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February 23, 2011   Email to Friend 

THE COMMISSIONER IS IN: McMillan Learning Ropes As New Ag & Industries Chief
By Debra Davis

Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries John McMillan was surrounded by family members as he took his oath of office on the capitol steps.
Just one week into his new job as commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, John McMillan says the thing he's learned the most is how much he has to learn.

"This department touches the lives of every Alabamian," McMillan said. "Ironically, even though we are so closely identified and so closely associated with agribusiness in the state, I think if you had to give a brief summary of what this department does, it is food safety and consumer protection."

From the scales that a pharmacist uses to measure medicine, to gas pumps throughout the state, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries regulates and monitors thousands of businesses in the state. The enormous responsibility of the department is still sinking in, McMillan said, but he pledged to always keep the customers (Alabama's taxpayers) at the forefront of each decision.

McMillan is known as a conservative leader and a consensus builder, according to Alabama Farmers Federation President Jerry Newby. "We look forward to working with Commissioner McMillan," Newby said. "Our organization stands ready to work with him on any issue."

Federation Executive Director Paul Pinyan said members throughout the state are excited about working with the commissioner as he reshapes the department. "Commissioner McMillan is known for his strong work ethic and attention to detail," Pinyan said. "And his experience with the Legislature will serve his department and the farmers of the state well."

McMillan said he is still reviewing all the areas his department is responsible for, including the 349 employees who work there. "Of the department employees, only about 150 of them work here in Montgomery at the Beard Building," he said. "Others are scattered around the state in various forms of inspectors for food safety, weights and measures, pesticides and in the four labs we operate."

McMillan said he expects his office to be faced with layoffs from anticipated deep budget cuts caused by declining state revenue. However, he's already taking steps to save money in the department by cross-training employees and cutting costs.

"Just this week I found out we could save more than $10,000 by changing the way we do our internal distribution of printed materials," McMillan said. McMillan said his exact plans for the department would be hard to shape until he knows what the budget will be. Based on what newly elected Gov. Robert Bentley has said, the cuts may be significant and may even force layoffs in the department, McMillan said. "As I said during my campaign, I am very interested in economic development, especially for rural Alabama, and renewable energy which I think holds a tremendous potential for our state," McMillan said. "We will focus on those things, but our priority will be providing services to the businesses and industries that need us to survive, like those that require inspections in order to sell their products. There are some tough decisions to be made, but we're going to approach all we do in a professional and business-like manner."

For example, McMillan said the owner of a nursery couldn't sell his or her products out of state until an employee of the department inspects them. If that inspection can't be done, it could put that producer out of business, he said.

"We're going to make sure that doesn't happen," he added. "Those businesses and industries that depend on us to survive are going to be a priority." McMillan said he has asked department employees to find ways to save money and provide more services. "Nothing will be off the table when it comes to looking at expenditures," he said. "We are going to do whatever it takes to meet the needs of the people who depend on us."

McMillan said his experience as a businessman and government leader coupled with his strong work ethic helped prepare him for the job.

He was born and raised on the family farm in the little community of Stockton in north Baldwin County. His first experience in politics was when former Gov. Albert Brewer appointed him to a vacancy on the Baldwin County Commission. Then, McMillan was twice elected to the State House of Representatives, eventually leaving that post to become Alabama Commissioner of Conservation and Natural Resources during former Gov. Fob James' first term. Later, he began working at the Alabama Forestry Association as its executive director until his retirement in 2006.

Although he admits he knows more about forestry and wildlife than row crops, McMillan said he has learned over the years that groups like the Alabama Farmers Federation are a vital resource when it comes to decisions facing the state's farmers and rural landowners. "We will do the very best job we can for all the farmers in the state to help them not just stay in business, but to thrive," McMillan said. "Even with the budget cuts we anticipate, I hope our office will be able to help offer some low-interest rate loans for on-farm water reservoirs. The biggest problem farmers have to deal with is weather and water, and these reservoirs hopefully could help take water out of those equations."

"I imagine a lot of people, and I know a lot of the employees here, are surprised at my work ethic," McMillan said. "It started when I was growing up in a sawmill, but Catherine and I have gotten up at 5 o'clock in the morning for over 40 years and we still do that. I try to get to work by 6 and work until, (indicating there are no set hours to end his day.) I guess a lot of people would be surprised that I work as hard as I do. I also try to recognize my limitations, which I think is one thing that makes me work so hard. Working at a sawmill is hard work and takes long hours. I watched my father do that his entire life. It wasn't a matter of wanting to; it was a matter of having to, particularly if you run a small business."

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