CARY, NC — SPW spent last weekend at the ‘Got to Be NC’ Festival here, an annual celebration of North Carolina’s rich agricultural history. While there, we caught up with NC Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Steve Troxler, in his fourth term and himself a farmer, for a conversation about labor, the new administration and agriculture, the future of NC ag, and how the state overcame the loss of tobacco as a dominant crop and introduced new crops that have thrived mightily, like sweet potatoes.
SOUTHEAST PRODUCE WEEKLY – When tobacco began to decline as a cash generator for North Carolina farmers, there was a lot of wringing of hands and worry about what would happen to NC agriculture. Those farmers found plenty of other things to grow.
TROXLER – I’m one of those tobacco farmers that came through the hard times of especially the ‘80s and ‘90s and if you’re bound and determined that you’re going to stay on the farm and you’re going to make a living you find a way to do it. We found out that sweet potatoes like to grow in the same dirt that tobacco did so we’re number 1 in the nation in production of sweet potatoes. When burley tobacco declined in the mountains we discovered it was an excellent place to grow Fraser fir Christmas trees so now we’re number 2 in the nation in Christmas trees. We’re now ranked number two in hogs and poultry and turkeys.
So we took advantage of what was a disadvantage and we moved forward and we’re much stronger for that diversification. And believe it or not, tobacco is still the leading cash crop that we have in North Carolina. It’s quiet, it’s not like it used to be but tobacco is still very important and generates about $700 million a year.
I think the next big thing for us is going to be growing more specialty crops here in North Carolina. We already grow a lot of blueberries, a lot of strawberries and we ranked in the top 5 in both of those in the country. But there’s demand for so many other specialty crops. If you’ve ever been in the tobacco business with the intense management that it takes, then it’s a good transition to go from there to specialty crop. You have water, drip-irrigation and a lot of labor involved. We’re perfectly capable of doing that and I see us moving into growing more specialty crops.
SPW – Labor is an issue in North Carolina just like anywhere else. Are you hopeful of any help from the new administration?
TROXLER – Certainly. The labor situation can be fixed but it takes political will to do it. I am a little bit encouraged now after a visit to the White House that the administration understands more than what they would let on about the labor problems that we have in the United States when it comes to agriculture. I just hope we’ll go ahead and do it and don’t wait until it’s too late and we’ve got all these crops rotting in the fields and we don’t have any labor to pick the crop.
H-2A is easy to fix to make sure there’s adequate labor, it’s not hard to do. It’s not hard to secure the border. But we need to make sure we have a door in that border that lets the people we need to come in to work both agriculturally and in other areas.
SPW – How might new USDA chief Sonny Perdue, a former governor of Georgia, help ag and the Southeast in general?
TROXLER — After having time to sit down with him in Washington and talk to him I understand the knowledge that he does have about agriculture. And he’s a very smart political guy on top of that and you’ve got to be if you’re going to be in that position. So I think he’s got the attributes to be a really, really good Secretary of Agriculture. And we think at the state level that we’re going to have plenty of access to the US Department of Agriculture so we’re excited about that and ready to help do anything we can do to make him the best secretary we’ve ever seen. I think in the Southeast right now we’re sitting in the catbird seat and I think maybe some of our colleagues from the Midwest are not too happy about the situation. But I think we’re going to be able to talk to and to get ideas to the administration.
SPW – How important is it to have a farmer in that position?
TROXLER — I am required to be a farmer in my position and I cannot imagine how you could go into this position or go in to the secretary’s position and not have been a farmer and experienced the devastation that comes with hurricanes, with tornadoes, with hailstorms, with drought and understand that. Or understand that when the spring comes around you’ve got to be optimistic enough to believe that this is going to be the best year ever no matter what. If you can’t do that you can’t be a farmer. You’ve got to understand how to approach a situation and make short turns and it’s difficult unless you’ve been there and done it before.
SPW – ‘Got to Be NC’ and its predecessor Goodness Grows in North Carolina was the first state ag promotional organization in the U.S., organized 30 years or so ago. It’s worked out well.
TROXLER — We have received national and international awards for this program and it’s something that I’m very, very proud of. We are very proud of developing new markets. I can go to Europe or other areas of the world and walk into a grocery store and, especially with sweet potatoes, I can see ‘Got to Be NC — North Carolina sweet potatoes’. Now that makes me a proud papa.