04/08/04 — Agriculture commissioner lunches with 129 people

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Agriculture commissioner lunches with 129 people

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on April 8, 2004 2:03 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- Britt Cobb thought he would have lunch Wednesday with Keith Beavers and a few of his friends.

But when he arrived at the workshop on Beavers' farm in the Mount Olive area of Duplin County, 120 people showed up. Cobb has been the state commissioner of agriculture for almost a year.

Cobb, 54, has been involved in marketing with the Agriculture Department for many years, and he thinks one thing he can do is help market farm products. He's also keen on food safety. "We have good inspection programs," he said. "Sixty-one percent of our farm income is from animals, and an outbreak of farm-borne disease would be devastating."

Charlie McClenny and his two sons, John and Murray, tend 1,900 acres and raise mostly tobacco, some cotton. They grow young tobacco plants for other farmers in three greenhouses. McClenny hopes that if tobacco farming ends in this country, he can still raise other crops in the greenhouses and make a living.

"I feel like Britt's done a good job of taking over," said McClenny of Cobb's appointment after Meg Scott Phipps resigned. "He stepped into a hot pot. You need somebody that knows agriculture in that position."

It started one Friday in June when the governor called Cobb on the telephone to say he wanted to talk, Cobb said. "There I was in an open shirt. I went over there, and after 10 or 15 minutes, I noticed the conversation taking an unusual turn. At 4:30 p.m., I was sworn in. I didn't have a chance to change clothes."

He said he thought he would be holding things together as the agriculture commissioner for a couple of weeks until the crisis ended. On Dec. 8, the appointment was made for the duration of Mrs. Phipps' term.

Now, Cobb, a Democrat, faces election in November.

Cobb's visit to Mount Olive resulted from a discussion over breakfast one morning at the Southern Belle Restaurant between McClenny, Beavers and Randy McCullen. They decided to invite the commissioner to meet their friends. They're not an organized group, said McClenny, just a network of farmers.

"The agriculture commissioner is important to everybody, including consumers," said McClenny. "The food in the grocery store has a starting place in the ground somewhere. In some fashion, we're all dependent on agriculture."

Beavers said Cobb will make a good leader. "He has some things he wants to accomplish, and we need some stability," said Beavers. "We want to keep young people on the farm."

"Every grower is trying to diversify to fill the void until this crisis corrects itself," he added.

Cobb started working at the Agriculture Depart-ment after college.

It's the only place he's worked since leaving his father's farm near Elm City in Wilson County.