MOUNT OLIVE — Agriculture in North Carolina is in crisis, state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said.
It is a feeling shared by others who spoke during a Monday afternoon town hall meeting with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue before a standing-room-only crowd in the University of Mount Olive’s Murphy Center.
The state’s agriculture industry has been hit by a perfect storm of hurricanes, trade issues, low commodity prices and other issues, Troxler said.
“We are going to take one piece at a time and try to rectify it,” he said. “What we have here in North Carolina is we have partnerships between the Farm Bureau, the commodity groups, agribusiness councils.
“I want to add in something. I feel like that we in agriculture have got a big buddy nationwide sitting in that (U.S. Department of Agriculture) seat. I know that he (Perdue) is going to do everything that he can do to help us. The good thing is that I have access. Four of his undersecretaries were my colleagues at the National Leadership (program). I have their personal cellphone numbers. I can call him (Perdue) any time that I need to talk to him.”
Also, Perdue’s chief of staff, Ray Starling, is from Sampson County, Troxler said.
“How do we solve these problems?” he said. “We have to do it at the state level. We certainly have to do it at the federal level.”
The state has started the state-level process with its $240 million Agricultural Disaster Relief Program of 2018 funding in response to more than $1.2 billion in estimated agricultural losses from Hurricane Florence and Tropical Storm Michael. Florence caused an estimated $22 million in losses just in field crops in Wayne County.
Hopefully, there will be a federal disaster program as well to piggyback on top of the state program to allow for a fresh start, Troxler said.
North Carolina farmers have new crops that are being looked at, and the state has a strong animal industry even though some people think agriculture is for losers, he said.
“I cannot imagine anyone thinking that,” Troxler said. “The danger of all of this is that we have one percent of the population raising the products that are feeding the 99 percent and part of the 99 percent is trying to destroy the people that are feeding them. Biting the hand that feeds you, I think is the old saying.
“I don’t know how bad it is across the rest of the country. This disaster package is a bridge. We are trying to get folks from this year to next year. It is an amazing thing when the legislature appropriated the money unanimously. We are working as hard as we can work to get this money out the door, but it is a moving target.”
Of the state’s 100 counties, 72 have received either secretarial or presidential disaster designation, Troxler said.
“That is how bad this disaster is,” he said. “But I do want you to understand that the problems that we’ve got are monumental. I have never seen anything like it in my lifetime. I have heard it here today, everything from labor to the aftermath of the hurricanes, low commodity prices, trading, you name it, it has all hit us at one time.”
On top of that, U.S. currency is so strong that it makes it difficult to export products around the world, Troxler said.
That is particularly true for tobacco, which is one of the major products the U.S. is trying to export, he said.
Tobacco is the most problematic property, especially since China pulled out of the market last year, Troxler said.
“We certainly hope they get back into that market,” he said. “But I can tell you that for the last two months I have worked with Ted McKinney, who is his (Perdue’s) undersecretary, to get China to understand that we want them back in the market.
“But it is all tangled up in all of the trade stuff. Tobacco, the word has been said in Washington for the first time in a long time. Mr. Secretary, we certainly do appreciate that. If we can get everything back in line, get tobacco back to where it needs to be, then we are going to have a new beginning.”
Earlier in the meeting, farmer Gerald Ballance of Fremont said that farmers had depended on those tobacco pounds that were going to China.
There are farmers selling out now who had relied on that poundage, he said.
“How many more is that going to happen to while he (Trump) sits up there and fusses with China?” Ballance said.
Jerome Vick of Wilson County thanked Perdue for coming down to see what shape the state is actually in.
“The message I would like for him to take back to Washington is that it is critical down here,” he said. “It is the most critical time that I have seen in agriculture in all the time that I have been farming, and I started farming in 1975 — 43 crops ago.
“I have seen good ones, and I have seen bad ones. The message I would like for you to take back to Washington, the reason we all came here today, is we are all hanging around the mailbox every day.”
Vick said that the program that Troxler had gone out on a limb to help get approved is really good.
However, it is going to take more than that to help farmers recover even though the disaster checks are critical to helping keep farmers in business, he said.
“Just take the message back this is just not a bump in the road in eastern North Carolina — the house is on fire,” Vick said.