NC Commissioner Troxler: The State of NC Agriculture

Ag Development Forum, NC State Fairgrounds, Raleigh, February 1, 2024

Challenges facing agriculture and agribusiness

  • Q1. North Carolina has become one of the most attractive states in the country to move to. As we look ahead, what are the most critical priorities facing agriculture, forestry and our state?
  • Infrastructure,
    • ensuring we are not developing the most vital and important farmland and forest lands,implementing a strategic approach to development and emerging technology like solar,not getting ahead of ourselves in infrastructure needs and development,investing equally in maintaining our agricultural readiness – ability to grow, process and market food; maintaining and/or increasing our agricultural research
      • Ag research holds the keys to boosting production efficiency and yields, developing new and adaptable varieties to meet food demands globally and unlocking economic opportunities for farmers. We are living on the payoff of ag research. Agriculture is really good at what it does, so I know we will meet the future food needs. Growing 50, 75 or 100 percent more represents an economic opportunity. But we also have a moral obligation to feed people. I like to say, hungry people are mean people.Farmland preservation
      The American Farmland Trust ranks North Carolina number two in the country behind Texas for the probability of the loss of farmland between now and 2040, projecting the loss of 1.4 million to 1.6 million acres in the next 17 years.We have 8 million acres in farmland now, with the potential to lose 1.4 million acres by a conservative estimate.The one thing I know is we can’t continue to grow this industry if we don’t have the natural resources available to do it. And we cannot feed ourselves if we don’t have the land to grow food on. Let’s let that sink in. We cannot feed ourselves if we don’t have the land to grow food on. I’m not against development and growth, but we need to be strategic with development and not build on our best farmland.I am a member of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and the development of farmland is a frequent topic of discussion in our meetings – both formal and informal. I remember being told that New York State has a really good farmland preservation program because they figured out if they didn’t protect their farms in upstate New York, New York City was not going to have clean drinking water. A news report in April of 2023 noted that New York has spent over $250 million in protecting more than 110,000 acres of farmland or 370 farms. States with robust programs typically have already lost a tremendous amount of farmland and are working to catch up.Farmland preservation is not something we can afford to put off. I am proud we have protected 34,000 acres of farmland in North Carolina, but we have more work to do. I will continue to lead the charge on this effort, lobbying the legislature for additional funding because the time to invest in protecting farmland is NOW.I recently participated in a panel discussion at an ag and forestry county commissioners committee a meeting and the loss of farmland and forest land was a big topic of discussion. When those outside of the agriculture or forestry industry start to take notice, you know it is time to take action. [Add any details you would like from that meeting.]An article I saw recently in the News & Observer really drives home the point well about the continued need for farmland preservation efforts..The article highlighted Chatham Park, a planned 8,500-acre community about three miles outside Pittsboro.It will be near the 2,500-acre VinFast electric vehicle and battery site being built in Chatham County.The article mentioned that Pittsboro’s population had jumped over 25 percent from 2010 to 2020, up from 800 people to over 4,500. What stood out to me is that Chatham Park is expected to draw 60,000 people to the area by 2045 and have 22,000 homes. It is also projected to have 22 million square feet of business and commercial space. So, while we have recorded 34,000 acres in permanent conservation easements since 2006, two projects in Chatham County will take up 11,000 acres. That’s almost a third of what we have preserved, and it is likely just the beginning of what will develop around this manufacturing facility. Comparing what we have been able to preserve in 17 years to this one large project shows the magnitude of the challenge we face.We have secured $106.3 million since 2008 for farmland preservation projects. This year’s application requests set a new record at $55.2 million for 132 applications. The previous record for requests were nearly $30 million. The interest is there, but we need to invest in agriculture like we invest in attracting new industry. Let’s not forget that agriculture and agribusiness feeds us. The bottom line is every time we convert farmland or forest land, we are chipping away at our long-term ability to feed ourselves and we are chipping away at our future.
    • If we can afford to invest money to attract new companies, then we can afford to invest money to retain our agricultural production capacity.   
  • Q2. We are fortunate in North Carolina to be one of the most agriculturally diverse states in the nation. What does this diversification mean and how does it benefit consumers?
