2006 Rural Partners Forum
Remarks by Larry Wooten
It is my pleasure to address an issue that most people in this country never consider, but an issue that affects our very existence. We can never afford, as a state or a nation, to become complacent and to take our food supply for granted. The very civilization that mankind has built – the many advances in science and technology and medicine and education, advances that define the sum of our civilization – came about only because a farming population provided a stable food supply for emerging scholars, businessmen, doctors and scientists.
Today I am sure all of you are aware that agriculture is truly a global industry. Our food supply is the product of international as well as domestic production. We can no longer talk about North Carolina’s agriculture as if it operates in a vacuum. The same forces that impact the world’s agriculture also impact the agriculture of our great state. While acknowledging this interdependence, it is important, I think, that we identify what is necessary for a stable food supply, a stable agriculture in North Carolina.
The number one requirement for the continuation and the growth of production agriculture in our fast-growing state is adequate, fertile farmland. Preserving farmland is imperative. I believe that the best way to preserve farmland is to preserve the farmer. Farming, just like any other business, must be profitable to those who not only provide the day-to-day labor, but especially to those who take risks in a business that has more uncontrollable risks than most.
As I said, North Carolina is a fast-growing state. And wherever you are in our state, you know we’re losing farmland. We’re losing farmland at faster than the national rate. In fact, our farmlands are disappearing at the rate of two acres per minute. In 2004 alone North Carolina lost almost 4,000 farms. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that we must have government policies at the state and the federal levels to enhance and to provide incentives if we are to preserve farmland for the future. We also must have fair and equitable regulatory and tax policies that address agriculture’s special needs.
At the state level I believe that we must always be mindful that agriculture’s uniqueness prevents farmers from passing the costs of punitive government regulations on to consumers. The best tool that our farmers in this state have to preserve farmland and farming is the present use system of taxation in North Carolina. Ladies and gentlemen, cows can’t walk around and cotton can’t grow on land whose real tax value is $40,000 per acre. In a recent land transaction in Union County, 125 acres of farmland sold for $175,000 an acre, or just about $22 million. I was in Kansas back in the summer, and good, open wheat farmland was selling for $850 an acre. My wife said, “Larry, that sounds cheap!” I said, “Laura, you can’t go anywhere in North Carolina today that an acre of farmland would sell for $850 an acre.”
At the federal level, it is imperative that farmers and small businessmen get relief from federal and state ‘death taxes’ to allow them to pass farms and to pass their businesses to the next generation. The N.C. Farm Bureau as a statewide agricultural organization supports passage of the federal death tax bill that is now pending before the U.S. Senate. We must also have at the federal level a workable and actuarially-sound crop insurance program that truly protects our farmers from catastrophic losses of income due to natural disasters such as hurricanes. Eastern North Carolina is the heart of our agricultural production, but it is also, as all of you know, the most vulnerable to winds, floods and saltwater infusion.
The United States Congress will begin work next year on a new farm bill that will take effect in 2008. This complex piece of federal legislation has many moving parts. The new farm bill will be a far different farm bill than the one that we’re currently operating under. In addition to its commodity title, the farm bill addresses conservation issues, research, energy, nutrition, even the food stamp program is a part of the federal farm bill. But we must remember that the purpose of that farm bill is to stabilize the nation’s supply of food. These two issues, farmland preservation and fair and equitable regulatory and tax policies, are critical if we are to entice young people either to enter agriculture as a career or to remain on the farm.
What else, then, is necessary for a stable food supply in our state? We must have adequately funded research at our land grant universities. And both of the deans of our land grant universities at N.C. State University and North Carolina A&T State University are here with us today. Ladies and gentlemen, we are talking not only of new varieties and new technologies through research, but the development of new markets as well. Research at our land grant universities has adapted new fish species such as farm-raised flounder, freshwater prawn and tilapia, to expand our state’s aquaculture industry. Better use of applied water in nursery crops through soil amendment research conserves water and allows for better root absorption. We now have peaches and peach varieties that were developed here at our universities that will flower and produce even if we experience a late frost. This advance alone spurred a 2,000 acre boom in new peach orchards.
