Service to Ag recipient stands by farmers

Published 4:33 pm Friday, December 12, 2008

In her mind’s eye, Jan Cook can see it as if it were yesterday, not 35 years ago.

There she stood on stage at the Mobile Civic Center, a fresh-faced Dozier High School senior addressing her largest gathering ever — the 52nd Annual Meeting of the Alabama Farm Bureau Federation.

In the audience, her parents and grandparents. In the wings, a wheelchair-bound Gov. George Wallace.

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“I was a wreck,” recalls Cook, who was there as state president of the Alabama Future Homemakers Association. “It was a big deal for me. I’d have to say that was what inspired me to go into politics.”

Ironically, it was because of Cook’s political role as Place 1 Commissioner with the Public Service Commission that drew her back to Mobile and the Alabama Farmers Federation’s 87th Annual Meeting last month to accept its highest award, the 2008 Service to Agriculture Award.

“This award means more to me than you could ever know because my heart is so strong for the farmers, that I can maybe help them in some way,” said Cook prior to the ceremony. “For the Alabama Farmers Federation — the organization that stands for farmers — to recognize me, it means more than you’ll ever know.”

While the recognition may have taken Cook by surprise, farmers have long known that the ag teacher’s daughter from the small town of Dozier is a friend to agriculture.

Since her first election to the PSC 18 years ago, Cook has risen more than once to defend the state’s farmers from unjust energy rates and regulations. First, there was the PSC’s adoption of an off-peak rate structure to help farmers keep down irrigation costs.

Then, there was that business with the new federal highway regulations last year that Cook described as “the silliest thing in the world.” That’s why, even before the Alabama Department of Public Safety was fully on board, she signed an open letter exempting agricultural from burdensome regulations that could’ve seen farmers ticketed simply for moving equipment around the farm.

Another showdown came last September when Alabama Power Company sought an historic rate increase even as the state’s farmers were reeling from with soaring fertilizer, fuel and feed costs.

“In an economic climate when farmers were facing almost insurmountable input costs from fuel, fertilizer and feed, Miss Cook drew a line in the sand on one of the state’s largest-ever electric rate increases, and helped keep our rates low,” Federation President Jerry A. Newby said. “It is also because of her support that Alabama farmers today also enjoy the benefit of off-peak rates for agricultural irrigation that keep operational costs manageable. Thanks to her leadership, Alabama farmers are able to stay in business.” There have been other, lesser-known battles along the way of course. Through them all, Cook has remained a steadfast supporter of agriculture.

Some would say it’s been that way since November 1990, when she won her first election to the PSC. Others, however, know it actually began long before that.

“I was always a daddy’s girl,” she’ll tell you. “Dad was an ag teacher for 40 years at Dozier High School before he retired. Dad and I would go around and visit farms in the area because, back then, the ag teacher was sort of an unofficial veterinarian — sometimes, they’d live and sometimes, they’d die — but we gave them a shot just the same. That’s where I really learned to appreciate what farmers have to go through. Of course, my family always favored the farmers because that’s who we were.”

She says the Crenshaw County town where she was raised has only one caution light and all the same problems any other small town has. “We did have a drink machine downtown, but we don’t have that anymore,” she deadpans. “Doggone it! Commerce has passed us by, but we’re going to try to get another one!”

Although it was said tongue-in-cheek, that’s the kind of can-do attitude Cook has become known for. In fact, her very entry into the political arena was a feat worthy of notice.

She was only 27 when the political science major from Auburn University decided to throw her hat into the ring for state auditor — and won “a very untraditional win.”

“At Auburn, they teach you about politicians, but they don’t teach you how to run” she said. Undeterred, she mobilized a small army of family, friends and neighbors, and printed about 20,000 signs in her family’s back yard. They then hit the campaign trail with this philosophy: “If it moves, give it a card; if it doesn’t move, put a sign on it.”

The signs built name recognition that is considered “phenomenal” in Alabama politics. “Do you know that we put so many signs up that Troy State has course in its political science classes called the Jan Cook Sign Phenomenon? That’s what they call it. It’s about the power of signs and visual campaigning. We had no real base; we just thought we’d like to do that. Thought we could, and we did.”

She held the state auditor’s office for two years before deciding to make a run for the PSC. After almost two decades on the job, she freely admits that she always questions how any rate increases will affect the state’s agricultural sector.

By watching out for the farmer, she says, she is looking out for all of Alabama.

“When the farmers are down, we’re all down,” Cook explained. “It helps everybody in the state when our farmers do well. It helps the economy, helps the household, more than anything else I can think of – for our farmers to be able to produce in a manner that they can stay in to provide what we need at home. What are we going to do when it gets to where we have so few that can farm that we’re not producing what we should produce? That’s when we’re really going to know how important our farmers are.”

“Loving farmers, caring for farmers, wanting to help farmers, it was just a part of me,” she added. “I never had to learn that. I never had to become a politician to see that that was a good thing. It was always what I wanted to do. … I’m always on the farmers’ side. And as long as I stay at the PSC —or anywhere else or that matter — I’ll always have the farmers in mind.”