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Q&A: N.C. agriculture commissioner addresses tariffs, state of farming

N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler speaks at an annual forum at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh. (CJ photo)
N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler speaks at an annual forum at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh. (CJ photo)

At last count, there were 48,000 farms tilling crops and tending poultry and livestock on 8.2 million acres of North Carolina soil. Agriculture and agribusiness are the state’s No. 1 industry, contributing $87 billion to the state’s economy. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, the man overseeing the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services since 2005, sat down with Carolina Journal Associate Editor Dan Way to discuss his agency’s scope and role, and current events affecting agriculture. A Guilford County native, the plain-spoken Troxler is founder, owner, and operator of Troxler Farms. His farm has yielded tobacco, wheat, vegetables, and soybeans. A 1974 graduate of N.C. State University, he is a past president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and has received a multitude of honors and awards for his work. Agriculture commissioner is an elected position, and is part of the Council of State. This interview was edited for space and clarity.

DAN WAY: You oversee a large, diverse government agency. What are the main functions and scope of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services?  

STEVE TROXLER: … I think most people understand the ag part of it. The part that they probably don’t understand is the Consumer Protection Services that we have in the department that touch their lives every day, all day. We are the agency in government responsible for the food safety of the population in North Carolina, whether it be produce [or] meat through the Meat and Poultry Inspection Division. We inspect gas pumps, we inspect scales, in fact anything that is sold by weight or measure we’re there to inspect, even down to the scanners in grocery stores. And any retail business that has a scanner, we inspect them. And we find quite a few errors, quite frankly. Most of the time not fraud, but just people not paying attention to sales prices and that kind of stuff. … And the gas pumps, we’re making sure that you get a gallon of gas when it says you’re getting a gallon of gas, and the price is correct, and even down to the quality of fuels that you’re getting, the octane level, cetane level in diesel fuel.  

[If] you go to the ag site we have a Marketing Division that is involved in marketing not only local products, but products nationally and internationally. One of the big things that we do is work with international markets, which has been a hot topic here lately with the tariffs … but I have led trade missions all over the world, and we take potential sellers for North Carolina products, and hook them up with potential buyers in other countries, and it’s been quite successful. We probably have increased our export sales by $1 billion to $2 billion on a yearly basis by the marketing efforts we’ve put forth. We do a lot. I’ve got 21 divisions. There are about 3,000 people that work for this agency.   

DW: We often hear that agriculture is the leading industry in North Carolina. If you were issuing a state of North Carolina agriculture today, what would it be? 

ST: I don’t think it would be very good, and there are a lot of reasons. We’ve had low commodity prices now for a couple [or] three years. In fact, net farm income at the national level is down to a half of what it was in 2013, so we’re struggling right now. We’ve got of course some problems out there that are not helping right now. We hope long-term there will be relief to them. Weather is another factor. Hurricane Matthew destroyed a lot of agriculture in North Carolina. Previous to that [we] had a couple of wet years, and this one has been a tale of two seasons — the very dry season that was June, and up to the latter part of July, and now we’ve had the wet season … . The way you get through low commodity prices is high yields. That makes you very efficient. But when the weather won’t let you have the high yields, then that drives the cost of production up, and expenses up, so I’m afraid this is going to be a year where we struggle when the harvest comes in.  

DW: There’s considerable debate about President Trump’s tariff policies. The president says farmers back the tariffs because they are willing to exchange some short-term pain for long-term gain through better trade deals. What are you hearing from North Carolina farmers, and what is your position on the tariffs? 

ST: I think in principle farmers do understand free trade and would love to have access to markets all over the world. We know we’re as efficient or more efficient than any other producer in the world, and if we have free access to the markets we’re going to do well. But that short-term pain for long-term pain, how long is long? I think there’s plenty of evidence the tariffs have depressed commodity prices even further than they were. They’ve started to rebound a little bit now, and we have known all along that after we harvest these crops, that’s when the proof’s going to be in the pudding. What is the price going to be for the crops, what’s the demand going to be for the crops? 

There’s some things in North Carolina that we do very well that certainly are going to be very adversely affected by these tariffs if they don’t let up soon, tobacco probably being the most affected because of our dependence on trade with China in the tobacco world. We in the department spent a lot of lot of time in China developing relationships, and getting China tobacco [interests] over here to buy this tobacco. And they became our No. 1 export market. So, when the tariff thing started closing in, it’s very iffy what they’re going to do, if anything. So that could drive us into next year with estimates of 50 million to 60 million pounds of tobacco that we’ve grown that has no home, which will further depress prices and production next year. We know that China is our No. 1 export customer in North Carolina. Mexico is No. 3, Canada No. 2. So at one time here in North Carolina we’ve had not good trade relations with our one, two, and three export customers, so that makes it tough. … I think farmers have been very patient with this. …  

DW: The hog farm lawsuits have generated a lot of media coverage. How real is the threat of those lawsuits on the industry, and tell me one thing regarding the homeowner versus farmer disputes that you think was underplayed or missing from news coverage. 

ST: This is about as un-American as anything you could ever ask to see. The thing that has not been said enough is that this is about the hog farmers themselves. What’s been portrayed has been, ‘Oh, we’re suing this Chinese multinational company Smithfield Foods.’ The truth of the matter is Smithfield is still an independent company that is part of the WH Group that is actually chartered in Hong Kong. The farmers that are raising the hogs for Smithfield under contract, the ones that have been declared a nuisance, are not going to get hogs back on those farms. If those folks don’t get hogs back on these farms then they’re out of business. And if they’ve got any debt they’re probably going to lose the land, the hog farm, the whole nine yards. So this is a very serious situation for the farmers that are being sued as nuisance. But it’s even deeper than that. If this sets precedents, [then] there is no farm in this country that’s going to be safe. 

What’s a nuisance? My definition is it’s something that somebody else doesn’t like. In agriculture there are all kinds of things we have to do to make a crop that some people don’t like, even heavy equipment on the road. Is that a nuisance? Some people might think so, but it’s necessary. We’ve got to get from farm to farm. So this is a very serious situation that we are seeing here in North Carolina, and if these farmers can’t get hogs back on the farms they’re out of business. Some people are saying, ‘Oh, but Smithfield could put these hogs back on the farm.’ Well no they can’t. Once this jury and judge rules that these farms are a nuisance, if they did that they would be in contempt of court. So that’s how serious this thing has gotten. 

DW: Some critics and even some supporters of solar utility-scale generating plants have raised concerns about taking viable farmland out of production to build these megasites. Some fear the land might not be easily returned to farm use after the facilities shut down, and that farmers might get stuck with decommissioning and cleanup costs. Do you believe this is a concern that should be addressed more aggressively? 

ST: We had the Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund here in the department, and our goal is to protect valuable farmland in North Carolina, and give people another option — instead of selling the land selling the development rights off of it. We were making progress, but then the solar industry came to North Carolina in a big way, and we lost a lot of farmland, no question, to these solar panels. It hurts my feelings every time I see good farmland covered up with solar panels. But I’ve thought this thing through, and through, and through, and I am a very strong private property rights person. The solar energy comes and offers the farmer opportunity to make money off of this land that he or she owns, and it’s got to be their decision. I hate that the government subsidized the solar industry in the beginning. … But at the same time I can’t look a farmer in the eye, and scold him for what he did. We have seen cases where a farmer takes 30, 40 acres of a farm puts it in solar, and it becomes a reliable source of income — at least right now — so that he can keep the rest of the farm in production. So it’s a very complicated issue, but private property rights have got to come first.