Economic Outlook - July 2005

How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm

Republican Steve Troxler won a close election for state agriculture commissioner in November that was disputed because a broken voting machine failed to record 4,400 votes. On Feb. 4, Democratic incumbent Britt Cobb conceded. Troxler has a bachelor’s in conservation from N.C. State University and owns Troxler Farms, growing tobacco and wheat in Guilford County. He recently revealed his plan for agribusiness in North Carolina.

BNC: What's the purpose?

Troxler: We were directed by the legislature to prepare this plan. The emphasis is not only on the preservation of farmland but on the preservation of farming as a business in North Carolina. When you’re talking about agribusiness being $60 billion a year — probably three times as big as the next-largest industry — and, directly and indirectly, employing 20% of the population, this needs to be a big focus.

What's different about your plan?

We want to give the farmer the flexibility to stay in business. To give you a general idea of what’s happening in North Carolina: Since 1997, the number of farms has fallen from 59,000 to 53,000. And we’ve lost about 300,000 acres of prime farmland in that time. But maybe even of more consequence is the average age of a North Carolina farmer in 2002 was over 56 years old. If you take all of these factors and put them together, I think you can see agriculture in this state is at a real crossroads.

What's this Agricultural Development Farmland Preservation Trust Fund you mention in your Plan?

The trust fund was established by the legislature several years ago, and I think it was originally funded at about $4 million, and after that the funding was cut and cut and cut to zero.

What's it for?

The economic conditions we’ve been through in agriculture for many years result in a substantial debt load for farmers. Usually the biggest asset they’ve got is that big piece of dirt called the farm. If a developer comes by and he says, ‘I’m going to give you this amount of money for your farm,’ and the farmer is pondering: ‘If I sell to the developer, I no longer have a mortgage, I may have a little profit left over and I don’t have to fight this day after day.’ If we had a program where we could obtain development rights on that piece of property, that money could go to paying off that mortgage and the farm remains a viable business. The farmer still owns it, but he has sold the development rights to it. If he sold, it would have to be sold as a farm. It couldn’t be sold for a housing development; it couldn’t be sold for a shopping center. The other purpose is the farmer gets a conservation easement to help protect water supplies in some critical areas in North Carolina, and he still stays on the farm, uses best management practices, but he’s still an operating business entity.

Paying farms to stay farms?

It’s not paying them to stay farms, but it would be enticing farm families to stay on the farms.

What are the Voluntary Agricultural Districts cited in your plan?

These are areas specified in a county’s planning office and identified by signage on roads and farms. It can be an individual farmer that goes in to sign up, or it can be a group of farmers. The districts provide protection from sewer assessments that urban expansion would put on a farmer that would be a financial burden he could not bear. Hopefully, it also helps do away with some nuisance lawsuits. They are a way of letting the public know that if they want to live in a Voluntary Agricultural District, they should be prepared to encounter the sights, sounds and smells of farming. We have only 42 counties where there are Voluntary Agricultural Districts. We want to encourage all the counties to use it.

Give examples of the new enterprises your plan mentions.

Biopharmaceuticals is the use of plants to grow some of the ingredients of our pharmaceutical industry. There has been discussion over many years of tobacco being able to grow some of the drugs that we need. There is a very quickly emerging biotechnology industry out there where we can use agriculture to fulfill some of these needs. Green energy is really going to become a hot topic now. We’re talking about the use of ethanol and biodiesel. And there are other products: grasses and forages that we can grow and that can be pelletized and used for energy, renewable energy resources. That’s going to be a part of the future of agriculture in this state.

What else?

The Certified Roadside Farm Market program aims to make roadside stands more visible. Our goal is to help farmers draw more shoppers to their stands by providing signs that clearly identify a location with North Carolina products. The department will also provide posters and price cards that farmers can use in their stands. And we’ll offer tips on market appearance, displays and product quality. Participating farm markets also will be listed on ncfarmfresh.com, a Web site where consumers can search for local farms that sell produce in their area. One thing that North Carolina has is a tremendous number of small farms. Of roughly 53,000 farms that we have left, 43,000 have annual sales of less than $50,000. We have a menagerie of small farms left in North Carolina that we need to protect.

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