State agcommissioner wants to keep N.C. ‘green, growing’

Published 11:52 am Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Steve Troxler wants to keep North Carolina a farming state. Not an easy task.

Troxler, who was elected N.C. Agriculture Commissioner in 2004, described the challenges he faces in his job for a packed house Wednesday morning at the Polk County Friends of Agriculture Breakfast at the 4-H Center in Columbus.

Troxler, who still farms tobacco, wheat, vegetable and soybeans in Guilford County, said one problem he faces in his state job is that legislators have forgotten the importance of agriculture. More and more, they represent only the large cities in the state, he said.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

&dquo;They think groceries grow in the grocery store,&dquo; Troxler said.

The truth he tries to drive home every chance he gets is that agriculture is a $70 billion industry in North Carolina, an industry of a wide range of products, an industry that is coming through the Great Recession better than most.

Another challenge, Troxler said, is that North Carolina&squo;s population is growing, by one million people in just the last nine years.

&dquo;I have heard that Polk County was rated one of the top rural places to live in the country,&dquo; Troxler said. &dquo;The problem is, we went out and told the rest of the world.&dquo;

His own community, Browns Summit, was a sleepy farm community, Troxler said, adding that &dquo;now Greensboro found us.&dquo;

When farming and suburban residential land uses collide it&bsp; causes problems for both, he said.

Worse yet, housing and commercial developments eat up farmland. Troxler said the state has lost 600,000 acres of farmland in the last six years, an amount equal to losing all of Sampson Co.

Troxler said agricultural land returns more in taxes than it requires in services. It costs 34 cents an acre to serve a farm, whereas Troxler said housing acreage requires more like $1.15 an acre in services, and that number is up to $1.54 in Wake County, he said.

In order to save farmland, Troxler works to win funding for the N.C. Farm Preservation Trust Fund, but so far has not seen a dime allocated in upcoming state budgets. Preserving farmland is a cause which should be supported on its merits, he said. Green fields and forests help everyone with air quality, water quality, and by providing wildlife habitat.

&dquo;Agribusiness is the economic engine of the state,&dquo; Troxler said, and so he is focused on preserving farmland and encouraging young people to go into farming. He said he was impressed by the Future Farmers of America (FFA) students working at the Polk County High School farm.

Another challenge Troxler cited is better marketing of agricultural products. He particularly likes to see state farmers selling directly to state residents, thus reaping the profits. Troxler&squo;s office promotes the state&squo;s products with the &dquo;Got to be N.C.&dquo; branding campaign. &dquo;Got to be NC&dquo; signs can now be seen in major grocery chains across the state, and Troxler said he even noticed the sign in a London grocery.

Of course, farming is challenging all on its own, with weather, pests, rising costs for fuel and fertilizer and rising and falling commodities prices.

&dquo;Some years, I could have taken a stack of $50 bills in the early spring and gone out my front door and just let them fly away and been better off than I was after harvest,&dquo; Troxler said.

Food safety scares in recent years over spinach, meat, tomatoes, jalapenos, and peanut butter have each greatly harmed farmers, Troxler said.

But ultimately, he said, these rising safety concerns are driving home the point that fresher, local foods are better.

&dquo;Local is the freshest, the most nutritious and the safest,&dquo; Troxler said.