Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — The re-election campaign of North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler has highlighted his efforts to grow agriculture and agribusiness revenue and employment. His Democratic opponent Walter Smith wants to expand the industry, too, but he has drawn attention for his opposition to the lack of state regulation preventing animal abuse through dog-breeding operations derided as “puppy mills.”
“My vision is for this business to be a $100 billion business within the next five to 10 years,” said Troxler, a Republican who is founder, owner, and operator of Troxler Farms in Guilford County, and president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.
The agriculture industry currently generates $74 billion annually in North Carolina, he said, and the larger goal is attainable.
“We actually grew agriculture and agribusiness during the Great Recession,” Troxler said. “It actually grew by 6 percent and, remember, we didn’t have the best of weather.” The legislature moved the State Forest Service under his purview two years ago and he has designs on making it more profitable.
“Another one of the goals I have is to make our transportation infrastructure for agriculture much more efficient, especially the port system,” Troxler said. Some $3 billion in farm products are shipped out of ports annually, but only 40 percent of them through North Carolina ports. Most are exported from Norfolk or Charleston. Those port jobs could be shifted here with in-state expansion.
The department is pushing international trade and opened an office in Beijing to market state agricultural products, he said.
As Troxler hammers away at purse string issues, Democrat Walter Smith’s campaign tugs at the heartstrings. Yes, he wants to diversify crops, incorporate more technology, and reduce regulatory burdens that make it hard to farm profitably. But he also vows to regulate dog-breeding operations to run abusive puppy mills out of business.
“I’m the only candidate on record saying we’re going to regulate the puppy mills in North Carolina,” for which the state is gaining a poor reputation, Smith said. “A lot of those animals end up getting euthanized because they’re in such bad shape they can’t do anything for them or they can’t find a home for them.”
There are no regulations to regulate puppy mills “until it reaches the point of animal cruelty,” Smith said. “I’m in favor of reasonable regulations that will not put hardships on responsible breeders, and we have a lot of responsible breeders in North Carolina.”
More than half of the 50 states have breeder laws, including most states in the Southeast, he said.
“I don’t make the laws of North Carolina, I carry them out,” Troxler said. He has gone to the General Assembly twice to discuss regulating puppy mills, he said.
Troxler said legislators have told him the state has placed regulation of dog breeders under the jurisdiction of local governments and there’s not enough money to put into a program under state control.
Smith is an active farmer who grew up on a farm, taught high school agriculture classes, worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency as executive director of its Yadkin County Office, and is an ex-mayor of Boonville. He trailed Troxler by a margin of 45 percent to 35 percent, with 20 percent undecided, in a Public Policy Polling voter survey taken Aug. 31-Sept. 1.
The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has more than 20 divisions, “and I’m going to take a hard look at them and see if there’s any overlap, or if we can make some consolidation,” Smith said. He wants to set up a toll-free hotline to make the department more responsive.
The agriculture department is the largest in state government and “it oversees aspects of people’s lives every day,” Smith said.
The department’s various divisions deal most visibly with agronomy and animal health, crop and livestock regulation. But they also are responsible for gas and oil inspection; food, drug, and cosmetic testing; operation of five state farmers markets; pest control; soil and water conservation; and forest management, among other functions.
Smith views agriculture as having the potential for progressive pioneering that could lure younger generations back to the farm.
“The average age of the farmer in North Carolina is somewhere around 57… and we’re not getting a lot of younger people coming in to the agriculture industry,” Smith said. “So I’ve got a plan [to do that] through innovation, diversification, and aggressive farming.”
He wants to work with farmers to grow more sustainable and organic crops that are increasingly popular with environmentally conscious populations. He even sees solar farms and wind farms as part of the mix.
“We’re at the crossroads of the wine industry, kind of like Napa Valley was 20, 30 years ago,” Smith said. Hops are being grown in the western part of the state for use in beer breweries.
“We can grow truffles, all kinds of things that interest the younger generation, and then it will be profitable,” he said. “We even have caviar” being spawned commercially north of Lenoir, Smith said of a project he helped bring to fruition through his work on the North Carolina Agriculture Foundation Board.
The state needs to target all those budding industries through programming at its land grant universities such as North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University, along with various agriculture organizations, he said.
Troxler said the state now works with small and minority farmers and “we’re already the third-most diverse agriculture department in the nation,” Troxler said.
He said his department has worked closely with farmers on what new crops can be grown, and he chairs his department’s Sustainable Local Food Advisory Council. “The message that I have been putting out for everybody is the tent for agriculture is a large tent,” and the department will help the smallest to largest farms.
Smith believes farmers are burdened by too many regulations, and eliminating some of those would make it easier for farmers to operate and expand.
At the same time, “we can do a much, much better job of protecting our environment” from nonpoint source pollution of agricultural chemicals and pesticides washing off the land, Smith said.
“Through the use of [GPS] technology we can do a great job of targeting” where to spray fertilizer and pesticides, thereby reducing both pollution of groundwater and farm costs, Smith said.
“We’re not an agency that goes out with a big hammer and hits people in the head to bring them into compliance,” Troxler said. He prefers to work with people through education to foster compliance with regulations.
“There certainly are enough regulations, in fact I’ve been working with the legislature on rolling back some regulations” that are detrimental to agriculture, Troxler said.
For example, he said, “We led the nation for several years in the disappearance of farmland,” for a total of 1 million acres over a 10-year period, due, substantially, to municipal actions like annexation.
“Two landmark things that I think have been very, very beneficial,” Troxler said, are working to get legislation passed to prevent municipalities from annexing bona fide farms and to ensure such farms are not subjected to municipal zoning laws if they are located in extraterritorial jurisdictions.
He said those laws “will probably have more effect on how much farmland we keep” than any other endeavor. Troxler wants to stem the loss of additional farm and forestland.
“I don’t think we’re doing enough for food and consumer safety. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement,” Smith said.
“We’ve been recognized as one of the top, if not the top, programs for food safety in the U.S.,” Troxler countered.
Dan E. Way (@danway_northcarolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.