RALEIGH, N.C. — Despite the challenges of a tough economy, North Carolina's agriculture commissioner says the industry is stable.
At the first "State of Agriculture" address Thursday, Commissioner Steve Troxler said that despite volatile prices, farmers were still able to produce high yields in 2008.
One concern that he has been hearing, however, has to do with peanut farmers, who say they are not getting contracts they would normally get because of a salmonella outbreak that has killed eight people and sickened at least 550 across the nation.
Six have been sick in North Carolina, and one person has died.
North Carolina peanut farmers say the impact could be devastating for the industry and the state.
"When you lose the public confidence in the safety of the food supply, the markets immediately go away," Troxler said.
Last year, peanut growing was a $90 million industry in the state, with more than 1,400 farmers working 97,000 acres across the state, mainly east of Interstate 95, according to the North Carolina Peanut Growers Association.
Bob Sutter, the association's chief executive officer, says that peanut farms and peanuts themselves have nothing to do with the current outbreak.
"All those commercially prepared peanut butters are absolutely safe. This problem has developed in one plant in Georgia," Sutter said. "And maybe less than a half-percent of the peanut butter produced in the United States was involved."
The challenge, he says, is getting that message to customers. And with consumer confidence low, farmers like Jack Brinkley, of Brinkley Farms in Ahoskie, say it's tough to plan this year's crop.
Brinkley says he typically has a lot of his peanut orders by this time every year, and he would already have a month's worth of orders. Because of public perception about peanuts, he has none.
"The reason I'm concerned is the consistency of my farming operation," he said, "not knowing ... what crop or how many acres of a crop I will be producing."
With farmers uncertain, manufacturers say they are also uncertain.
"We're trying to determine just how many peanuts we need," said Dallas Barnes, president of Hampton Farms in Severn, which makes peanut-butter products. "That's the driving factor – we don't know what we need."
The Blakely, Ga., plant of Peanut Corp. of America, which processes 1 percent of U.S. peanut products, is being blamed for the scare and is under investigation by the federal government.
More than 1,000 peanut products, from ice cream to crackers to granola bars, have been recalled in what some experts say appears to be a record number of products for a recall involving foods consumed by humans.
"We've got to restore this public confidence in the food supply very, very quickly, so that it doesn't put farmers out of business," Troxler said.