08/21/11 — County ponders hiring field crop ag agent

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County ponders hiring field crop ag agent

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 21, 2011 1:50 AM

A field crop agent is a vital component of Wayne County's multimillion-dollar agriculture industry, county commissioners agreed Tuesday morning. However, they remained reluctant to commit county funding fearing that it would set a dangerous precedent that the state would seize on as away to shift even more costs to local taxpayers.

They did approve sending a resolution to Extension officials at N.C. State University and, at the suggestion of Commissioner Steve Keen, to the county's legislative delegation asking that it be filled.

The position has been vacant for the past several months since former field crop agent and agronomist Kevin Johnson was promoted to director of the Wayne County Cooperative Extension Service following the retirement of long-time director Howard Scott.

The state has given no indication as to when or if the position will be filled, forcing Johnson to split as best he can his time between the two full-time jobs.

"I am still working with the farmers. I am still the field crop agent, too," Johnson told commissioners. "So I am still trying to sit in two chairs at one time or wear two hats."

On Aug. 9 the county received a letter from officials at N.C. State University that said several Extension slots would not be filled because of state budget cuts.

Smith asked Johnson if the state was going to hold his former office as field crop agent open, too.

"They will not give me specific details," Johnson said. "The university has cut Cooperative Extension 12.3 percent. They sent us a letter last week saying they were going to close 80 positions in Cooperative Extension that were vacant.

"Well, the field crop position is vacant. I have talked to our district director at N.C. State. He has given me an indication there is a possibility that we could still fill that position."

Smith said he had contacted the university as late as last week and had yet to receive a response.

"All of us have been fighting for this crops position because it is needed desperately here," Smith said. "I will tell you, the farmers, I have gotten as many calls over this issue from the farm community as I have anything in my being 10 years with their concern. Kevin can't do both of these jobs. It's impossible.

"Something is going to fail and that is not a failure on Kevin's part. He is only one person. You cannot run the organization then go out in the field and be an agronomist and do these things. One of the things I have talked to Kevin's superior and one of the things we have talked about is... I think we pick up 75 (percent of the salary) now. There is 25 percent that we could pick up as a county to get that position in place."

Smith said he had informally asked university officials if they would consider filling the slot if the county paid the other 25 percent.

"I would have to come to you and ask would we do it?" Smith said. "I have at least asked, but haven't gotten an answer. I asked because we need that position. We are an agricultural county.

"But again, remember, it is a part of the state cutting back. I've told you I am not going to make these calls. We have been doing a lot of shuffling the last weeks of cutting things back locally where the state and federal governments have cut back. So far we are surviving, but we are cutting some programs back and some hours back on some things in all departments. Most of them are fairly minor right now, but I think the heavy hitters will come later in the year."

Smith said that since he has received the Aug. 9 letter he needs to go back to the university and ask what it means and whether such a deal is off the table.

Commissioner Bud Gray asked Smith how much money he was talking about.

Less than $30,000 annually is already provided by the county, Smith said. The additional amount would be $19,200, he said.

Keen noted that the county had representatives on both the state Senate and House Agriculture Committees who should be contacted as well to help find funds for the position.

He also warned that the county needed to careful not to set a precedent by funding the full cost of the position.

Smith said that he, too, was afraid of that.

"I want this board to consider a resolution or letter, as the Farm Bureau here has done," Keen said. "The Farm Bureau supports this position and some kind of letter or resolution from this board to the people at State to tell them of the urgency and that we would like to have this position filled."

Johnson agreed.

"I think the state and university need to step up and be a part of this because you could set a precedent there," Johnson said. "It is a very critical position. Field crops alone are over $120 million for the county. That is just field crops. Livestock is the largest component of farm income and you are looking at close to $400 millions agricultural farm gates (receipts) that is not including all of the other agribusiness's in the county which is going to push you over $700 million."

Smith expressed concern about setting precedents as well.

"The things that we picked up that the state or feds left off years before, you keep it," Smith said. "But the one thing we have said for years is if that we have grants that go away if the return on the invest is great enough and we see the value to our community and taxpayers of Wayne County and businesses then you would at least consider (funding)."

Board Chairman J.D. Evans asked Smith to study the issue and bring back more information to commissioners at their next session.

"I will bring back exact figures to you and we will go back to the university."

Commissioner Sandra said that she agreed with Keen and made the motion that commissioners write a resolution to N.C. State officials in support of the position.

The board agreed with Keen to also send copies to members of the county's legislative delegation.