I recently visited several farms in eastern North Carolina to see what farmers are doing and listen to their concerns. We visited Bertie, Chowan, Gates, Beaufort, Craven and Pitt counties. We covered a lot of miles and a lot of topics in three days, including environmental regulations, water resources, the cost of fertilizer and other inputs, and the Navy’s interest in putting a practice landing field in our northeastern counties.
People in Gates County are fired up over the Navy considering building an outlying landing field there. I can understand why. The field would take a lot of valuable farmland out of production, and the last thing we need in North Carolina is more lost farmland. The Navy has other options, and I believe they should explore those instead.
I saw some encouraging signs for the progress of crops in the East. The latest USDA crop forecast for North Carolina shows production of corn is up 30 percent over last year, and judging from what I saw, I can believe it. Soybeans and cotton also looked really good, and if the weather cooperates, farmers in eastern counties should have a good harvest.
My tour wasn’t just about field crops. I also got an education about North Carolina’s growing aquaculture industry. In 2008, North Carolina had nearly 150 producers of freshwater fish species, including catfish, hybrid striped bass, trout, tilapia and Southern flounder.
We visited N.C. State University’s Pamlico Aquaculture Field Lab in Aurora, where researchers have been breeding striped bass with white bass to create a hybrid that can thrive in a farmed environment. Later, I saw this fish in production at Castle Hayne Fisheries, also in Aurora.
The next day, we visited a freshwater prawn farm in Vanceboro. Don Ipock’s land used to be a tobacco farm, but when the federal quota system ended, he invested his buyout money in ponds and prawns. He’s gotten some good advice along the way from Matt Parker, my department’s aquaculture specialist in the eastern region, Mike Frinsko of N.C. Cooperative Extension, and others. His harvest is scheduled for early October, and he’s marketing his prawns to restaurants and Asian markets.
We finished our eastern tour at Carolina Classics Catfish in Ayden. This is a fully integrated catfish farm. They operate a hatchery and several grow-out farms, produce their own fish feed, and process the fish. The company processed more than 8 million pounds of catfish last year.
I’d like to thank the farmers and their families who opened their farms to us and showed us some great hospitality during our tour, and to the many others who turned out at breakfasts and lunches to share their concerns and ideas with me.