Ask Anything: 10 questions with N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler
Posted January 27, 2009
What is being done to prevent the continued loss of farmland in N.C.? I realize that private landowners have the option of selling to whomever they choose at the price they choose, but we are continually losing lands that were traditionally farmed and converting them to housing developments. Do you have additional plans other than the farmland preservation program you have in place now? – Lawrence Dorsey, Albemarle
Preserving working farms and farmland is one of my top priorities. The N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund awards grants to counties and nonprofit groups to assist with purchasing conservation easements, agricultural agreements and setting up programs that develop viable agriculture.
In addition, our department is constantly working to raise public awareness of the importance of protecting working lands. My staff participates in workshops and meetings to educate local governments about farmland protection, and we assist those that are developing farmland protection plans or setting up voluntary agricultural districts.
I think we have laid a good foundation, and now we must build on it.
In today's day and age where young farmers make up such a small percentage of the farmers in North Carolina and America, why is it so hard for young farmer or beginning ranchers to get loans and/or grants for equipment, supplies and land? We are the next generation of farmers. If not us, then who will continue to feed America? Thank you. – Damian Whitley, Battleboro
That’s a great question. One of the greatest threats to farming in North Carolina is the rising age of our farmers. The average age is 56, and it’s not getting any younger.
As today’s farmers retire, fewer young people are stepping in to take over their operations. As you mentioned, beginning farmers face challenges, such as obtaining credit and finding suitable land.
The 2008 farm bill passed by Congress included funding to help new farmers. I was very happy to see that in the farm bill. I hope it will help younger people get into the business of farming.
With respect to new market development, which N.C. farm products hold the most promise and why? – Tony, Durham
The strength of North Carolina agriculture is its diversity. Over the years, our department has worked to develop markets for a wide variety of commodities and farm products. North Carolina ranks in the top five nationally in several commodities, including sweet potatoes, hogs, Christmas trees, turkeys, strawberries, tobacco and peanuts.
As consumer interest in locally grown foods continues to grow, that’s going to create more growth opportunities for many of the commodities in North Carolina. We’re continuously promoting North Carolina agricultural products through our Got to Be N.C. marketing program.
We’ve also seen growth in the demand for North Carolina agricultural products overseas, and the export value of these products is now greater than $2 billion. Asia in particular represents a great growth opportunity for North Carolina agriculture.
How is it that the N.C. State Fair falls under Agriculture? In most states, fair events are overseen by the city or county. – Heather, Grantham
The N.C. State Fair’s origins were in agriculture. The State Agricultural Society put on the first N.C. State Fair in 1853 as a way to showcase new techniques and equipment for farmers. Since 1928, the fair has been operated by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The State Fair still remains very focused on agriculture, with livestock competitions, fruit and vegetable contests, cooking contests, and through exhibits such as Field of Dreams and Got to Be NC. In addition to the State Fair, there are more than 40 county and regional agricultural fairs across the state.
Why has it taken your department over three years to decide on the AgMart pesticide/birth defects case? Is there really any question about whether Ag-Mart violated worker safety laws? – Cecil, Garner
The legal process sometimes doesn’t work as quickly as we would like. Our department completed its investigation and served a notice of violation on Ag-Mart’s regional farm manager in October 2005. Since then, there has been a lot of legal maneuvering.
The case is now before the N.C. Pesticide Board, an independent board appointed by the governor. The board has heard evidence in the case and was scheduled to begin deliberations about the case Jan. 20. However, the meeting was postponed because of snow. We hope to have a decision from the Pesticide Board soon.
Why do you support use of gas chambers for animal shelters in N.C. when EBI (euthanasia by injection) is a better method and more cost-effective? – Shirley Phillips, Fuquay-Varina
In 2005, the General Assembly adopted legislation instructing the N.C. Board of Agriculture to adopt rules governing euthanasia at animal shelters.
The legislature could have banned the use of any particular method of euthanasia. Instead, it directed the board to develop rules for euthanasia using any one or a combination of methods and standards prescribed by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Humane Society of the United States or the American Humane Association.
