House Speaker Thom Tillis met with farmers in eastern North Carolina on Saturday, one of the Republican’s first campaign events since the legislative session ended.
Dressed in jeans, trail shoes and a light oxford shirt, Tillis and his wife, Susan, visited three agricultural operations sandwiched between breakfast at Amy Jo’s Country Restaurant and lunch at Parker’s Barbecue, both in Wilson. They had spent Friday night in Wilson where they attended a reception.
Tillis, who is running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan, found a receptive audience among the farmers, whose No. 1 concern seems to be getting the government out of the way so they can make enough money to stay in business.
Sonny Scott, a third-generation farmer in the Wilson County town of Lucama, built a modest family enterprise into a 5,000-acre operation that grows mostly sweet potatoes and tobacco, but also soybeans and some wheat. It’s one of the largest farms in the region, and is about to open a new packing facility outfitted with all-electronic equipment. With a growing export market, business is good.
When the Tillis entourage arrived, tobacco harvested Saturday morning was being packed into giant boxes to be dried in a barn for the next week. It’s still early in the season, but the outlook is promising this year, several farmers said.
Still, the tobacco farming industry in general has had to scramble to find new ways of staying afloat, with and without federal government intervention.
“We need what all business needs: We need less regulation, less taxes,” Scott said. “We need to control our export taxes. We need to control all taxes. We need immigration reform, we’ve got to have a labor supply. We’ve got to have a dependable, affordable labor supply. That’s what we’re all about.”
In the 1990s, four partners formed United Tobacco Company in Wilson, pooling the tobacco grown on 12,000 acres by 12 families in response to overseas demand to ensure there was enough of a market after the end of federal tobacco allotments, the buyout and eventually the lifting of quotas.
UTC’s Joe Howe, who escorted Tills around the region on Saturday, said the farming community in the area supports the Republican. Howe said he was impressed by Tillis’ remarks at Friday’s reception emphasizing his bipartisan efforts to get legislation passed at the General Assembly.
“That shows his ability to lead,” Howe said.
Republicans have had a large enough majority to control the legislature since 2011, and enough to override vetoes if they choose.
At Vick Family Farms in Wilson, a large sweet potato and tobacco producer, Tillis met with patriarch Jerome Vick and his wife Diane. Jerome Vick noted the high price of a pack of cigarettes in some parts of the country these days, which produces a lot of tax revenue.
“Everybody quickly criticizes tobacco, but they’re very quick to take the money,” he said.
Tillis, for his part, did a lot of listening, shared his personal story with the farmers to stress his working-class upbringing and made a few remarks criticizing Hagan.
Updated: Hagan, for her part, has not ignored agriculture in North Carolina. She worked on provisions in the farm bill that passed Congress this year with her support. Sen. Richard Burr voted against it. Tillis said he would have voted against in, saying he would prefer a bill that would have helped North Carolina farmers more.
Both candidates are likely to pop up in your neighborhood between now and Nov. 4.