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  • Theresa Opeka / Carolina Journal

Feeding NC: strategy to grow agriculture takes shape



Agriculture and agribusiness remain the number one industry in North Carolina, reaching a milestone of $103.2 billion in economic impact, according to a June 2023 NC State report. Some stakeholders are launching an initiative to keep the industry thriving and flourishing well into the future.


Scott Hamilton, president and chief executive officer of Golden LEAF Foundation, said the idea for NC Ag Leads came out of their board’s strategic planning retreat in January 2023.

“Our chairman, Don Flow, was asking the question, does North Carolina have an agricultural strategic plan, and if not, is there something that Golden LEAF could do to help the agriculture and Agribusiness community in North Carolina continue to move forward and so the board was interested in that,” he told Carolina Journal in a phone interview.


Not knowing the answers to those questions led to conversations with North Carolina Agricultural Commissioner Steve Troxler, members of the NC Farm Bureau, Ray Starling, general counsel and president of the NC Chamber Legal Institute, and others.

They realized there wasn’t a statewide strategic plan, but there was good support to move the idea forward.  


A steering committee was soon formed, comprised of Troxler, Flow, Hamilton, and four others representing the Chamber, Farm Bureau, and Golden LEAF.


“We’re going to focus on what can North Carolina do better than anyone else and then deliver a clear road map of what that is and how to accomplish it,” Hamilton said.

Golden LEAF is a primary funder of NC Ag Leads, along with Google, and staffing assistance from the Farm Bureau.


The Chamber has been tasked with the management of the process, which has two phases: discernment and initiation. The steering committee will then take a look at all of the information that was gathered in the discernment phase, report back to Golden LEAF, and hopefully have a “roadmap” or strategy ready to go in early 2025.


“North Carolina has an incredibly diverse agricultural economy,” Starling told CJ in a phone interview. “Some of that is our topography and geography, and some of it is historical, how certain industries have grown up in certain parts of the state and not others.”

Starling said the one overarching takeaway is a lot of leadership in agriculture is aligned vertically or focused on one thing: ex. Pork Council, cotton producers, NC Cattlemen’s Association.


“We gotta look horizontally across the industry as opposed to kind of going to everyone individually or letting each sub-organization or subgroup in Ag say, ‘Hey, this is what’s most important to me,’ and so we wanted to make sure our input process mirrored that,” he said.

There will be several focus groups made up of both large and small farmers from across the state; other focus groups involving other parts of the industry like seed companies and fertilizer makers; and, followed by focus groups of researchers, including universities.


“At the end of the day, if you ask the right questions of all these folks, people will tell you what they need, what it is that’s making them successful, and what it is that they think may be limiting their success,” Starling stated. “So, the idea is to widely gather input across the industry involving as many players as possible.”


In late spring, a thought leadership exercise will be held. Starling likened it to a TED Talk, where the Chamber will bring people, some from out of state, that see things in the Ag industry differently.


By the time summer rolls around, Starling said they will have done numerous focus groups, interviews, and cross-sectional workshops with 30 or more people, from small and large farmers and input providers, to research and development.


They have also completed surveys, and Starling encourages anyone who would like to participate in one to sign up for email updates on the NC Ag Leads website.

The Chamber will then take all of the input and go to the steering committee with what they have learned.


The steering committee will then figure out what are the top issues that need to be addressed in the second half of 2024. Implementation will come in early 2025, when new faces may appear not only in state government, but the White House as well.


NORTH CAROLINA IS A CHANGING STATE

Troxler said the NC Ag Leads initiative is a wonderful thing to have happened as he says the state is rapidly changing, with the steady influx of people moving to the state every day.

“The number one thing that comes to mind with that impact is the disappearance of farm and forestry land, and unfortunately, North Carolina ranks number two by the American Farmland Trust in the probability of the disappearance of 1.2 million acres of farmland and also forestry land by 2040,” he told CJ in a phone interview. “Will the disappearance of this farmland and forest land change our ability to have a safe, affordable food supply? We’ve got to figure that one out.”


Troxler is also concerned about where the water is going to come from everyone moving into the state, especially if the state experiences another massive drought like in 2007 and 2011.

“We haven’t built but one major water reservoir in North Carolina in a long time, and that’s the Randleman (Lake) Dam in Greensboro,” he said. “Living in Guilford County, I think I remember that the planning process, permitting process, and construction took about 20 years, so maybe somebody needs to be taking a look at that. Flooding has also been a big topic over the last several years.”


The state does have the Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, funded by General Assembly to offer permanent conservation easements on farmland, but Troxler said they always have more applications than funding. On the other hand, he said states that have good preservation programs have already lost so much of their farmland, and he doesn’t want to see that happen here.


“We passed a milestone this past year,” he said. “We have protected over 30,000 acres with the Trust Fund, but when you put that in context, just to the amount of land that we have lost to the development of solar energy (which he estimates is between 40-45,000 acres based on megawatts produced) in North Carolina, it still ranks far behind that. Then you throw in development, and we’ve got a real problem.”


Troxler added that transportation infrastructure isn’t keeping up with the growing population, and transportation is a major part of agriculture.


“Nothing else really matters if we can’t get this part right,” Starling stated, referring to agricultural production. “We can’t build a new plant if we don’t have a way to feed the people that are going to move here to run it. All of those things are secondary to having stability for an affordable food supply, and it’s a necessity. It’s not icing, it’s the cake, and so that’s from the heart.”

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