An impressive crowd gathered Monday night at the Sampson County Agri-Exposition Center for the 13th Friends of Ag rally.
Ronnie Jackson, chairman of the Friends of Ag Board of Directors, welcomed the group made up of local farmers, county commissioners, senators, state representatives, town officials, extension staff, and many others to the event, sharing with them a bit of the history of the Friends of Ag organization.
“We started this group 16 years ago in response to threats to agriculture, mainly livestock,” he recalled, adding that he and other concerned community members concluded that “a lack of factual knowledge” concerning agriculture was to blame and that education was needed.
“We try to show the positives of agriculture. Sometimes the media can paint agriculture not in the best light so we try to create a positive impression and educate people. Believe it or not, there’s people right here that know very little about agriculture even though they’re in close proximity to it,” said Jackson just last week, adding that many may be surprised to learn that in Sampson County, in just one year, agriculture generates over a billion dollars.
For Jackson and the Friends of Ag, the need to help spread such knowledge about agriculture still exists just as much today as it did years ago, one of the reasons the organization aims to hold a rally annually.
Jackson then introduced the evening’s speaker, Dr. Randy Woodson, chancellor of N.C. State University, a place he noted had changed a lot since he was a student there. Compared to the university’s some 34,000 students now, when Jackson attended there was “only about 7,000 students, and the bad thing was, only 200 of them were women,” remarked Jackson, drawing a laugh from the crowd.
Woodson, the 14th chancellor of N.C. State University, then took the stage to talk about the university, its impact on economic development and the economy, the impact of agriculture on the economy, and what the university is doing through its programming to assist rural students.
While expressing gratitude for being a part of the UNC university system, Woodson proudly pointed out that N.C. State is “the largest university in the state” with close to 35,000 students. Referring to Jackson’s comment about how males outnumbered females in Wolfpack country years ago, Woodson informed rally attendees that now the student population is almost 50/50.
“Our founding is in agriculture and engineering,” continued Woodson, noting that while the two disciplines are still pillars of the university, the university has greatly expanded its areas of speciality.
“We’re globally recognized as a science and technology university and ag is firmly embedded in that,” he stressed.
Woodson went on to tell just how deep the university’s roots in agriculture run, sharing that in 1862, 25 years before the university’s official founding, the federal government designated 30,000 acres to each state; the land could be used or sold but it had in some way to go toward the creation of college in each state, particularly one focused on agriculture and the mechanical. Out of that legislation — the Morrill Act that was signed by Lincoln — came the beginnings of North Carolina State University.
The university has come a long way since its start, now educating thousands of students each year from all the counties in the state, shared Woodson, adding that the number of living N.C. State alumni just recently reached over 200,000. Among those, he noted, were Jim Goodnight, CEO of the Cary-based analytic software vendor SAS, and five members of the joint chiefs of staff.
As attendees enjoyed a complimentary dinner of chicken and barbecue, Woodson shared the university’s “secret sauce of success” — research, teaching, and outreach through extension.
“Every other university is trying to replicate it,” he said. “For us, it comes down to research that matters and making sure that that research gets out to the market.”
All of the university’s research, as well as its educating students to also do research, has a significant impact on the state’s economy.
“Each year, N.C. State generates $1.7 billion in direct economic impact in North Carolina,” informed Woodson. “Agriculture and agribusiness generates $77 billion or 17.5 percent of the $440 billion annual gross state product.”
One of the things that makes the state’s agriculture so important as well as unique is that North Carolina produces over 90 different commodities, shared Woodson, naming off sweet potatoes, corn, wheat soybeans, cotton, pork, and much more, commodities of which Sampson is one of, if not the, top producer.
Acknowledging the well-known yet friendly competition between Sampson and Duplin for ag-related bragging rights, Woodson remarked that both counties are important to the state’s agriculture.
Of Sampson, he pointed out that the county’s agriculture — which alone features the production of 41 different commodities — accounts for $1.1. billion of North Carolina’s economy each year. “You’ve got to be proud as a county of what you contribute to the state economy.”
While on the topic of agriculture, Woodson shared that this year marks the centennial anniversary of North Carolina’s Cooperative Extension.
“We have an amazing Extension Service,” he praised, explaining that as Extension celebrates this year’s milestone and looks ahead to the future that a new, fresh vision was being formed and plans were being made to keep the Extension moving forward.
“We want to ensure that 100 years from now Extension is still here and going strong,” said Woodson.
As it also looks to the future, Woodson shared how the university is putting programming in place to assist students from rural areas who want a N.C. State education. One of those programs is ASPIRE, ACT Supplemental Preparation in Rural Education, a program now in 32 counties that helps boost students’ performance on college entrance exams as well as works to increase the number of students pursuing degrees in agriculture and the life sciences.
Another program, only implemented just this school year, is STEAM, Student Transfer Enrollment Advising and Mentoring Program.
Describing it as a “transparent pipeline,” Woodson explained that rural students who wish to start their higher education journey at a community college yet wish to transfer and ultimately earn a degree from N.C. State can do so by following the university’s guidelines and pre-determined plan of study. Once ready to transfer, students in the program will have a guaranteed spot at N.C. State University in an ag-related program where they can finish thier education and earn their bachelor’s degree. Throughout the program, mentoring and advising from N.C. State is available to students.
“I want to tell every kid in the state that if you want a N.C. State degree we’ve got a way to do it,” said Woodson.
Woodson’s visit to Sampson and his participation in the Friends of Ag rally was very much looked forward to by community members and those with the Friends of Ag.
“Sampson is one of the largest agriculture counties in the state, in the U.S. really, and what we do here ties in well with the mission of N.C. State and what they do in agriculture,” Jackson pointed out prior to the rally. “I think he (Woodson) wanted to come because it’s where a lot of the action is, both in livestock and field crops.”
Lauren Williams can be reached at 910-592-8137, ext. 117 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.