The department developed the rules over a two-year period, seeking input, suggestions and public comment. The N.C. Board of Agriculture approved the rules on Feb. 13, 2008. These rules will establish standards for euthanasia that are consistent with North Carolina law and the standards set by an expert committee of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The rules will allow lethal injection and carbon monoxide as options for local governments that operate animal shelters. The rules do not require that shelters use carbon monoxide for euthanasia, and any county can choose to prohibit the use of carbon monoxide. Shelters that choose to euthanize animals with carbon monoxide will have to meet strict requirements governing its use.
The rules mandate the use of bottled carbon monoxide and commercially made chambers. They also require monthly inspections of shelters that use carbon monoxide. Until these rules take effect, there are no standards governing the use of carbon monoxide or the safety of chambers.
The rules also will require anyone who euthanizes animals to receive significant training before being certified. Periodic retraining also will be required. Any euthanasia technician who does not follow the rules will be subject to disciplinary action.
Objections by some members of the public have held up the rules from taking effect, so at this time, unregulated euthanasia continues to occur in shelters across the state. Because of the objections, the General Assembly will have the opportunity to approve or disapprove the rules during its 2009 session.
Why is it illegal for dairy farmers in N.C. to sell fresh raw milk while it is legal in neighboring states (i.e., South Carolina)? Are there any plans to make it legal in N.C.? – Ritchie Roberts, Hillsborough
The General Assembly has wisely prohibited the sale of raw milk for a variety of public health reasons. Raw milk can carry many types of bacteria that are harmful to people. I am not aware of any plans by the legislature to make the sale of raw milk legal in North Carolina.
Commissioner, thanks for the hard work and fine job you put in for our citizens. My question: Is your department working towards making it more economically viable for our farmers to grow and sell crops that can be used for alternative fuels? Would ethanol production be under your department? If so, what are we doing to make N.C. a place where it can be manufactured profitably? – Charles Boyer, Raleigh
Our department’s Research Stations Division is working with N.C. State University on a number of research studies involving crops that could be used for alternative fuels.
For example, research is occurring on oil crops, such as canola, that can be used for biodiesel. We have also set up biodiesel processors at two of our research stations to convert used vegetable oil into fuel for tractors and other equipment at the stations.
Our Oxford Research Station is home to the N.C. Biofuels Center, which the state established two years ago to foster development of alternative fuels opportunities in the state. In addition, our agribusiness development specialists are working with a variety of state and private groups to explore opportunities for biofuels production.
There is still a lot of work to be done, but I’m excited about some of the possibilities.
A December 2006 article in Rolling Stone magazine painted a very ugly picture of pollution and cruelty perpetrated by the Smithfield Foods corporation in North Carolina. Smithfield refutes the claims, and I know we've since passed Swine Farm Environmental Performance Standards Act. What is your position on so-called CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and their role in North Carolina agriculture? Do you see CAFO's as the future of hog farming? – Matt McCann, Durham
By and large, North Carolina hog farmers care about the environment and care about humanely treating the animals on their farms. It doesn’t make good business sense for them to think, or do, otherwise.
Raising hogs indoors allows farmers to properly care for and feed their animals. And hog farms are held to strict standards regarding manure storage. Currently, there is a moratorium on construction or expansion of any hog farms with more than 250 hogs.
Are there any organizations aimed at preserving tobacco barns and other historic farm structures? I would like to get involved if there is. Keep up the good work! – Todd Wahler, Raleigh
Thank you, Mr. Wahler. The state Historic Preservation Office encourages private individuals to preserve tobacco barns. You can find information on the Web site.
In addition, the Duke Homestead Historic Site, Tobacco Farm Life Museum in Kenly and Horne Creek Living History Farm in Surry County have preserved barns. Also, we restored the old log barn at the N.C. State Fairgrounds, and have cured tobacco in it during the past four State Fairs.
I personally have a huge interest in log tobacco barns. I’ve bought and dismantled three old log barns, and I’m storing the materials in the hopes of rebuilding them in the future.
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