Agriculture commissioner candidates offer divergent visions

abaird@newsobserver.comOctober 16, 2012 

  • N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler (incumbent) Republican Website: Family: wife, Sharon, two sons Education: B.S. in Conservation from N.C. State University, 1974 Career/community involvement: Owner and operator of Troxler Farms, north of Greensboro; incoming president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. Walter Smith Democrat Website: Family: wife, Sherri, two grown sons Education: B.S. from N.C. State University in Technical and Biological Engineering, 1976 Career/community involvement: Poultry farmer in Yadkin County; worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 30-plus years administering federal farm programs; taught vocational agriculture; former NCSU College of Agriculture Alumni Board President; member of the Yadkin Agricultural District Board and the N.C. Agricultural Foundation Board

Republican Steve Troxler and Democrat Walter Smith are vying to take control of a state agency that oversees North Carolina’s largest industry. But the two candidates for agriculture commissioner seem more alike than different at first.

Both grew up on farms: Troxler in Browns Summit and Smith in Robeson County. And both attended N.C. State University in the 1970s.

But after college the two men went different ways and their experiences define their candidacies.

Troxler, the incumbent seeking a third term, went back home and started a family farm, which he still maintains today. Smith, a first-time candidate, began a career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he eventually became executive director of the Yadkin County office before retiring to tend to his poultry farm full time.

At a recent candidates forum, the farmer-in-chief hopefuls played up their down-home roots in rural North Carolina and shared divergent visions for the department.

Aside from running the fair, the commissioner serves as the chief spokesman for the state’s $70 billion agriculture industry and oversees protection of animal health, gas and oil quality inspections and calculating crop and livestock statistics through a statewide network of research centers.

Troxler touts his achievements: advancing food safety, continuing to increase the popularity of the N.C. State Fair and working with businesses to increase exports, particularly sending tobacco to China.

“We’re nationally recognized as one of the best for food safety, and that’s happened since I’ve been here,” Troxler said. “I also pushed for the agriculture office in Beijing, and it’s been a great success.”

One of Smith’s main criticisms of Troxler is that he didn’t place a greater emphasis on marketing, which is also among the department’s official tasks.

“We’re No. 1 in food safety and this is a tremendous asset to our marketing efforts that just hasn’t been used,” Smith said. “I would take a multifaceted approach, and aggressive marketing that takes advantage of what we have to offer would be key.”

Smith also assails the commissioner’s response when his agency’s top poultry expert was accused of tipping off a Butterball turkey farm that it was being investigated.

“When we have some major issues, I’m going to address the public and make sure they know exactly what’s going on instead of keeping them in the dark,” Smith said.

Troxler insists he handled the case properly, as he said it was a complex personnel matter that could have opened the department to a lawsuit. Troxler said he recently received the endorsement of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

“There are a lot of times I’ve had to stick up for my employees, and to fight for them during budget sessions, and I think they’ve noticed that,” Troxler said.

Troxler also has the backing of the N.C. Association of Educators, the state’s biggest teacher’s union, and recently took over as the president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

Smith promises to renew efforts to improve food and consumer safety and animal welfare, in part by tapping into his connections at the federal government, including the USDA and Food and Drug Administration.

“I have a track record of working with both of those agencies for over 30 years,” Smith said. “We should all do a better job of working together where there’s crossover.”

Baird: 919-829-4696

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