A commissioner elected to a four-year term heads the Department of Agriculture, which enforces all agricultural laws in Texas. These laws cover matters as diverse as food inspection, animal quarantine laws, licensing, disease and pest control (including pesticide safety), and promoting exports. As a legacy of its traditional duties regulating weights and measures - think grocery and produce scales - the department conducts annual checks on gas pumps to ensure their accuracy.
Texas is the second leading overall agricultural producer in the United States, ranking behind only California, making the Commissioner of Agriculture another key position in the plural executive branch. As large-scale corporate producers have displaced small producers in the agricultural economy, the agriculture commissioner's regulatory decisions and policies have become matters of interest to major economic actors in the state. The Commissioner is thus another executive officer that is called upon to balance interests in consumer and environmental protection with the promotion of economic production.
Recent commissioners have emphasized different priorities in managing the trade-offs in these frequently conflicting duties. Commissioner Jim Hightower (1983-1991) was known as a progressive in the populist tradition when he was elected to the office, and he pursued policies that departed from the traditional priorities of the office. Hightower promoted tighter regulation of pesticides, promoted organic food production, and attempted to increase education and notification of workers about pesticides. Hightower received abundant attention for his initiatives, but he also became the first Democratic executive other than a governor to lose an election to a Republican. (Rick Perry, former Democrat and future governor, defeated him in the 1990 general election.)
The current commissioner is Todd Staples who was first elected in 2006 and was re-elected in 2010. Staples succeeded fellow Republican Susan Combs, the first woman to hold the office. Combs predecessor in turn was Rick Perry.