As North Carolina looks to grow its economy, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler says the state has historically failed to play to its strengths in agriculture and agribusiness.
“We’ve been the red-headed stepchild, but things are changing now,” he said recently. “This is one of the most exciting times to be involved because we have a lot of people pulling in the same direction.”
His message got a warm reception March 12 at the Wilson Regional Agriculture Summit, held at Scott Farms near Lucama. The event drew about 400 people from Johnston, Edgecombe, Greene, Nash, Pitt, Wayne and Wilson counties.
Farming and related activities are a $78 billion industry in North Carolina, and Troxler’s goal is to push that number to $100 billion by the year 2020. The easiest way to hit that mark, he said, is for businesses to produce finished products that add value to the foods already farmed in the area.
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For example, Troxler said a typical can of beans contains about six cents worth of beans in a 10-cent can. The difference between that 16 cents and the price a customer pays at the grocery store is the added value, and it’s all potential profit.
To help attract food-processing operations to the state, Troxler said, Gov. Pat McCrory has started assembling a task force with representatives from the commerce and agricultural departments and N.C. State University. A recent study found the potential to create 10,000 jobs at food plants, Troxler said, and most of those would go to rural parts of the state.
“It makes sense to put the food processing where the food is,” he said. “Transportation is a big cost, so if you’re processing food close to where it’s being grown, you’re cutting the price of the product and creating profit.”
Bryant Spivey, director of the Johnston County Cooperative Extension Service, was among the Johnston contingent at the summit. He said it pleased him not only to see local farmers at the event but also economic developers and elected leaders from the county and state levels.
“I think one of the biggest things (for) Johnston County long term is that the general public and those ... making policy decisions take agriculture into consideration when they’re making decisions,” Spivey said.
Agriculture makes up a large part of the state and Johnston economy, Spivey said, and lawmakers need to support the industry. For one thing, he said having strong farms diversifies the economy, and that mix recently helped the state weather the Great Recession.
“Agriculture kind of carried the banner during that time,” Spivey said. “While everything else was down, the agriculture economy continued to grow.”
Johnston has more farms than any other county in the state, and it has a tremendous opportunity to expand its food-processing industry, said Chris Johnson, director of Johnston County Economic Development.
In working with Spivey to identify opportunities in agribusiness, Johnson said the two have submitted a $50,000 grant request to the N.C. Agriculture Department. The money would fund a feasibility study on canola production in the county.
The idea is to have farmers grow rapeseed and to attract industry to Johnston that would process the seed into products ranging from canola oil to animal feed to biofuels.
The grant money would speed up plans, but Johnson said he sees such an opportunity in canola that he would find a way to fund the study with or without the grant.
“I publicly told the people during the (grant) interview that I need the money, I want the money, and it’s going to help us, but it’s not going to stop us if we don’t get it,” Johnson said.
After hearing from experts on the increasing importance of technology in agriculture, summit attendees got a tour and a demonstration that illustrated the point.
The 7,000-acre Scott Farms has been a family operation for five generations, and the most recent addition of a state-of-the-art sweet potato packing plant has given the operation a firm foothold in the 21st century.
The plant can sort and package 60,000 pounds of sweet potatoes in one hour without one touch by a human hand, said Dewey Scott, who led the tour. The plant requires 50 workers, and the jobs require far more technical skills than they did in the past, he said.
Each box of sweet potatoes has a unique barcode, and that allows cameras to keep track of where the yams came from and where they need to go.
“We’ve managed to integrate facets of sweet potato packing from the time it’s dumped to the time it’s loaded on the truck,” Scott said.
After making his way through the fully automated facility, one of the older visitors commented on how far the industry has come in his lifetime.
“That’s a whole lot different than digging them and sorting them by hand,” he said.
And processing is not the only aspect of agriculture moving toward automation.
East Coast Equipment showed off a John Deere sprayer that drives itself and uses GPS mapping to make sure each row of crops gets exactly the right amount of fertilizer.
For a demonstration, the machine sprayed a field that had sections marked off with flags to indicate areas that did not need treatment.
As the sprayer’s nozzles turned off and on at just the right times to avoid spraying the flagged areas, one farmer turned to another and remarked:
“That’s a pretty damn smart piece of equipment, isn’t it?”
Johnston agriculture by the numbers
194,827 acres of farmland.
38% of county land in farms.
7,068 employed in agriculture and agribusiness.
10.5% of county jobs.
$290 million total 2012 cash receipts from farming.
U.S. and N.C. departments of agriculture