02/16/07 — State agriculture commissioner advises farmers to get involved

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State agriculture commissioner advises farmers to get involved

By Dennis Hill
Published in News on February 16, 2007 1:49 PM

North Carolina farmers must become political activists if they expect to survive as their numbers and the amount of farmland dwindle, state Agriculture Secretary Steve Troxler told a group of Wayne farmers Thursday.

Troxler, a Guilford County native, spoke to a meeting of the Karl M. Best Leadership Program at Wayne Community College. The group of about two dozen people was formed last year through the Karl M. Best endowment and the Wayne Community College Foundation to improve farming in the county.

Troxler said North Carolina led the nation in the number of farms that went out of business last year, along with Tennessee and Florida, and added that he believes the trend is accelerating.

Unless the remaining farmers become leaders willing to have their voices heard, Troxler said, people outside agriculture will determine its fate. The political might in Raleigh and Washington is overwhelmingly in favor of other special interests, who might or might not side with farmers over specific legislative issues. And government policy, not the weather nor other factors, will have the greatest impact on farming in the future, Troxler said.

North Carolina loses about 100,000 acres of farmland a year to development, Troxler said. And the average age of a North Carolina farmer is 58, he noted.

"Can we continue or even maintain when we're not only losing farms but farmers?" Troxler asked. He said a crisis is looming and "how we address it will determine what this state looks like.

"There are so few of us in agriculture now that nobody can sit on the sidelines."

He urged those present to help boost membership in the Grange, Farm Bureau and other farm support organizations to strengthen farming's voice.

As an example, Troxler pointed to the Farm Bill currently being crafted in Congress. In years past, only those groups close to farming were interested in what it contained, he said. Now, so many different special interests are contained in the legislation -- consumer protection, food stamps, renewable energy, environmental issues -- that farmers need a strong lobby "just to make sure it concerns farmers."

Troxler said the bill is expected to contain assistance for young and beginning farmers, something it never has before, and help for growers of specialty crops.

That is an area of farming that likely will become more important to North Carolina growers, he said. The great influx of residents from outside the state -- estimates call for 4 million more people in the state by the year 2030 -- will hurt agriculture by taking up land for homes, Troxler noted, but will also offer opportunities.

"That's 4 million more mouths we can feed with local crops," he said, "if there's any of us left and any land to grow anything on."

He said the state Department of Agriculture is working to promote North Carolina products in grocery stores and that initial efforts have been promising. North Carolina's agricultural future can be bright, Troxler said, but the groundwork has to be laid now.

He said the new Farm Bill also will be more "green" than those in the past. It likely will contain assistance for ethanol, which could benefit some farmers. But North Carolina is a "corn-deficit" state and if the price of corn goes too high it could adversely affect livestock growers, he said.

Troxler said he has asked Gov. Easley to put $10 million in a trust fund created by the legislature to help preserve farmland. He said he believes the creation of term easements is the best way for the state to try to preserve its farmland. The easements obtained from landowners would prevent development of parcels of land for a specified length of time in return for financial help. They likely would be more palatable to landowners than permanent easements, he said.

"It's time for North Carolina to get very, very serious about this," Troxler said. "We don't need to dallying around for another five to 10 years."

He said many of the newcomers to North Carolina come because of its wide open spaces and that unless the state takes steps to protect its farmland, forests and rivers, the very quality of life that brought them here will deteriorate.