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Saturday, July 13, 2024

Project plans: Giant N.C. ag industry stays alert to trends

To the horizon, in strikingly straight rows, stretch sweetpotato vines with their spade-shaped leaves. “I’m a fifth-generation farmer,” Cliff Pilson says, continuing the family heritage here in the dark soil of the Sandhills in Cameron in Moore County. Now, he’s one of the largest producers in the nation’s biggest sweetpotato-producing state.

This was not always ordained.

Steve Troxler

Around 2008, sweetpotatoes were small potatoes in North Carolina’s agriculture scheme. Then, an active effort to change things gained momentum with the introduction of French-fried sweet potatoes in more U.S. restaurants, says CoCo Daughtry, spokesperson for the 400-plus growers, allied members and others who make up the N.C. Sweet Potato Commission.

Today, more than 70,000 U.S. restaurants offer sweetpotato fries, according to Tastewise GDP, a Chicago-based organization that tracks dining industry trends. North Carolina is the nation’s leading sweetpotato producer, with more than 78,000 acres and annual output topping $300 million. That’s double nearest-competitor Mississippi’s 30,000 acres. Nutritionists says sweetpotatoes are generally seen as better for gluten-free diets, a growing food trend.

In Raleigh, a similar strategy worked for the pork industry, which seized on health and nutrition concerns, marketing pork as “the other white meat,” says Robert Brown, a spokesman for the N.C. Pork Council. The state’s pork industry supports 19,000 jobs with revenue of more than $10 billion a year.

Efforts to expand North Carolina agriculture are one enigma after another, concedes N.C Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler. The state’s largest industry has more than $103 billion in annual revenue and employs about 728,000 workers, surpassing finance, pharmaceuticals and others that often seize the spotlight.

“We can thank our tremendous diversity,” says Troxler, who grew up on a tobacco farm. He was elected in 2005, and the economic impact of agriculture has doubled since then. “We can thank our recruiting for that.”

The surprising wallop of agriculture comes from crops such as cucumbers, sweetpotatoes, and protein such as chicken, pork and turkeys, along with timber and Christmas trees.

It all is about to get new wind.

The 2023 state lawmakers created the N.C. Agriculture and Processing Initiative to promote value-added agricultural manufacturing and food processing. It’s intended to fill existing gaps in agricultural processing and create more wallop for the sector.  “For the first time ever, that will be $10 million this year and $10 million for next year for agribusiness recruitment to incentivize companies coming to North Carolina,” Troxler says.

But it’s not easy. No other sector of the N.C. economy faces the daunting challenges of agriculture, says Tim Ivey, the agriculture department’s agribusiness developer.

That’s a profound statement, but consider how the state has overcome the decline of its once-powerful tobacco industry.
“Look back 100 years, and we had a crop called tobacco that enabled us to grow and be as diversified as we are,” says Troxler. Tobacco hasn’t gone away, with exports of more than $500 million a year, more than any other state.

He’s referring to the conundrum of how health concerns caused by nicotine consumption have generated a major economic-development resource for the state.

In 1999, the nation’s cigarette makers agreed to set up a fund worth billions, settling myriad lawsuits related to the health impact of tobacco consumption. Since then, North Carolina has received more than $2 billion, with the money directed to the state’s general fund and the Golden LEAF Foundation, a Rocky Mount not-for-profit.

Last month, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein announced the state had received $139 million for 2024. About $17.5 million was funneled to the foundation, whose mission is to assist formerly tobacco-dependent areas with economic development assistance. The settlement was initially split 50-50 between the fund and state coffers for initial decade, but the lawmakers have since sharply reduced the amount sent to Golden LEAF.

While it’s granted more than $1 billion since inception, the foundation retains a $1.3 billion investment portfolio intended to help fund positive efforts for decades to come.

Recruiting can backfire, at times. The state worked hard to attract Enviva, a Maryland-based maker of pellets created from scrap wood from the forests of eastern North Carolina. Pellets are exported to mainly Europe and Asia for power plants and heating, but the company has drawn criticism from environmental groups that accuse it of stripping forests in an unsustainable industry. Enviva filed for bankruptcy in March, citing debts of more than $2.6 billion.

In Raleigh, Troxler says the state constantly looks for new markets. “We would like to have North Carolina milk branded as with all dairy products. We are already talking to some companies about it.”

At Granville Equipment in Oxford, salesmen recently were showing machines that look similar to those that plant and harvest tobacco to potential customers. A closer look shows that the planters have the spike leaves of industrial hemp, a crop North Carolina promotes to supplement tobacco.

“We try to recruit to fill gaps in our supply lines,” says Ivey, the recruiter. “We don’t just do shotgun recruiting.”

A key focus is seeking better ways of boosting economic activity, such as products developed at the N.C. Food Innovation Lab in Kannapolis, which researches
plant-based products.

The state’s thriving aquaculture industry recently courted Hima, a Norwegian fish company, to build a $60-million trout farm and processing complex in eastern North Carolina. The state’s aquaculture industry is among the nation’s largest, says Pete Anderson, who heads the state’s warm-water aquaculture division. North Carolina is the second-largest trout producer, adds Troxler.

The state also aggressively promotes farm-to-table production of beef and other protein.

“The good news is, we have all these new people moving into North Carolina,” Troxler
says. “The bad news is, we are losing farmland at the second-fastest rate of any state in the nation,” an estimated 1.8 million acres by 2040.

There’s one thing that Troxler insists won’t  be altered by recruiting. “Agriculture  has always been a family enterprise,” he says. 
“It still will be.”

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