MOUNT OLIVE — Tony Jones farms 2,500 acres in southern Wayne County.
It is a large operation, but even with that size acreage it can be difficult to make a profit.
Jones knows he is not alone, and that is one reason he was glad to see farmers question U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on a variety of topics during a town hall style meeting Monday afternoon at the University of Mount Olive.
Jones was among the hundreds in the standing-room-only crowd packed into the university’s Murphy Center to listen to Perdue talk about trade tariffs, the farm bill and the future of agriculture.
Earlier in the day Perdue visited a hog farm and Butterball.
State Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten was the moderator for the event that attracted farmers, students, business and civic leaders and elected officials including state Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Mount Olive and North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler.
A Georgia native, Perdue is a former farmer, agribusinessman, veterinarian, state legislator and governor of Georgia. He became the 31st U.S. secretary of agriculture on April 25, 2017.
“We want to talk about the things on your mind today, hear questions and try to find some answers — mostly to go back and do my homework on what we ought to be focusing on,” Perdue said.
Jones liked what he heard, but had some concerns that the extent of the farm crisis was not fully relayed to Perdue.
There were a lot of questions regarding tariffs, the future of agriculture, the employment of young people and the role the University of Mount Olive, A&T State University and N.C. State University have to play in that placement, Jones said.
“But the real crisis is what our farmers are up against today,” Jones said in an interview. “Our farmers in the southeastern United States, we are having a real hard time competing in the world market. It is not our neighbors here in the United States.
“It is our world market with lower labor rates, less regulation, lower input costs. They are able to produce and ship food and products into the U.S. that U.S. farmers cannot compete with on a price basis. But with that said, the American people enjoy cheap food prices, and our corporate earning are at an all-time high, but they are on the backs of the U.S. farmer.”
The world market is wider than just Mexico, he said. It includes China and even countries in Africa and South America. It is a complicated issue, he said.
“I think that it is imperative that he comes and listens,” Jones said. “At least he is concerned, and at least he will engage the conversation as to what the problems are. We can’t discuss the solutions until we know what the problems are.”
Perdue fielded questions on tariffs, the future of farming, labor and regulations.
A Nash County farmer, Brent Leggett, said he has a 12-year-old son who texts him every day after school asking what they were doing on the farm that day. Leggett said he told his son he was at a meeting with Perdue. His son had a message for him to pass along.
“I am going to read it just like he sent it to me, ‘Tell him to tell Trump to make a deal with China,’” Leggett said. “Out of the mouths of babes, and this is a 12-year-old boy in the sixth grade. All he wants to do is farm.”
The comment generated laughter and applause.
Leggett said he farms tobacco, sweet potatoes, cotton, soybeans and peanuts and that the tobacco industry is really in dismay because of tariffs and that eastern North Carolina is struggling as the administration works through the tariffs.
“I know that is a little political, but it is a really big issue for many of us in this room,” he said.
It is not political, it is real, Perdue said.
“I would love to engage your son,” Perdue said. “I would like to have a text conversation with him. I will give you my text number. Here is what I would tell him. Say you bought him a $75 (baseball) glove and a $300 bat for sports and he took it to school and somebody stole them.
“That is exactly what China has been doing with our intellectual technology for years. That is what they built their economy on, and President Trump has thrown the flag on it, and is not going to let them do it anymore. He is in it for the long game just like the farmers. He is trying to make sure your 12-year-old son can have an even playing field.”
Leggett said he hopes farmers can sustain their operations to reap the benefits of those efforts.
However, going into 2019, concerns remain about how detrimental those tariffs are going to be for eastern North Carolina, he said.
As for the future, agriculture is a broad career with many choices, and it is just not in the field although farmers are needed to replace the number of aging farmers, Perdue said.
“That is why at USDA we are trying to do programs helping incentivize, help financially young beginning and farmers who have been disadvantaged,” Perdue said. “What we are seeing nationwide from the growing perspective is that many of the young people, millennials if you will, are looking at smaller plots of land. They find they don’t have to start with a thousand acres, but they can start in small areas and do specialty crops.”
There also is a lot of technological growth in agriculture, such as the use of GPS, he said. That is one reason that rural broadband is so important, Perdue said.
There is a need as well for young people in agricultural communications since people need to know how their food is grown, what is put in it, he said.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” he said. “There is a minority, a small minority, of people who would love to see animal agriculture done away with. We need to fight back with facts.”
Perdue was asked if the recent government shutdown had negatively affected implementation of the farm bill. He was asked as well about the prospect of a second shutdown.
USDA had a skeleton crew during the shutdown that was charged with continuing to work on the implementation rules, Perdue said.
There is no doubt the 35-day shutdown will delay it some, he said. However, Perdue said he does not think it will be delayed by a month.
“I am not even willing to consider your second question about another shutdown,” he said.