Agriculture also depends on an adequate transportation system. A good transportation system is necessary not only to move farm products to processors, but to move the processed products to the main consuming marketplaces. All of you, I’m sure, are aware that agriculture is a very labor-intensive industry. We are the third-most diverse state in the nation agriculturally. The diversity of our state’s crop and livestock production makes us even more labor-intensive than many other industries.
A stable agriculture in North Carolina depends on an adequate workforce. The Farm Bureau and our farmers are vitally concerned with the federal legislation dealing with immigration reform. I think we all agree that our immigration system is broken. However, our farmers believe that any immigration reform legislation that is pending before Congress must contain a workable, sensible guest worker program.
Two other crucial components of a stable agriculture, water and energy, will be addressed and detailed by other members of this panel. The competition for water will determine the rate of growth of agriculture in North Carolina and where that growth will occur. In addition to water quality, I’m sure Bill Holman will tell you that we must now concentrate on water quantity. Energy costs eroded farm profitability in 2005 and will certainly continue to do so in 2006. Increases in the cost of energy does not impact just the direct cost of fuel to our farmers but it also impacts the cost of product inputs that are important to farmers, such as fertilizers, pesticides, even farm implement tires. In addition, as we look to the future, our state’s farmers are vitally involved in the commercial production of biofuels and energy from agricultural biomass. These issues, farmland preservation, fair and equitable regulatory and tax policies, ag research, an adequate transportation system, a stable workforce, water, energy—these issues are important to the future of agriculture in North Carolina.
But I believe that the greatest single challenge facing agriculture is our state’s growth. All of you know we have a beautiful state and people want to move here, people want to live here. The 2004 election illustrated that North Carolina’s population and our demographics are changing at a rapid rate. Census Bureau projections show that our state’s population will increase by 52 percent between 2000 and 2030. Let me illustrate the importance of this prediction. In the 2004 election the eight most urban counties in our state turned out 40 percent of the vote. The 27 counties surrounding the ‘super eight’ counties turned out 35 percent of the vote. So ladies and gentlemen, 35 counties in our state are responsible for 75 percent of the 2004 vote. The other counties, the other 65 counties, including all of our rural counties, are responsible for just 25 percent of that 2004 vote. There is absolutely no doubt that those 35 counties exercise great legislative control. And I’m sure that most of you realize that currently 15 counties elect 50 percent of the North Carolina General Assembly. Yet, in a survey by Farm Futures magazine last year, North Carolina is identified as the number one state in which to farm. In the final tally, 21 North Carolina counties are included in the top 100 places to farm in this country, with Sampson County enjoying the number one position. How can North Carolina continue as a farmer-friendly state while being controlled by a growing urban population? A dichotomy exists between farmer-friendly and urban control.
As I said at the outset, agriculture is a global industry. Trade is important. In my introduction it was noted that I have traveled extensively in Europe, Africa and South America promoting North Carolina agriculture, talking about biotechnology and trade. Trade is important. Why is trade important to North Carolina, its citizens and its farmers? Number one, 96 percent of the world’s population lives outside the United States. U.S. agricultural activity is increasing four times faster than our population. If we don’t sell it abroad we’re going to drown in it. The third point is that for every 1 billion dollars in U.S. exports, 15,000 U.S. jobs are created. And one out of every three acres planted in the U.S. today is devoted to exports. You think trade is important? You bet it is! Agriculture is this nation’s number one industry. It’s a 68 billion dollar industry in North Carolina alone, accounting for 20 percent of our workforce. I believe that the size and the strength of agriculture and agribusiness dictates that when North Carolina’s government, business and educational leaders assemble to discuss our state’s future, agriculture must be seated at that table as an equal partner, not as an afterthought, but recognized by the leadership of this state as being a key player in North Carolina’s success and her future.