When Britt Cobb got the call to come over to chat with the governor in early June, he was doing what he's done for the past 25 years or so, promoting North Carolina farm products internationally. He had little inkling the first week in June that the governor was going to appoint him as interim commissioner of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
In naming Cobb interim ag commissioner, Gov. Mike Easley tapped leadership in the interim from a department where longevity is the norm not the exception. Many of his colleagues at the department have more than 20 years experience. Cobb's appointment came June 6 following the resignation of Meg Scott Phipps as North Carolina ag commissioner.
“I've had e-mails and notes from people in the department I really don't know who say they appreciate the fact that Gov. Easley dipped down in the ranks and picked a career employee to lead the agency during this transition period,” Cobb said in an interview a week to the day after he was tapped to lead the department in the interim.
“I've been amazed at the outpouring of support. It's been a difficult time, but everyone is so positive.”
Cobb has been with the ag department since 1972. Prior to assuming the interim post, he had been assistant director of marketing since 1991.
“I'm a person who likes to get together with people, decide the course we're going to take, give them parameters in which we have to work, provide the tools that are needed and stand back and let them go,” Cobb says of his management style. “I am not a micromanager.”
Speaking at the 57th annual meeting of the Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corporation in Raleigh, Cobb quickly identified with the group by saying he thought that MH-30 and Off Shoot T were the greatest inventions to come to a tobacco farm. “I may not have recent firsthand experience in tobacco production and curing, but I know what it means to hand, loop, truck, prime and sucker,” Cobb says.
While Cobb is the interim commissioner, there are several priorities. “Obviously a tobacco buyout is extremely critical right now,” Cobb says. He also lists animal health issues, developing markets for North Carolina ag products, the safety and quality of food products, pet foods, fertilizer, pesticides as well as the regulation of gas pumps, price scanners and scales.
Cobb comes from an agricultural background. After growing up on a farm in Elm City, N.C., Cobb left to earn a degree in business administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Out of school, he went to work for the marketing department.
His experience has been in international marketing, an important arena for North Carolina products.
He lists developing new markets for agricultural products as a top priority while he's the interim commissioner. “We have great producers in the state, but they need help in developing new markets for their products,” Cobb says.
Cobb has organized and participated in trade activities in 60 countries. One of his most recent foreign trade forays was in Cuba. He helped set up an initial meeting in 2000 and last year was on hand when the department took eight North Carolina companies to Cuba for a trade show. “Cuba represents a tremendous market,” Cobb says, while disagreeing with the government of the country. “It is a good, solid market for our agriculture.”
Several North Carolina companies have announced they have contracts to sell ag products in Cuba.
Roughly 28 percent of North Carolina's agriculture product finds its way into an international market. “There's no question that the export marketplace represents the growth in the future for North Carolina.”