01/19/12 — Forum: County must protect farms, industry

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Forum: County must protect farms, industry

By Steve Herring
Published in News on January 19, 2012 1:46 PM

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Bill Lamm, chairman of the Karl Best Ag Leadership Committee, welcomes participants to the annual Karl M. Best Agriculture Forum held Wednesday at Wayne Community College. Wayne County farmer Craig West spoke about challenges facing farmers including overregulation, high taxes, a shrinking amount of farmland and the need for a reliable and legal work force. The forum is named in memory of Best, a prominent county farmer who served on numerous agricultural committees and received awards and recognition for his services.

A reliable and legal work force, overregulation, high taxes and a shrinking amount of farmland pose serious challenges to an agriculture and agribusiness industry that annually pumps more than $763 million into Wayne County's economy.

Speaking Wednesday morning at the annual Karl M. Best Agriculture Forum at Wayne Community College, farmer Craig West cited those concerns and joked that he had been asked to speak about them, but had only been given 10 minutes in which to do so.

The forum is named in memory of Best, a prominent county farmer who served on numerous agricultural committees and received awards and recognition for his services.

Cooperative Extension Service Director Kevin Johnson told the gathering of government, civic, economic development and business leaders and farmers that he knew they were all aware of agriculture's importance to the county.

"It is a message everyone needs to hear," he said.

Mt. Olive Pickle Co. spokesperson Lynn Williams gave a PowerPoint presentation on the county's agriculture and agribusiness industry.

Agriculture represents 21 percent of the county's total employment with 11,831 jobs and in 2008 agriculture and agribusiness industry generated $760 million or 21 percent of the total county income, she said.

Wayne County is the fourth-leading county in the state in total crop cash receipts at more than $338.5 million and consistently ranks among the top agriculture counties in the nation.

It has managed to do so even though the number of farms and the amount of farmland continue to shrink, she said. Despite growth in the county, 48 percent of land in the county is farmland, she added.

West said he wasn't sure that there was a lot of county-level control over some of the problems the industry faces.

"The first challenge, which I believe will be the biggest challenge in agriculture in North Carolina in the next few years, is labor," West said. "We have a problems identifying or capturing a dependable, affordable, legal labor source.

"There is no way to sugarcoat it other than to say we need labor that we can't provide locally. We know local people need jobs and we know how many people are unemployed, but the fact is plain and simple -- they don't want to do the jobs we have for them to do."

West said his family farm uses the federal H-2A temporary agricultural program. The program allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring non-immigrant foreign workers to the country to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature.

It is a reliable and dependable source of workers, but it is not cheap, he said. Along with paying $9.70 an hour this coming year, the farmer has to pay for transportation as well as housing costs.

"A lot of people in the county wouldn't like to have a job that pays that amount of money, but a requirement of that program is that you have to hire any U.S. citizen who applies for that job for the first half of your contract period," he said.

Last year, 280 local people applied for and accepted those jobs -- seven completed the contract, he said.

"We have to have an outside labor force to do the job that we want," West said. "We get it put on us a lot, but it is not about cheap labor. It is about dependable labor. You have probably read where agriculture is enjoying some of the best commodity prices that we have seen in a long time -- possibly than we have ever seen. That is good, but you also to keep in mind when you see that in the paper that as the commodity prices increase, input prices go right along with them.

"Seeds, fuel land rent, all of these things tend to go up and when you couple that with the weather events we have had here in the county the last couple years -- 2010 was the hottest recorded summer we have ever had -- drought and then follow that up with a major hurricane in August. When you put that together it comes out to a lot of missed opportunities over the past few years in agriculture."

But as always, farmers are optimistic about the coming year, he said.

The next challenge is the regulations that affect every industry in the county and state, he said.

"But I think agriculture has as many to deal with as anybody," West said. "It is an extreme burden not only in time, but expense to deal with all of these regulations."

West said that during a tobacco meeting several years ago a farmer had predicted that in the future that farms would have to have a compliance officer.

"We are real close to that now," West said.

For example, a new rule requires a management plan for every field where a farmer uses fumigants even though they have used the same fumigants for more than 40 years, he said.

If a lot of the regulations are put into place, there will be a lot of farmland in Wayne County that can no longer be used for farming, he said.

One local concern is taxes, Best said.

"We all know that taxes are necessary, and we all know that we have to do our part. However, farmers and landowners bear a pretty big tax burden in our county. Most farmers own land and operations have grown over the past years and farmers own more land and more equipment. All of that leads to higher taxes. I understand that. That is obvious.

"One thing I would like you to consider, that might not be as obvious, most farmers in the county also rent land. They don't own it all. That adds a whole new wrinkle when these taxes are increased. When a landowner gets a tax notice in the mail the first person they probably call to complain is you (County Manager Lee Smith). The second person they call is me because they want more money for their land so they can pay their taxes. Just keep that in mind."

The final challenge is farmland preservation, he said.

"There is certainly no more important resource for farming than land and it is disappearing at an alarming rate," he said. "(North Carolina) leads the nation in the number of farm and forest land lost in the last 10 years -- over a million acres I think."

The land is being devoured by development commercial and residential, West said.

"People understand the importance of the growth, but that loss cannot continue at its current pace," he said. "We need to focus on preserving what is the No. 1 industry in the county and the state."