Agriculture commissioner election about more than just farming
From the mountains to Manteo, it’s easy to see that agriculture is North Carolina’s largest industry, but while driving through or flying over this vast state it’s much harder to see the challenges that threaten it.
“We’ve got to make our family farms profitable again. We’re one of the top 10 states in the nation in lost family farms and we have been for over a decade,” said Walter Smith, one of three Democrats seeking the right to challenge incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. “We’re not doing a very good job of saving our family farms and that’s important to everybody, not just farmers, because people like to eat locally sourced food and that’s where locally sourced food comes from — your local farmers.”
The N.C. Department of Agriculture, though, is about much more than farming — in fact, the agency’s official name is the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and is charged with management of myriad other industries tangentially related to the cultivation of the state’s natural resources.
The NCDA&CS, as it’s known, also has some responsibilities in regard to keeping water clean, ensuring the humane treatment of domesticated animals, monitoring drug safety, performing the certification of scales and gasoline pumps, even determining the safety of cosmetics and skin care products. But when it comes down to it, the bulk of the job focuses on farmers and farming.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m running — because we’ve lost 52,000 farms in North Carolina over the last 12 years and we’ve only got 49,000 left,” said Donovan Watson, another Democrat seeking to take on Troxler in November. “Agriculture is the number one industry in North Carolina. It’s valued at about $90 billion.”
Jenna Wadsworth, who grew up on a family farm in rural Johnston County, says that rural North Carolina is being left behind.
“I think in recent years, because of recent administrations, farmers have had a very difficult time and they’ve been engaged in some self-destructive policy choices that have been dominating the headlines,” said Wadsworth. “I think that there’s a real opportunity here to give farmers an opportunity to thrive in North Carolina.”
At just 31 years of age, Wadsworth is relatively young to be running for statewide office, but holding office is nothing new for her; at 21 and while still in college, Wadsworth became the youngest elected woman in the state when voters selected her for a spot on the Wake County Soil and Water Conservation District Board, a position she still holds.
“I was probably sitting on the back of a tractor before I was sitting in a car seat,” she said. “I remember what it was like the first time my daddy put me up on our old antique red Farmall tractor and made me run rows. We still argue about how straight those rows were, but that’s another story.”
Wadsworth isn’t the only one with youth on her side. Watson is just 25, but has been involved in the family market for two decades.
“The essential role of the commissioner is to make sure there’s an adequate supply of food and fiber for North Carolinians. Protecting that and maintaining that is all I’ve ever done my whole life,” he said. “I’ve grown up in a family business since I was 4. I took it over formally when I was 10, and started writing checks at age 13. I meet these farmers on a daily basis. I have their backs, and I got ahead of the game in integrating analytics, in which I want to take statewide as well so their product isn’t being wasted. As I put it in my own store, Perkins Orchard in Durham, the farmers don’t grow the whole alphabet hoping we buy every letter, they grow exactly what the business will sell and ultimately what people will buy.”
Smith was the 2016 Democratic nominee and despite garnering 2 million votes, he still lost to Troxler by more than 11 percentage points. At the age of 66, he’s older than both his opponents combined.
“I probably am, but you’ve still got to have experience in agriculture. I was born and raised on a farm. I’ve got a B.S. in ag engineering, I’ve worked with the USDA for 30 years, working with federal farm programs and working with the conservation practices that clean our water and protect our natural resources and expand our wildlife habitats,” he said. “I’ve also served as a mayor of the town of Booneville, so I’ve got the experience needed on the consumer side.”
Of course all three candidates believe they’re the Democrat to take the fight to Troxler. Smith believes that domination by politicians from the eastern part of the state hasn’t served communities in the west all that well, Watson wants to revitalize generational farms, and Wadsworth says she’s the only one with the bold vision needed for the multitude of issues under the purview of the office.
“People want to be able to meaningfully engage in immigration and farm worker debate,” Wadsworth said. “They want to see us bridge this urban-rural divide and invest in broadband technology and prioritize rural health care. And then on top of that, we have a major food insecurity problem in North Carolina. Almost one in five children are food insecure. And I think that is an absolute crime that children are going hungry in a state that produces so much food, not just to feed all of our residents but to feed people all over this country.”
Watson sees produce markets like his own as a critical link in maintaining food security.
“We have to protect and grow agricultural markets in North Carolina,” he said. “We’ve only got 217 farmer’s markets across the state. I want to increase that to at least 300 within the first four years of my term.”
Although feeding the hungry isn’t exactly the NCDA&CS’s job, Smith believes it should be.
“We’re also one of the top 10 states in the nation for food insecurity,” he said. “People don’t realize that. That’s something that’s not directly in the mission of the Department of Agriculture, but it’s my feeling that the department that’s in charge of the food supply in North Carolina ought to be helping to feed the hungry.”
All three also have to contend with another issue that didn’t even exist the last time Troxler was elected, in 2016. Hemp — one of the very few brand new agricultural products ever to be introduced to the state.
“We can save our family farms with it. We can revitalize rural areas. We can generate hundreds of millions of dollars of income to the economy, and we can realize a lot of jobs that are especially needed in the mountains,” said Smith. “I try to explain that the hemp industry is one of the most important industries that’s been introduced in North Carolina in decades.”