    • Diversification is good for farmers and consumers. It allows farmers to develop a variety of revenue streams, not putting all their eggs in one basket as the saying goes.
    • But consumers really benefit from the ag diversity we have in the state because there is very little that our farmers cannot grow. That gives consumers access to a great variety of the freshest products available because they are locally grown.
    • Diversification also produces opportunities for food manufacturing in the state, something the department is looking to grow thanks to $20 million in funding from the General Assembly in 2023 for the N.C. Agriculture Manufacturing and Processing Initiative, a new project to attract and facilitate more agribusiness development.
    • This is an issue we have been working on for a while, back to the food manufacturing taskforce I chaired that led to the creation of the N.C. Food Innovation Lab in Kannapolis – another effort looking to attract food manufacturing to the state.
  • Q3. Speaking of food manufacturing opportunities, tThere has been a lot of focus oin drawing new business to the state for some time, but now we are seeing new opportunities emerge for food processing and manufacturing and agricultural development. How important is it that we invest in agricultural businesses, too?
    • I’ve always thought that in order to grow our state, we need to build on our strengths. Agriculture is one of our state’s greatest strengths. It has been our strength since North Carolina was founded and agriculture continues to evolve and grow to meet the needs of our state and global consumers. And, the bottom line is food has never gone out of style and I doubt it ever does. It is an essential element to life and being a state that can help meet the food needs well beyond our state lines should be something we are proud of in North Carolina and that we strive to protect.
    • Again, if COVID the pandemic taught us anything, I hope it opened our eyes to how important everyone involved in the food supply is. Agricultural production should not be taken lightly or held in low esteem.
    • It is important to remember we need farms of all sizes to ensure we produce an abundant, safe and affordable supply of food to meet the demands of our population. Because, as I like to say, hungry people are mean people.
    • There is a perception that North Carolina agriculture is only made up of large farms. That’s not the reality. About 85 percent of farms in North Carolina are family-owned operations.
    • About 68 percent of our state’s farms are smaller than 100 acres. About 92 percent of our farms are smaller than 500 acres.
    • We are a small farm state.
    • We are working every day to attract new food businesses and manufacturing to our state through direct recruitment and through investments in the N.C. Food Innovation Lab in Kannapolis and the Plant Sciences Initiative at N.C. State University.
  • Q3. You have a lot of experience as Agriculture Commissioner leading the department through challenging times and in responding to many natural disasters. You’ve guided the department’s response to hurricanes, devastating flooding, avian influenza, raging wildfires in Western North Carolina, tropical storms, damaging late-spring frosts, and drought conditions. As prepared as the department has been to respond and help farmers and consumers, 2020 threw curveballs no one had ever seen before. What have we learned from the pandemic and how have we made North Carolina agriculture and agribusiness stronger for the future? What was that experience like?
    • More than anything I think it exposed the delicate balance in our agriculture industry and our food supply and how interconnected it all is. Supply chain, cycles of production and how those systems must move in tandem to work efficiently and effectively. Any change in one part quickly affected the whole food chain.The IMPEC program (Increasing Meat Production Efficiency and Capacity) was a big win for agriculture and agribusinesses when it was implemented, but it was an even bigger win for agriculture and consumers looking ahead because it increases the capacity for protein processing in the state. This would help us if we experienced a loss of a large processor or another interruption in service or supply chain like we saw with COVID and when grocery shelves were short on products.USDA is currently rolling out a very similar program aimed at boosting other food processing capacities, which will allow production at small and medium sized operations to be able to scale up production when necessary. I am proud that our innovative investment of COVID dollars is now being replicated in a similar way across the country. North Carolina has long been looked at as an agricultural leader and that remains true today. This makes our country stronger in being able to maintain our independence in feeding ourselves.During this time, we saw greater attention to farmers markets and on-farm shops. Consumers sought out local products and farmers saw increased traffic and interest in local products, which I hope we have held onto.
