Conversation with Agricultural Commissioner Steve Troxler
Steve Troxler is in his third term as North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture, and also serves as president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. We caught up with him on his family farm in Browns Summit, about 80 miles from Raleigh.
eP: Do you think of yourself as a farmer or a politician?
ST: I'm still a farmer. I have to be a politician in the job that I do, but I'm still a farmer. In fact, I commute back here every day and every night. I still live on this farm, and this is always going to be home. My brother has gotten back into the produce business and he has corn, watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes, and pumpkins, and on the rest of the farm we plant either wheat or soybeans, depending on which year it is.
eP: I think it's interesting that your degree is in conservation with specialized studies in environmentalism. In 1974, those were not the buzzwords that they are today.
ST: No, they weren't, and you know I've always been interested in natural resources– having grown up on a farm and being outside. I really appreciated natural resources, and I actually went to NC State to go into engineering and pretty quickly decided that was not for me, so I transferred over to conservation and absolutely loved it. A lot of the work that I've done in conservation is a result of my education. I've always thought that if you've got a farm, then you need to leave it in better shape than you got it. And if you do that, then the next generation is going to have an equal opportunity to be successful.
eP: So sustainability is an important issue to you?
ST: It is. I have a little bit different of a definition of sustainability than some people. Sustainability, to me, is the ability to remain on the farm no matter what you're doing, whether it's big farming operations that are producing product for export or producing local products, if you're in a position that you can stay on the farm and you can do it in a responsible way, then that's sustainable.
eP: How do we work on protecting farms from urban sprawl, especially in this great state?
ST: The thing that I tell people is that the best way to protect a farm is to make sure it's profitable. Government policy has a lot do with that, but also we need to have the mindset that we've got to revere these natural resources that produce the food supply. We also have the Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund in the department and we actively work at getting farmers to accept conservation easements on their farm, so we know that land is protected. When I retire from being the Commissioner of Agriculture, I want to put this farm on a conservation easement. I never want to see this farm covered up with houses.
eP: What about crop insurance and the farm bill?
ST: You know, the ability to be able to handle risk is the most important thing we can have in a farm bill. We do not have disaster programs per se anymore. Anything that would come out [in the farm bill] would have to come out as an ad hoc disaster program. As you look around the country at the things that have happened in the past two years, you can see farming is a risky business. We deal with the weather every day, and of course this year we had too much rain, there's been flooding, crops have been damaged, so that ability to manage risk up front takes away the need for big disaster packages.
eP: Food safety is also a major issue in legislation. I'll take our readers back a few years when you couldn't eat a tomato, but you could eat a tomato from North Carolina. Was that because of the programs that you have put into place?
ST: I take great pride in having one of the top food safety programs in the nation here in North Carolina, but the truth of the matter was, there was nothing wrong with any tomatoes anywhere. The FDA made a little mess with that. The problem was actually jalapeno peppers that were being imported from Mexico. They didn't know that the jalapeno peppers had probably been sliced with the same knife as the tomatoes and it transferred. So we never had any problem with tomatoes in North Carolina. That's the thing about local foods, people really believe, and rightly so, that if they have purchased these foods locally from somebody that they know, that there's a bigger probability that they're going to be safe. When I was in the produce business I would hear over and over again at my produce stand: "I come to buy these products because I know you and your family eat them, and if you're going to feed them to your family, then they're probably going to be safe." If you think about it, food safety is an agricultural issue. When there is a recall of product, the first thing the public is going to get in their mind is "I cannot eat this product." If there's a recall of the product, then you kill the market; you lose all of the ability to make money off of that product. So the best thing we can do is have a good food safety program and ensure we don't have these national recalls. That is what the new food safety bill is about, it's moving away from being responsive to an incident to being proactive ahead of time so that the incident never occurs. And that's the way we should approach it.
eP: Your background shows me that you've been more motivated by making positive change than by political success. Talk about what has motivated you to become a politician.
ST: The reason that I ran for Commissioner of Agriculture is to do exactly what I do today. I ran for political office to make sure that somebody with a farm background was helping to shape policy for the future. As I look at the things that have happened in the past eight and a half years that I've been Commissioner, I'm very proud. We have grown this industry today to a $77 billion industry. In the last fiscal year alone, we grew it $5 billion. We're exporting $3.75 billion worth of agricultural products, which does not include the billion and a half that we are now exporting in forestry.
eP: Value-added products seem to be growing by leaps and bounds in agriculture. Do you think that's where some of the biggest growth is going to come from in the future?