Smith said that he spent last summer lobbying for the industry in Raleigh and that he’s supportive of medical cannabis initiatives as well as industrial hemp applications. He’s also in favor of recreational cannabis — just not right now.
“I’m not against recreational marijuana in any way, shape or fashion, but I’m kind of practical in that I know how hard it was to get the legislature to approve the hemp industry,” he said. “I know what we ran up against on both sides of the fence, Republicans and Democrats, some for and some against. So I do think that we should take the first step and get the medicinal cannabis approved, and then once we do that, we’ll take the next step.”
Wadsworth and Watson are more assertive in their positions on recreational cannabis.
“My priorities are North Carolina’s priorities,” Wadsworth said. “My priorities are the priorities of the folks that I have been talking to since day one and people want to see us do some very bold things in addressing climate change and ensuring a prosperous future for everyone, in supporting these family farmers who are struggling, who have not had an advocate for so long. People want to see legalization of cannabis.”
Watson says there’s a way to do that.
“We’re unique in that we [NCDA&CS] can submit legislation to the General Assembly. We can submit legislation to the legislators and we can get ahead of this. Right now we’re falling behind in our own hemp industry,” he said. “We’ve got lots of farms who are throwing away a lot of their crops because they may test higher than the required threshold for THC. We want to have a fundamental plan because we also are in charge of the consumer services, so I personally and on the behalf of the state of North Carolina support legalization of medical recreational marijuana.”
Smith, Wadsworth and Watson all know that winning in November isn’t just about what they want to do, it’s also about what they say Troxler hasn’t been doing during his 16-year tenure.
“Frankly, I believe that he’s gotten a bit complacent,” said Wadsworth. “He’s made a very concerted choice about which farmers and industries to help and meanwhile we’ve seen a denigration of both our environment and the image of small farmers. He has really done very little in regards to addressing the issues because he won’t admit that climate change is real.”
That hurts farmers, fishermen and consumers, according to Wadsworth, but Watson expressed frustration that he voted for Troxler in the last election and isn’t impressed with his performance.
“Before Troxler, it was all Democrats and I don’t want to go too far on party lines in the sense that we’re all in this together, and we all got to eat,” Watson said. “What’s been done over the last decade has severely undercut what needs to be done and what is constituted in the constitution established by North Carolina for the role of the commissioner.”
Smith said Troxler had "failed the state in many areas."
“Like I’ve said, we’re still one of the leading states in loss of family farms. We have not been able to get a common assessment tool to regulate puppy mills because he wants to support that,” said Smith. “We’ve got to get that done and we’ve got to solve this rural urban divide. He simply hasn’t done enough to do that.”
Whether it’s Watson, Wadsworth or Smith, wresting control of the NCDA&CS from the Republican Troxler will be a tough row to hoe, especially with President Donald Trump at the top of the ticket in November. Trump’s popularity with poor, rural whites across the state and across the nation has provided him with a solid base that doesn’t seem all that unhappy with his performance.
“While I agree that what happens at the top of the ballot absolutely affects down ballot races, I will say that our focus is absolutely on getting out and talking to as many voters as we can,” Wadsworth said. “We’re going to continue to meet with farmers and agribusiness leaders on both sides of the political aisle and figure out what we can do to address the issues that they are facing day in, and day out. I hope at the end of the day, voters believe that I am the best person to help lead them forward, and I think that no matter what happens at the top of the ballot, there is an opportunity to elect the best candidate for the job.”
Like Wadsworth, Watson is simply trying to control the things he can control as a candidate, and not worry about the things he can’t.
“I think it will have a domino effect in that you’re going to at the very least have a lot of voters show up to the polls. And of course there are the 20 percent that go left, and the 20 percent that go right,” he said. “But at the same time, we’re confident in our campaign and we hope North Carolina will see through any false truths that are out there and make the right choice for themselves and their fellow neighbors.”
Smith, however, seems least concerned about what may or may not happen in November because of the president’s popularity or lack thereof.
“When I ran four years ago, I built a coalition of every demographic in the state and I got over 2 million votes,” Smith said. “Regardless of how he runs and what he runs on, I can win this election. He has hurt farmers tremendously in this state. He has not been an advocate for family farms or corn farmers, soybean farmers, or especially tobacco farmers. Even though there’s a trade deal that has been passed, we’ve yet to see any benefit and may not. We’ve been told so many times in the last year that this and that’s been done for the benefit of the farmers, and yet they’ve seen no real results from it. He’s the reason that we’re in this shape now. He’s the one that created this problem.”
Commissioner of Agriculture
• Age: 66
• Residence: Yadkinville
• Occupation: Hemp farmer
• Political experience: Unsuccessful 2016 campaign for commissioner of agriculture, former mayor of Booneville
• Age: 31
• Residence: Raleigh
• Occupation: Political consultant and issue advocacy
• Political experience: Three-term Wake County Soil and Water Conservation District board member
• Age: 25
• Residence: Durham
• Occupation: Owner, Perkins Orchard produce market
• Political experience: First campaign