    • We have done good work in responding to crisis such as hurricanes and COVID.  However, let’s not be lulled to sleep thinking we’ve solved all the problems and made our food systems bulletproof.  North Carolina has one of the fastest growing populations in the country.  That alone stretches the capacity of food systems even in the absence of a crisis.  We have to continue building our capacity in North Carolina from the standpoint of production on the farm, food manufacturing, and ensuring our supply chains can deliver to this growing population.
  • Q3b. There a lot of division in the country today. Drawing from your experience from five terms in public office, what is your perspective on public service today.
    • We are fortunate to have the best staff in the country working on behalf of agriculture. We have a lot of longterm employees who have served their entire careers with the Department of Agriculture. And time and time again, I have seen their unwavering commitment to serve the agriculture community and farmers in tough times. It makes me incredibly proud to know they share my passion for public service.
    • And at the end of the day, my philosophy is that it has to be service over politics.
  • Q34c.  You’ve been in agriculture all your life at so many levels.  You’re also now in your 5th term as Commissioner of Agriculture.  That’s a wealth of experience.  What are some key things about leadership you’ve learned over the years?
    • I have always believed my public services is a calling to help people through disasters and situations where they cannot help themselves.
    • I am proud that we at the Department of Agriculture have been there through the hurricanes, natural disasters, flooding, helping the ag community get through a disaster beyond their control.
    • Through every major disaster, I have also learned that treating people with respect is one of the most important parts of leadership. And gaining the respect of the people you work with.
    • I have also seen the power of partnership and relationship building, through friendships I have forged with many of my NASDA counterparts – a couple of examples are the Ag Secretaries of Vermont Anson Tebbetts and Delaware Michael Scuse. You can get a lot accomplished through personal relationships that are built on mutual respect.
  • Q4.  As a follow-up, you’ve led the State Departments of Agriculture on a national level and only Hugh Weathers in South Carolina (by a few months) has served longer as a Commissioner of Agriculture.  What has your experience on a national level shown you about how to best continue growing agriculture in North Carolina.
  • When I look back on things I’ve done on a national level, I can see where relationships and partnerships have been so important in crafting policy which affects North Carolina farmers right here at home.  Some key things have been working with other states to ensure that the implementation of FSMA kept our food supplies safe while not putting farmers out of business.  With FSMA and through my involvement with NASDA, I was able to get all 50 states to agree to support an on-farm readiness review program that focused on educating farmers on the FSMA program before regulating that program. We started this here in North Carolina, but it affected all states.
  • The educate before you regulate approach has proved to be a successful model that we have implemented through many of our regulatory programs.  
    • Trade is another area in which we’ve been very active.  I have led trade missions all over the world, have a great international marketing team, and been able to influence how the federal government approaches trade agreements which are good for NC farmers. 
      • Many commodity leaders, educators and policy makers have joined us on these missions, showcasing the dynamic and impactful partnerships found in N.C. agriculture.
      • We have seen ag exports grow from $2.9 billion in 2026 to nearly $4.5 billion in 2022, roughly a 54% increase.  We’ve accomplished a lot but there’s much more to do.  Above all, one thing I have learned is that you can’t get much of anything done without good relationships and partnerships across the nation.
  1. Agricultural production and the future
  • We need to show young people that there are opportunities in agriculture and ag-related careers.
    • Like I said before, food is an essential element to life, so there will be opportunities in agriculture especially as our population continues to grow and food demand rises. I believe we will see a greater use of technology to improve farming practices and increase yields and that’s where young minds can and will likely excel and bring great change to the industry.
  • Q6. Commissioner when you mention young people and the next generation of farmers and agribusiness owners, you got my attention. Preparing young people for success in impactful careers is one of the missions of the community college system, so what role can our Community Colleges play in educating the next generation of agricultural operators, agribusiness owners, ag entrepreneurs and ag leaders?
    • Computers, GPS technology, drones – we are seeing them all integrated into agriculture today. Keeping your farm equipment working may rely just as much on computer skills as it does on your knowledge about engine repair. We must be sure we are preparing the workforce for the changing ag economy and the rapid adoption of emerging technology into new equipment and practices, so farms and agribusinesses can optimize advances to their advantage.

