Urban encroachment is another critical factor that has to be considered when looking at the long-term sustainability of the agricultural industry in both North Carolina and Virginia.

Both states are among the tops in the country in the loss of farmland to urban and industrial development.

North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler says that since 2000, North Carolina has had a population growth of over a million people. These people have to live somewhere and too often that somewhere is on what used to be farmland. During the past few years California and North Carolina have shared the dubious honor of losing the most farmland of any state in the country.

“We have a great program — the Farmland Preservation Trust Fund to address the loss of farmland and keep people on the farm. Again, the biggest restraining factor is budget — with our budget being cut from $8 million to $4 million for this program,” Troxler says.

Farmers have to be able to make a living to stay on the farm. “In our state exports looks like one of the best options to keep agriculture profitable. Tobacco and cotton are two of our most important crops — we lead the nation in flue-cured tobacco production — and exports are the name of the game for these crops,” the commissioner adds.

“Projections are that we will have another 2.5 million people in our state by 2030. Our farming operations have to be urban friendly. The key to that is educating the public to the value of agriculture and farms and remind them where their food comes from,” Troxler says.

“To showcase North Carolina grown farm products we started a program — Got To Be NC.”

It was started on a shoestring budget when Troxler first took office and has grown to be an award-winning program on which many other states have based similar farmer to consumer programs.

Got To Be NC was showcased at the recent Sunbelt Agricultural Expo for which North Carolina was the 2009 Spotlight State. “We’ve taken this program outside North Carolina to national and international events, and it is a key component of our efforts to blend in-state use of our farm products with export of our agricultural commodities.

“Programs like Got To Be NC have helped us increase our farm exports by 60 percent over the past year to over $3 billion per year.

Exports of tobacco, especially with China, has grown tremendously in the past few years. We had 23 Chinese tobacco buyers in North Carolina in October and November, and we continue to build the infrastructure for trading tobacco and other North Carolina grown products,” Troxler says.

“We lead the nation in sweet potato production and are among the leaders in poultry production. Both of these commodities have tremendous international appeal and we feel like the opportunity to build export markets, centered around these commodities is outstanding,” Troxler adds.

The continued loss of acreage in traditional North Carolina crops, like cotton and peanuts further heightens the need to develop export markets, according to Troxler. “The key to us even remaining in some of these commodities is exports. That means we have to have fair trade all across the world to be able to market these products,” he says.

In addition to these large commodity crops there are good opportunities for smaller farming operations that can market directly to the public. The growth in farmers markets in North Carolina and the continued growth in popularity of organically grown crops in our major urban markets opens opportunities for growers to make a good living on a limited number of acres.

“We are strategically located in the Southeast to produce food for a huge population on the east coast. Food is going to be an even more precious commodity in the future as urban expansion continues. With our good climate and good soils, agriculture in the Southeast should continue to build on our geographic advantages to supply food to the more urban areas of our country all up and down the East Coast,” Troxler says.

North Carolina farmers are also getting a boost from an invigorated and improved working relationship among the Department of Agriculture, North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T University, Troxler adds.

“I can honestly say the working relationship among our organizations is the best it’s ever been. We have a good strategic plan for the research stations in North Carolina — that’s helping our farmers now and promises big things in the future,” Troxler adds.

Like every other state, he says, the Department of Agriculture and the Land-Grant universities in North Carolina are strapped for money. “By working so closely together we have been able to stretch dollars further and get more accomplished to help our farmers,” the commissioner says.

“The recent, much publicized dependence on foreign oil has made us less a free country. If we ever lose our ability to feed ourselves, we will lose our place of leadership in the world.”

The North Carolina Commissioner stresses that agriculture must work hand in hand with other segments of our society to stress the importance of a safe food supply. The best way to insure a safe and plentiful food supply, Troxler states, is to keep farming as a viable profession and to keep agriculture profitable enough to keep people on the farm.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com