Phil Campbell Jr., Georgia’s 14th Commissioner of Agriculture, was a farmer at heart

March 13, 2019

Georgia Grown

The year James Philander “Phil” Campbell Jr. won his bid to serve as Georgia’s 14th Commissioner of Agriculture was the first year that the number of tractors on American farms exceeded the number of horses and mules. It was 1954, and agriculture was finally poised to enter the industrial age. Georgia voters, however, still responded to the kind of grassroots election campaign one might expect from a lifelong farmer.

Headquarters for the Campbell campaign was the front porch of the family home in Watkinsville. Phil Campbell’s wife, Elizabeth “Nan” McCreery Campbell, was campaign manager. The Campbell children – six in all – were her staff.

“Mama was signing his name on the campaign letters that were being mailed out and we would fold them and put them in the envelopes and lick them and seal them and put a stamp on them and send them out,” eldest son Jay Campbell said. “I remember that all I got to lick was envelopes because stamps cost too much. To this day I can’t stand the taste of an envelope because we didn’t have a sponge. You couldn’t go buy a sponge. Well, we couldn’t afford it.”

Jay Campbell and four of his six siblings, along with more than a dozen of their children and grandchildren, were guests of current Agriculture Commissioner Gary W. Black for a special Georgia Grown luncheon at the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s headquarters in Atlanta Feb. 28. Phil Campbell Jr. served as commissioner of the department for 14 years before President Richard Nixon appointed him undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. The luncheon honoring the Campbell family coincided with the 50th anniversary of that appointment.

The Campbell name is a distinguished one in Georgia agriculture. Phil Campbell’s father was the first director of the Georgia agricultural extension service prior to passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1915. He was later appointed to serve as assistant chief of the USDA’s Soil and Conservation Service by President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1996, Congress named the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation research center in Watkinsville in his honor.

The mechanization of agriculture was just one of many pivotal advancements under his son’s tenure as head of the GDA. Archival issues of the Market Bulletin document Phil Campbell Jr.’s work to increase marketing opportunities for Georgia farmers, including the $10 million investment in construction of the Atlanta State Farmers Market on its current site in Forest Park. He also led the department’s fight against diseases of livestock such as brucellosis, tuberculosis and screwworm.

Throughout his tenure, the Market Bulletin boasted of Georgia’s position as the nation’s No. 1 producer of broilers, peanuts, protected forest lands, improved pecans, pimento peppers and naval stores.

And while he was all business when it came to Georgia’s No. 1 industry, the family recalled that one of Phil Campbell’s favorite jokes concerned an advertisement he’d spied in the Market Bulletin’s classifieds, placed by a farmer selling a well cut into post holes. His was a quick wit, even when matters turned serious.

For example, the Florida Department of Agriculture once put him on notice that every Georgia chicken entering Florida had to be inspected and tagged. Remember, poultry was – then as now – a leading commodity for Georgia.

“That was going to be a cost item to put a wing tag on every chicken going to or through the state,” Jay Campbell said. His father thought about it for “a minute,” Jay Campbell said, and then made a counteroffer. “He said, ‘Well, I bet a lot more oranges and grapefruit come north out of Florida than chickens do going south. Maybe we ought to think about a stamp on every orange and grapefruit.’” The Florida folks reconsidered

“He was always going to do what was right and never for his benefit, always what was good for the farmers and the people of Georgia,” Jay Campbell said. And except for the 40 days each year when the General Assembly was in session in Atlanta, Phil Campbell always made the commute home to spend the night with his family in Watkinsville, even if it meant traversing the entire state in one day.

“The year I turned 16 I said, ‘You know, Daddy, I’d like to drive for you,’ because he always came home every night,” Jay Campbell recalled. His first day on the job, Jay rose in time to deliver his father to the GDA headquarters building in downtown Atlanta by 7:30 a.m. Even though the roads were all two-lane, the 70-mile trip from Watkinsville took just over an hour to drive in those days.

That first day was a typical one, which is to say, busy.

“He had a lunch meeting in Calhoun. We were in Thomasville for a meeting that night and back in Watkinsville by midnight,” Jay Campbell recalled.

That was more than 600 miles of driving, from one end of the state to the other and back again, in one day.

“When he came in the next morning and said, ‘You gonna drive for me?’ I said, ‘I’m done,’” Jay Campbell said.

Phil Campbell’s drive was rooted in a deep love of agriculture, an industry he championed until his death at age 81 on June 22, 1998.

“He was a real farmer at heart,” Jay Campbell said. “I remember him saying one time there was nothing like the sun rising on the blush of green on a sprouted field.”