Community colleges have the unique ability to quickly customize programs and training for industry needs.  Agriculture in practice involves a great deal of specialized technology.

 Agriculture is our state’s largest industry and community colleges can adapt their very successful customized training model to the needs of farmers and others in the food system.  This can be degree programs, but also short-term customized training because the technology is always evolving. 


  1. Q.7 We’ve covered a lot of ground today about some very important issues facing agriculture. I know we could easily talk another hour or two … but we won’t. I guess the final question is where do we go next?
  2. As we lose land and maybe even inputs, we will have to have more intensive production to continue to meet demand. We may even see more greenhouse production if it is profitable.  We need to secure our workforce. I am proud of my employees in the agriculture department. We need more of them! The department as a whole is running at a 25% vacancy rate which means our current employees have to work harder to make sure our programs and services are successful.
  3. A prime example we have seen is the ongoing hiring challenges with our N.C. Forest Service where there are currently 100 vacancies across 643 positions. Over the year, they are experiencing a 15-20% vacancy rate, making fire response challenging.  
  4. Research, research, research will become more and more critical in helping us produce more with less resources.We are going to need to continue to integrate new technology into agricultural production to increase efficiency. I think we are only beginning to scratch the surface here. We know our population growth will continue, which will create new markets and opportunities, but also will put pressure on our land and water resources. We have a whole panel discussion coming up later in the program on managing water.  Local markets will continue to be important as interest in buying local remains strong.
    1. A growing population means great opportunities for agriculture ahead. As I said earlier, food is an essential element for life so we have a great product that will I believe will always be in demand.

Commissioner, this has been a great conversation about the state of agriculture. Do you have a few final words for us.

Commissioner – I’ve really enjoyed talking with you about agriculture today and the challenges we face AND the opportunities that exist.

I am as passionate about agriculture today as the day I decided to start farming and I am eager to help our farmers, our agribusinesses and our rural communities be successful. Agriculture and agribusiness remains our top industry, and underpins our state’s economy. We can all do our part to make sure those outside of agriculture understand that this industry feeds us, helps clothes us and even helps fuel us. Agriculture is essential to our lives.

Securing the natural resources and the know-how to farm, while harnessing the benefits of technology and following the guidance gained from research will help us ensure agriculture remains the dynamic and impactful industry it is today.  

One thing I have said is that I used to bemoan the fact that less 2% of our population is involved in agriculture.  But, I’ve come to see that as a real testament to how good our farmers are and how incredible the payoff has been for our investments in ag research.  What it means is that 98% of our population can pursue their hopes, dreams, and aspirations because they don’t have to take the time growing and preserving their own food.  The incredible wealth we have in this country is built on the fact that modern agriculture takes care of the basic necessity of food and sustenance.  If you show me a country where a large percentage of the population is involved in agriculture, then I know that’s a poor country.  We must invest in ag research and good policy for agriculture to meet the food demands of a growing population.  And that implies that we have to invest in young ag leaders, ag research, good policy, and of course, farmers.  There are incredible opportunities for careers in the food system – from research to farming and all the way through to retail and marketing.

NC Ag Commissioner Stave Troxler (right) discusses the past, present, and future of North Carolina’s number one industry with Dr. Sandy Stewart at the Ag Development Forum. Image credit Andrea Ashby NCDA&CS