NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Tennessee's gubernatorial candidates are often keen to tout their support for farmers and rural communities as they campaign around the state. But former state Sen. Mae Beavers said Monday that she can outdo any of her rivals in terms of hands-on experience.
At a forum hosted by the Future Farmers of America, the Mt. Juliet Republican recounted picking up hay and "holding pigs while my husband cut them."
"I'll challenge anybody to have those experiences," she said.
Beavers' comments are reminiscent of a 2014 television ad by Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa in which she boasted about castrating pigs and promised to cut the pork in Washington and "make 'em squeal."
Fellow Republican candidate Bill Lee, the owner and CEO of a Franklin construction company, has been riding a tractor around the state to call attention to rural issues. He noted at the forum that agriculture makes up 13 percent of the state economy, and 10 percent of Tennessee jobs.
"Just six years ago we were the ninth-largest producing beef cattle state in the nation and ... we've slipped to 12th," he said. "We have a way of life in the agricultural industry in this state, that if we do not do something decisively about that from a leadership standpoint, we'll lose that."
Democratic candidate Craig Fitzhugh, a banker and attorney from the West Tennessee town of Ripley, said agriculture remains key to the state's economy and needs to be supported through government grants.
"We have to be innovative," he said. "As agriculture goes, so goes the state."
Fellow Democrat Karl Dean, a former two-term mayor of Nashville, said access to health care would be his focus for rural communities.
"We need to do everything we can to make sure our rural hospitals stay open," he said. "A rural community is hurt immeasurably when its hospital closes. Right now, Tennessee as a state is second in the country in the number of closed hospitals."
Beavers said as governor she'd focus on expanding agribusiness opportunities within the state.
"We need hardwood processing plants," she said. "We need processing plants for beef, for pork. We shouldn't have to send our beef and pork out of state to be processed."
House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, pointed to her record in passing legislation aimed at improving rural access to broadband and eliminating the state's inheritance tax, which she said will allow "family farms to be passed down to the next generation."
U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Gallatin Republican, said more needs to be done to improve rural broadband and said roads need to be upgraded, too. Black said she wants to ensure "we have good roads in and out of these rural communities so farmers can move their products."
Businessman Randy Boyd of Knoxville, who as an adviser to term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam helped devise the state's free tuition program for community and technical colleges, said he'd move quickly to spend more on those campuses. Boyd said about 90 percent of the state's budget for building construction and maintenance currently goes to four-year colleges. In the first two years of his administration, Boyd said he'd flip that formula to have the bulk of the money go to community and technical schools.
Boyd told the crowd that while he didn't grow up farming, he did work in a factory that made electric fencing for cattle and horses. He joked that he may have produced some of the products that have shocked farmers by accident.
"I may have had something to do with that - I apologize," he said. "Hopefully I'll make it up to you as governor."