As chairman of the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, Steve Southerland plays a vital role in the Tennessee General Assembly regarding legislation pertaining to agriculture. Farm Bureau works closely with Senator Southerland in this role, as well as in his role on the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, which focuses on legislation important to the entire economy of Tennessee.
The Republican from Morristown represents Senate District 1, which is Cocke, Greene, Hamblen and part of Sevier counties. He has served in the state senate for 17 years. He and his wife Cheri, have one daughter and two grandchildren. He is a member of Buffalo Trail Baptist Church, where he has been a deacon since 1981. His career was in the mortgage business for 32 years until retirement. He started out his career working for a local savings and loans company for 11 years and then started a company, Mortgage Federal. In his spare time, he enjoys hunting, fishing and spending time in the mountains. Chairman Southerland was born and raised in Morristown. His family has been in Tennessee since prior to the Revolutionary War. He professes to have familial relations to John Sevier, the first Governor of Tennessee, and to have descended from militiamen who fought at the Battle of Kings Mountain.
What inspired you to run for the Senate?
I enjoy helping people. It’s a way of giving back to my community. It is an interesting story as to why I ran. Sometimes you feel like the Lord is having you do things, and it was a time where the Lord was telling me I was going to run for state Senate. I was trying to figure out how to get out of it, because in high school when I had to give a speech I would just lay out of school. I am not one to just give speeches. I knew how to get out of it. I said to the Lord if this is what you really want me to do then I want someone to call me this week and say, “Steve, I want you to run for state Senate.” And so that Friday afternoon at 4:30, my employees were busy, and the phone was ringing so I reached over to pick up the phone and the person on the other end said, “Steve, I want you to run for state Senate.”
Did you have any role models in your legislative career?
When I first got there, Ron Ramsey (R- Johnson City) was elected caucus chair and we worked closely together to gain the leadership role in the Senate, which the Republicans hadn’t had since the Civil War. Also, Senator Douglas Henry (D- Nashville) was a southern gentleman. You could go ask him a question and he would remember back in history. He was a walking history book.
As chairman of a committee with jurisdiction over agriculture matters, do you have any ties to farming?
In my family, my grandfather raised tobacco and we got set it, hoe it, sucker it, cut it and hang it in the barn and grade it. I grew up in the last house in the city limits and my best friend lived down the road on a dairy farm. For him to get to go play we had to get the cows in. And when they would cut hay, I would help him throw bales in the barn. Then, we would get to go fishing!
What role does Farm Bureau play in the legislative process?
Farm Bureau plays a major role in keeping us informed on the problems from one end of the state to the other. You know I live in East Tennessee, so I don’t have the opportunity every day to be out with West Tennessee farmers or Middle Tennessee farmers to know what their problems are.
As chairman of a committee with competing interests, how do you handle that?
When there is conflict, I bring both sides into the room and we will sit down and talk out the differences until we come up with a solution to the problem. It doesn’t have to be my idea. I listen to both sides of an issue and try to come up with a solution.
What are you most proud of in your time as Senator?
Being able to get things done that others could not. One of the things I did several years ago was the “Ditch Bill.” You had the farmers and environmental groups at odds. If there was a ditch on a farmers’ property it was considered a stream (by the state) and they couldn’t plow their fields. The definition of a stream was any manmade or natural channel that would support aquatic life. So if you had a gutter stopped up with leaves, and that could support mosquitoes, the environmentalists were saying the stream started at the roof top. At that time, I got both sides working together and passed a bill that stated that a stream flows two months out of the year and supports aquatic life. That was one of my first bills where I got both sides to sit down and discuss to agree on it, and we got that passed.* It helped farmers, builders and several others. But there are several other examples of bringing people together. *This legislation was a Farm Bureau priority issue in 2009: Public Chapter 464 of the 106th General Assembly.
All of the economically distressed counties in Tennessee are rural counties. What is the state doing to address the economic situation in these counties?
We are looking at different things, such as tourism. In Cocke County, they brought in white water rafting which has brought in more than $400,000 a year to the local government because there are more than 200,000 people that come to raft.
What is the best way for a constituent to get in contact with a lawmaker?
Email. But you can reach us immediately by calling the office. We have staff that can help. They are very knowledgeable. You may not be able to get in contact with me, but the staff is there all week long. Also, my home telephone number is still in the book. People call all the time and if I don’t answer I have an answering machine and I will call you back.
Other comments from Chairman Southerland:
I was asked by a student one time, “Do you think agriculture would ever go away?” I thought a minute and I said “Yes, just as soon as people stop eating!” People don’t realize the importance of agriculture. Agriculture is the number one industry in the state. Tourism is number two and it continues to grow in the state. Tourism is an issue I chair on the Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. But guess what, each time a tourist comes to Tennessee, they like to eat! That is something everyone participates in, agriculture, everyday whether they know about it or not.