At both ends of the state, agriculture provides economic opportunities

by | May 21, 2009

Commissioner Troxler tries kudzu quiche in Rutherford County.

Commissioner Troxler tries kudzu in Rutherford County.

In the past week, I’ve met with farmers in both the southwestern and northeastern corners of North Carolina. I like hearing directly from farmers what’s on their mind. I’d like to share with you some of the information I picked up on those visits.

Rutherford County, in the southwest, has been hard hit by job losses in the textile industry. County leaders are looking to agriculture as a way to revitalize the local economy. About four years ago, local leaders founded Foothills Connect, a business and technology center. Foothills Connect has launched the Farmers Fresh Market, an online farmers market that allows local farmers to sell their products to restaurants, chefs and distributors. The focus has been on Rutherford County and the Charlotte market.

Two of the farmers using the Web site are Henry and Edith Edwards. They are using the site to market their kudzu blossom jelly. That’s right, I said kudzu. Most people see kudzu as a nasty weed that takes over everything. Not the Edwardses. They look at kudzu differently. They harvest it for hay to feed their cattle, and they use it to make several foods, such as kudzu jelly and tea. Edith Edwards even bakes bread using flour made from kudzu.

The Edwards family has been farming for years. But one thing Rutherford leaders discovered was that a lot of people in the county had forgotten how to farm. So they’re working to educate new farmers. R-S Central High School has an on-site farming operation where students are raising goats and a special breed of free-range, red-meat hogs. I spent some time talking with Brandon Higgins, the ag teacher overseeing the effort, and I’m encouraged by his and his students’ passion for farming. He is educating a new generation of farmers who I hope will carry on a great tradition in our state. The county also is helping sponsor workshops for adults interested in farming.

Farther south, Polk County has hired an economic developer whose focus is on growing the ag economy in the county. You know, there’s a lot of talk about luring businesses to North Carolina. But the fact remains, we’re very much a small-business state, and each and every one of our 52,000 farms is a small business. It’s great to see efforts to enhance these homegrown businesses.

Heading back east, I spoke at an event in Cabarrus County titled “Agriculture: The Forgotten Economic Engine.” As a bedroom community for Charlotte, Cabarrus County is struggling with development pressure and is working to preserve the agricultural landscape that has made the county so appealing.

Commissioner Troxler speaks with farmers in Camden County.

Commissioner Troxler speaks with farmers and local leaders in Camden County.

All three of these western counties are looking to agriculture as economic engines. While in northeastern North Carolina, three counties are working to make sure their agricultural economy stays intact.

Farmers in Camden, Currituck and Gates counties are worried about the prospect of the Navy paving over thousands of acres of prime farmland for an outlying landing field to train pilots. I met with farmers in Camden County recently to hear their concerns about the OLF. Agriculture is Camden’s top industry, and these farmers are justifiably concerned about the impact an OLF would have on their farms and livelihoods.

I share their concerns. Camden is a top exporter of potatoes, and also can yield two to three crops a year of wheat, soybeans and corn. None of those could be grown near an OLF, according to the Navy, because they would attract birds that could damage aircraft. The restrictions would severely affect farmers’ ability to earn a living.

One of the things I constantly stress in speaking to groups around the state, and to just about anyone else who will listen, is just how important agriculture is to our state and its economy. My visits to the southwestern and northeastern corners of North Carolina were filled with reminders of that importance.