ST: You know, every time we can add value to a product we're getting closer to my goal of being a 100 billion dollar industry in North Carolina. And it is a big deal, there's no question. If you can take a sweet potato and turn it into sweet potato fries that go to restaurants, then that sweet potato has become much more valuable. I am lucky and blessed to have what I believe is the best marketing program in the country and the best employees. And I think that's part of the reason that we're seeing this growth in North Carolina of agriculture and agribusiness. We started the Got To Be NC campaign with the goal of putting North Carolina products back in grocery stores and restaurants, and marketing these products all over the world. And it has been an amazing success. We've helped develop markets and that means that our farmers can produce more and they're more successful, and then if we can add value to it, then we've really helped people. And that's what we're there to do, help people.
eP: If you had a magic wand, where would you wave it first?
ST: The first thing I would do is make sure the public understands the value of agriculture and agricultural land, and I would do everything that I could to make sure that the resources that we now have are available for future generations of farmers. Between 1970 and 2010, we lost 6.6 million acres of farmland. If those acres were under cultivation today, and we planted crops at the same percentages that we're planting today, and multiplied it by the current commodity prices we have out there, we would be over a 100 billion dollar economic engine in North Carolina.
eP: So you think it's tough for people to understand the impact of NC agriculture on the total economy?
ST: I do. You know, I say the figure $77 billion industry everywhere I go. But it doesn't resonate enough. If you compare it, the military is the second largest industry in North Carolina as far as economic impact and that's about $26 billion. If you look at tourism, that's about $16 or $17 billion. That's how big agriculture is, and I think until you travel the state and see everything that we do, it's hard to imagine.
eP: You've been very active about getting NC products into the school food system and military institutions like Fort Bragg. Can you comment on that?
ST: Getting North Carolina agricultural products into the school system is a natural fit. We know that we have childhood obesity problems all across the country, and in North Carolina. We know that we grow this fresh nutritious food here in North Carolina, so the idea has been to get these products into the school system, and at an early age let's teach the value of eating these fresh North Carolina products, especially fruits and vegetables. We've taken that on with the farm to school program and it has been a huge success. When you get these kids at an early age looking for North Carolina products, you develop the local economy. I can tell you that the first thing they're going to do once they learn it is go home and tell their parents. So you can educate a whole family by doing it backwards: not from the parent down to the kid but from the kid up to the parent.
eP: Another thing I wanted to touch on is immigration and immigration reform. What are your thoughts on that?
ST: This has been a huge national issue and is still being discussed in Congress and at the state level. If you're in agriculture and you're raising perishable crops, in a lot of cases these workers are the lifeblood of the farming operation. Here on this farm, when I was fairly large in the tobacco business and produce business, I had immigrant workers that were here. I used the H-2A program, which is the legal program for workers here in the United States, but that program has become so bureaucratic that it's hard to be able to use it. There has got to be a resolution to this immigration problem. What we have seen in states that have put in place very strict E-Verify laws is that crops rot. That's what happens. There's a lack of labor, the crops perish, and nobody wins. There is a thought process out there that if we didn't have these people working the farms, there would be more jobs for Americans. That doesn't happen. Here on this farm, I would hire high school students to work in the summertime, but it got to the point that they didn't want to do the work and they were not physically able to do the work. That's when I went to H-2A labor to keep the farm in operation. So there's got to be a resolution on how we handle the people who are here now. It is ludicrous to think that we're going to go round up 11 million people and take them across the border and turn them loose, it's not going to happen. It's going to be about compromise. That doesn't seem to be a word that has been taught to Washington. I've heard some people say we're going to have to either import the labor supply or import the food, that's pretty much the truth. Mechanization can help, but some things we do on the farm have to have a human touch to it, there's no question.
eP: What is the one thing you're most proud of?
ST: Being able to help people is the proudest thing I've been able to do. That gets me up in the morning and makes me drive to Raleigh every day. The state of North Carolina is an amazing place and there are good people from one end of the state to the other. Being able to meet all these people across North Carolina has been the grandest thing about this job, and I'm proud of the friendships I have across the state. No matter where I am in this state, if I have a car break down, have a flat tire, and need some help, I'm normally no more than a mile or two from someone I know very well. And that's a good feeling.