11/20/07 — Ag Expo: Farms are going to go global

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Ag Expo: Farms are going to go global

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 20, 2007 1:46 PM

Unlike North Carolina's manufacturing industries, which have been dealt incredible blows by today's increasingly globalized economy, Wayne County Cooperative Extension Agricultural and Natural Resources Agent Kevin Johnson believes that local farmers are well-positioned to compete for many years to come.

However, he cautioned, that doesn't mean it's going to be easy.

"America's going to have to change," he said. "Today, you can basically be anywhere in the world in 24 hours. My great-great-grandfather never even saw the ocean.

"Once upon a time, the U.S. was a closed country. Today, free trade agreements have opened us up."

And that has had a dramatic effect on not only manufacturing, but also on agriculture -- a topic he addressed Monday at the 2007 Agricultural Expo at Wayne Community College.

"Farm subsidies are helping American farmers, but they disrupt the natural flow of free trade. That's something America has had to do, though, to keep farmers in business. Without it, there wouldn't hardly be any farmers in America. They couldn't afford to do it," he said. "The increase in agricultural trade has prompted low-cost production. It's a buyer's market, and the cheapest price is going to win."

Unfortunately, in many cases those prices aren't coming from American farmers. They're coming from countries like India, China and especially Brazil.

"The U.S. is still a strong player in agriculture, but Brazil is set to become the new bread basket of the world," Johnson said. "It's going to happen. There's nothing we can do about it."

Already it is the world leader in soybeans, coffee, sugar, oranges, tobacco and ethanol, and has the potential to be No. 1 in beef, chicken and most other crops.

Helping it reach those levels, Johnson explained, are its lack of tough environmental regulations, its cheap equipment and labor, its abundant space and potential for more, and its climate, which can allow for at least two or three crop cycles a year.

Fortunately, he continued, unlike much of the rest of nation, North Carolina and Wayne County should be readily able to compete in that changing market.

"Agriculture is not leaving Wayne County for a long time," he said. "Farmers are making money right now and as long as farming is profitable, they will stay in the business."

The key, he continued, is to have a wide variety of agricultural endeavors.

Leading the way for Wayne County is its production of wheat, soybeans -- more of which is expected in years to come -- turkeys and swine.

Also helping the county's $320-million bottom line is its tobacco, which is desired because of its quality, even though countries like Brazil produce more of it.

Cotton, however, while expected to rebound, is an example of a county crop that has taken a hit due to the global marketplace, with farmers this year planting nearly 60 percent less than in the past.

Corn production, on the other hand, billed this year as a hot crop, is likely to decline in the near future because of its low price and the obstacles that occur growing it locally.

But, Johnson noted, there will be others to take its place -- most notably, canola -- as the demand for ethanol continues to rise.

"That's something I suspect we'll have more of," Johnson said. "I think canola is a crop for the future."

North Carolina is ranked second in the nation in terms of agricultural diversity.

And, according to a 2005 Farm Futures magazine, Wayne is considered the fifth best county in the country in which to farm -- following Duplin, Sampson and a couple in California.

"We're in a strong position," Johnson said. "There's almost nobody else in the country that can compare to us."

The key to continuing that upward trajectory, though, will be maintaining the county's existing farmland -- something the agricultural community and other local leaders have begun to focus on.

"Our biggest concern is the roads and the people coming in," Johnson said. "That's where farmland preservation comes in."