11/30/09 — New campaign will emphasize importance of farming to county

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New campaign will emphasize importance of farming to county

By Steve Herring
Published in News on November 30, 2009 1:46 PM

People tend to picture farmers as overall-clad old men whose slow-moving tractors grind traffic to a crawl.

That perception is just as wrong as thinking that farming is on the decline, said Lynn Williams, a member of the county Extension Advisory Committee

"There have been tough times, but in fact, agriculture in Wayne County is growing," Mrs. Williams said. "The number of farms has declined, but those remaining have grown larger and more efficient. People kind of think of it (farming) as something in the past that is kind of fading, but the value of agriculture in Wayne County has got to be very much a part of our future."

Overall, agriculture is by far the largest industry in the state, bringing in more than $70 billion a year, she said. Farming and agribusiness account for 22 percent of Wayne County gross income, representing $667 million and 11,503 jobs.

Educating the public to the importance and economic impact of agriculture and agribusiness is what driving the "We Dig It" marketing campaign that was unveiled to the public at the annual Farm/City Banquet.

"People don't realize that and when you don't realize what you have it is easy to let it slip, and not be mindful of it," Mrs. Williams said. "I think that is part of our concern with the general public and with public policy -- just to be mindful of public policy decisions that would negatively impact agriculture because you are essentially killing the goose"

The "We Dig It" campaign is being spearheaded by a subcommittee of the Extension Advisory Council. Its members include a number of people who have marketing and public relations skills, such as Mrs. Williams, who is employed at Mt. Olive Pickle Co.

"This is not just an agricultural message aimed at farmers, it is designed for non-farm audiences," she said.

The campaign will include the creation of a speakers' bureau to carry the message to organizations and groups around the county, a Web site and a billboard campaign.

The campaign is the outgrowth of the Carl Best Ag Leadership Program. Best, a prominent farmer and agriculture leader, established an endowment at Wayne Community College to underwrite the program, which is coordinated through the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service office.

"We brought together a group of people who really understood the critical issues about educating the community about the economic impact that agriculture makes," county Extension director Howard Scott said.

The farmers left the county for a two-day retreat and then spent two more days in the program in the county. They traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with the local congressional leadership and with the American Farm Bureau to understand the political process, Scott said. In March, they met with state legislators to identify their issues.

"The concept came out of that," Scott said. "The farmers or agricultural community sometimes were not engaged in the policy and leadership of the county and from that they began to get involved. The idea is, people don't really understand the impact that agriculture makes on the county. That is why this idea came up."

From that, the "We Dig It" Committee was formed and has been at work for several months. The public got its first view of the program during the Wayne Regional Agricultural Fair as "kind of teaser," Scott said. It was presented to the Wayne County Board of Commissioners earlier this month.

"The idea is now to take our presentation, train a group of people who will be a speakers' bureau and have opportunities to go to different groups -- civic clubs and other groups in the county -- just to educate them about agriculture or agribusiness in the county," Scott said.

The committee will begin identifying potential members of the speakers' bureau in January.

"Once (they are) trained, then we will send out mass media to let the public know they are available to speak," Scott said.

Scott said the committee wants to ensure the speakers have a good background in agriculture, understand and value it and have a passion for it.

A Web site, www.wayneagriculture.com, is being developed with information about agriculture and agribusiness in the county.

"It will be sort of a clearing house for information about events open to the public, what's going on in the county, what kind of resources we have in Wayne County in agriculture research and leadership development," Mrs. Williams said. "It sounds odd to say, but I think it is safe to say that agriculture in Wayne County is one of the best-kept secrets and that is odd because we have so much agriculture around us.

"But people do not truly understand, I think, the context of agriculture and agribusiness and what a significant impact they make."

Agribusiness includes farm gate receipts and businesses like Goldsboro Milling Co., Georgia-Pacific Corp. and Mt. Olive Pickle Co., she said.

The $667 million from farming and agribusiness income exceeds even that of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, which pumps $520 million into the county annually, she said.

"We are the third-largest (county in agriculture) in the state, but look at how much more balance we have compared to Sampson and Duplin (No. 1 and 2 respectively)," Mrs. Williams said. "That makes us special. That is amazing. We are in a county of more than 100,000 population. That is huge, so it creates issues finding that balance that makes it all work because there is friction at times between development needs of the county versus agriculture.

"We have to change the mindset so when we look at land we just don't think of it as it can accommodate farming until we can find a better use for it. We need to really think pro-actively about agriculture in the county and at same time be smart about it. It is one of our biggest assets. So how do we leverage our assets to help the manufacturing side?"

"Agriculture can help our economy grow with new agriculture-based ventures," Scott said.

"It stands to reason that if you are able to attract an industry here that has a vested interest in a commodity that is produced here that company is going to have roots," Mrs. Williams said. "It is not going to be like a Dell that has no roots."

It is about trying to strike a balance, she said.

"It is about making decisions that take into account the needs and issues and concerns for agriculture," she said. "There has got to be give and take."

Scott agrees the balance is needed.

The county needs other industries and service industry, too, he said.

One aspect that non-farm people appreciate is "green space," he said.

"Green space is important for quality of life even in the city," he said. "Agriculture fits real well with green space, but also agriculture fits real well with the base."

He explained that bases like the idea of having farmland nearby, as opposed to houses and businesses.

"Then they do not have to worry about people abutting up next to runway," he said.