexandrenko had less than $2,000 to spend, according to her campaign finance report. Strain loaned his campaign $250,000.
“I do treat everything seriously,” Strain said. “It’s incumbent on me to have an active campaign.”
LaBranche, a horticulturist who lives in LaPlace, said he is not running because he disagrees with the job that Strain is doing, but because he has ideas on crops and other issues.
However, LaBranche does fault Strain for not stemming the practice of contractors hiring migrant workers in place of Louisiana laborers.
“This campaign is a movement of the hard-working citizens of the great state of Louisiana who believe the incumbent commissioner has not utilized his office to better serve the people of Louisiana,” he said.
Alexandrenko, who has unsuccessfully run for governor in the past, issued a position statement in which she vowed to promote Louisiana-manufactured products and to help farmers and others cope with climate extremes.
“States like Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Missouri grow sorghum as a hedge against drought. This water-efficient crop is more drought-tolerant and requires fewer inputs than corn,” she said.
She also issued a Sept. 9 news release in which she described herself as a “constant gardener, consultant, writer, public speaker, educator, mom and entrepreneur” with fond memories of working on her grandmother’s farm during school breaks.
Both LaBranche, 43, and Alexandrenko, 51, have campaign websites.
Strain said he is proud of his four-year tenure as agriculture and forestry commissioner. He said his employees seem happy to work for him. He said he cannot think of any disappointments.
His campaign lists his achievements as ending the use of the agency’s work force for construction projects, reducing the department’s debt and decreasing staff by 35 percent. He said he reduced the vehicle fleet by more than 400 vehicles, fuel consumption by 30 percent and the aviation fleet by 30 percent.
Strain, 52, said the focus over the next four years needs to be on meeting a growing demand for crops and on creating more Louisiana farmers.
“We have the resource base,” he said. “The world needs our resources.”
Strain cited the Mississippi River, the state’s ports and rail systems as among those resources.
He said food production needs to double in the next 25 to 30 years because of a booming world population.
LaBranche wants to explore cultivating medicinal plants, especially poppies, used to make morphine. One of the world’s biggest suppliers of poppies is Afghanistan, where the crop has bankrolled terrorism.
Great Britain is allowing a drug company to work with farmers to harvest poppies. The production is tightly controlled since poppies also can be used to make heroin.
LaBranche said poppies could be grown at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, which has thousands of acres of farmland. He said the production could be isolated so inmates are not involved in harvesting.
“Under my plan, Louisiana will partner with the private sectors to implement the largest medical agriculture program in North America,” he said. “Louisiana has the right climate and soil structure to cultivate many medical plants.”
Strain said there is a fatal flaw to LaBranche’s idea.
“It’s illegal to raise poppies under federal law,” he said.
LaBranche said Strain is mistaken. He said poppies can be a government-grown crop produced for pharmaceutical reasons.