Meet Glenn Hegar: From family farm to overseeing Texas’ fiscal and economic matters
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar may be the only elected official in our state who is directly involved with agriculture. While leading one of the largest state agencies as the state’s chief financial officer keeps him primarily in Austin, he also continues to be involved in his family’s rice farming operations. In the interview below, Hegar tells how lessons learned on the farm inform his work as comptroller, and he shares how agriculture fits in today’s Texas economy.
In April 2012, you were the first officeholder featured in our newsletter’s Capitol Q&A segment. At that time, you were the only member of the Texas Legislature who was currently making a living as a farmer or rancher – and you may have been the last one to do so. Now that your current office requires you to be in Austin full time, are you still active as a farmer?
I’m still a partner in our family farm and involved in the operation, but I’m not able to spend my days there. Serving as state comptroller is a full-time job and it requires my full attention here in Austin and around the state, so I don’t have as much opportunity to be involved in the day-to- day operations as I once did. As you can imagine, I’d rather spend my days outdoors and on the farm than in Austin, Texas.
My wife likes to point out that sheisn’t required to live in Austin. We put family first and I’m home as much as my responsibilities will allow. Anyone with kids knows how fast they grow, so I always try to be there for things like our kids’ swim meets and band performances.
I’m proud of being a farmer. Farming is crucial to our history, our economy and our way of life in Texas, and I’m honored to bring a farmer’s perspective to state government.
What do you miss about being on the farm more frequently?
Being outdoors, especially just before the sun comes up. Early morning on the farm is the absolute best because you know you’re getting an early start to a full day. Planting season is always exciting, and so is the last day of harvest. And it’s satisfying to get broken machinery apart and working again. But most important of all is the chance to spend time with my children on the farm — it teaches them the value of a hard day’s work and a good work ethic. Too often, people don’t understand a real day’s work, or that the food in the grocery store came from somewhere else.
On the business side of farming, I always enjoyed doing the books, forecasting our revenue and expenses and, sometimes, weighing big equipment purchases against our need to put a little money aside for next year. Those skills definitely inform my work as comptroller. But there’s no substitute for being on the land.
How does your direct involvement with agriculture influence how you conduct your job as Texas Comptroller?
Farming has taught me about hard work, fiscal responsibility and integrity.
There’s nothing more humbling than trying to earn a living on a farm or ranch. There are so many factors you can’t control, and you have to be able to respond quickly to changing circumstances.
The farm is where I learned the day isn’t finished until the job is done. It’s where I learned the importance of really knowing your revenue and your costs, investing wisely — and not spending more than you have.
It’s also where I learned that you have to earn your reputation for integrity every day, in all your dealings. Your word is your bond, and a handshake is the most important part of any contract.
I rely on those lessons in my job as comptroller, every single day.
Obviously, over the decades agriculture has diminished as a contributor to the Texas economy. How do you see the role of agriculture as an economic contributor today and moving forward?
I often remind people in my speeches that we all have three things in common. We’re born, we all die, and in between eat every single day. While it’s true that agriculture is a declining portion of Texas’ $1.8 trillion economy, it’s still one of the key components of a thriving and healthy society. Agriculture is the foundation of everyone’s day no matter where they live or what they do.
Today, most Texans live in cities, but they still want to get out into the countryside on the weekends or during vacation. The rural economy may not be as large a part of the overall economy as it was decades ago, but agriculture is still the fiber of our lives and a big part of our cultural heritage.
Dairy is an important part of that. The state’s cash receipts for all agricultural commodities totaled $22.8 billion in 2017; dairy products and milk contributed $2.2 billion. In that year, Texas ranked fifth among the states in milk production.
I do believe that the importance of local and regional farming operations may grow in coming years. We need to ensure Texas farmers and ranchers have the tools they need to meet changes in demand as consumer tastes shift toward locally sourced agricultural products.
What steps can be taken on the state level – by your office or other state agencies – to keep our state’s agriculture economy strong?
Following a rise in prices that lasted until 2014, dairy prices have been low for an uncharacteristically long time due to increases in production levels and uncertainty surrounding international trade and production quotas. Which is why it is important that we work to keep markets open and facilitate the free flow of product from U.S. dairy farmers.
When we keep taxes as low as possible, ensure regulations are reasonable and fairly enforce the laws on the books, we help all businesses, including those focused on agriculture.
We need to protect private property rights, and to be responsive when farmers are affected by natural disasters, from floods to droughts.
We need to do everything we can to increase access to broadband internet in our rural areas. A lot of people have no idea just how much modern farmers depend on computers, sensors and electronic connectivity. Today’s farms depend on technology as much as any factory, and so do the local businesses that serve and rely on our farms.
And, while states don’t dictate trade policy, we can certainly work closely with our federal partners to ensure Texas farmers continue to have access to foreign markets, both our traditional customers and new ones.
Finally, we need to make sure we continue investing in our infrastructure. Our agricultural sector depends on our roads and our ports, and both need continuing investment to make sure they meet our expanding needs.
The bottom line is, we need to remember that government works for the people, not the other way around. That’s particularly important when it comes to agriculture, a business in which the work never stops.
How does the state’s strong economy benefit those in the agriculture sector?
Texas’ reputation as a business-friendly state has people coming to our state for economic opportunity, just like my family did in the 1840s. Our strong and diverse economy provides tremendous job opportunities for our children and grandchildren right here in the Lone Star State. And obviously, people moving to Texas need to be fed. They depend on the hard-working folks in our agricultural sector, whether they know it or not.
The strong economy also allows businesses, including those in agriculture, to expand, innovate and fill the need for their products in Texas and beyond. But as I’ve already said, that can happen only if we invest in our infrastructure and support open trade to ensure access to markets both near and far.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our state’s dairy farmers?
Growing up on a rice farm was hard work, yet I’ve always told people that there’s only one harder job in agriculture, and that’s operating a dairy. In the winter, we were able to work on equipment and then slip off to go hunting, but if you have a dairy, you’re working 365 days a year.
I know from experience that farmers can sometimes feel underappreciated. It’s important that we remind people just where their food comes from. I know the commitment it takes. More people should know where their milk and cheese comes from — and the dedication and commitment it takes to produce it.