Plowing Ahead to the Future

Published February 28, 2013

By Tom Campbell

NC Farm TractorBy Tom Campbell

Paul Harvey’s unmistakable voice grabbed our attention in his Super Bowl tribute to America’s farmers. Until the turn of the twentieth century most Americans lived on the family farm, but today most of us are three or four generations removed from that farm. So let us hear what Harvey used to call “the rest of the story.

Any typical workday one in five North Carolinians, about 638,000 of us, go to work in agriculture or agribusiness, generating some 71.6 billion of our 425 billion dollar gross state product. Twenty years ago a farmer grew enough food to support 53 people; today that number is 200 and needs to double by 2050 to meet population growth. If we are to have sufficient food, fiber and forest products agriculture must up its game.

The North Carolina Farm Bureau held its Leadership Conference in Raleigh this week to celebrate the successes and discuss the challenges for this industry that is the number one contributor to our state’s economy. Chief among the challenges is a shortage of labor. Native-born workers are not willing to endure the weather and hard work harvesting crops for 10.76 per hour, so immigrants are essential. Mechanization has helped relieve labor needs but a machine doesn’t know when a berry, melon or apple is ripe for picking. Farm Bureau’s Larry Wooten says we are either going to import our workers or import our food, making the immigration debate in Washington and Raleigh critical to the future of agriculture.

Water is also essential in the production of crops, livestock, aquaculture and ornamentals. Uncertain weather conditions have forced growers to rely more heavily on large irrigation systems for crops that require a lot of water. The NC Rural Center’s Water 2020 report says our state needs to invest in excess of 30 billion dollars in water infrastructure. But our transportation network is also a major concern. Our roads, rails and ports are not being maintained and upgraded to ensure efficient farm to market delivery. Neither is our energy infrastructure expanding sufficiently to guarantee an available and affordable supply.

Government regulation and tax policies are growing concerns in agribusiness. Chief among tax concerns is the estate tax. Most farmers are “land poor,” requiring large acreage to produce their crops. When the farmer dies the tax on those estates can force many families to sell their farms to pay estate taxes. Due to improvements in mechanization and technology our education system needs to improve vocational and technical training.

But farmers are the biggest optimists on the planet and panelists at the Leadership Conference expressed optimism for farming’s future in North Carolina. We have one of the great research and teaching centers in the nation at NC State and their innovations are leading to new products, better production methods and a new generation of leaders. Research at RTP is also a major contributor, especially as our biotech industry expands. Food processors are growing within our state and farmers are diversifying their crops in step with cultural changes in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Paul Harvey’s description of a farmer brought nostalgic memories but also calls us to understand how critical farmers are to our future. When you sit down to your next meal think about it.