KENANSVILLE — When it comes to agriculture in eastern North Carolina, farmers have a lot to smile about. One of those proud farmers is Sen. Brent Jackson and, while facing a large audience Thursday night, he showed it to people from west of Interstate 95.
“For all of those who live west of 95, I want to welcome you to God’s country,” Jackson said while drawing chuckles and applause during the Agriculture Rally at the Duplin County Events Center.
The first generation farmer from Sampson County was one of many supporters who addressed the successes and needs for agriculture in the region and throughout North Carolina.
While showing support, Jackson continued and spoke about the labor of farmers and making ends meet.
“We created the term ‘Get ‘Er Done” before it was ever popular, because you have to make it work,” Jackson said. “That’s what we have done as a legislative team.”
Jackson added that agriculture is the lifeblood of the region, state and the United States and encouraged the audience to support lawmakers who support it. Before Jackson took the stage, Ed Emory, chairman of NC Farm Families, talked about the state’s biggest industry, which accounts for one-sixths of the income, $84 billion of the state’s gross product and 700,000 employees who work in food, forestry and fiber industries. He also mentioned that seven of the top 10 producers are in the eastern region, which affects the quality of life.
“It’s important that we gather tonight and celebrate that fact,” Emory said. “But we also need to remember that we produce a safe, good, quality, food supply that feeds not only the United States — we feed the world.”
To express a point about support, Emory recited a quote from President Ronald Reagan, who once said “We’re nothing without our farmers. They’re the backbone of this country and everything we do to help them helps our country and its future.”
Rep. John Bell also stressed how agriculture feeds the world while encouraging the audience to cheer and celebrate it. The legislator also talked about improvements such as the unemployment rate dropping, road improvements and salary increases for teachers.
“We have a wonderful story to tell,” Bell said. “We inherited a broken car on the side of the road, but we fixed it. We’re not done yet, we still have a lot to do. Our state is currently in great fiscal shape and we’re continuing to move forward.”
Like Jackson and other state leaders present, he believes it’s important to elect people who support agriculture.
“We need to elect people who understand that food does not come from a grocery store,” Bell said.
N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore said agriculture plays a big part in employing people and improving infrastructure in rural areas.
“We see great growth in the cities, but we see sometimes in rural areas we have to keep being innovative with how we keep up, bring new jobs and do things,” Moore said. “Agriculture has been a very key part of that — transportation infrastructure, water and sewer infrastructure. These are all things that we fund and we want to make sure that rural North Carolina is able to be just as competitive as urban and suburban North Carolina.”
While sharing stories related to farming, Harry Brown, N.C. Senate Majority Leader, and others also expressed feelings about the work ethic of farmers throughout the state.
“Again, I can’t thank you enough for what you do,” Brown said. “In eastern North Carolina and rural North Carolina in particular, agriculture is what it’s all about. That’s where the jobs are at. You provide something that this whole state has to have. That need is going to continue to grow and get bigger and bigger. It’s a rural problem that you’re going to have to be a part of the solution for.”
Brown told local farmers and supporters that they’ll meet the challenge. Later, organizer Rep. Jimmy Dixon expressed gratitude for farm families who were pioneers in the area.
“All of us have benefited from the hard work and innovation of some true pioneers in agriculture fields,” Dixon said while quoting Abraham Lincoln words, “Every blade of grass is a study; and to produce two, where there was but one, is both a profit and a pleasure.”
N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler presented a few facts about agricultural profits. His goal is to grow the industry by $100 billion by 2020, which is an increase of $16 billion. One of the ideas is to improve food manufacturing to supplement the products which are grown in the state.
“Something that is an anomaly to me is that we’re the number one sweet potato state in the nation, by a long shot,” Troxler said. “We grow about 50 percent of the sweet potatoes in the nation. But do you know how many sweet potato cannings we have in North Carolina? None.”
The sweet potato example was just one example of how the state can profit from what it produces from the ground. He also mentioned how a can of raw beans is really worth 10 cents, but by the time it gets to the grocery store, the value is worth a few bucks.
“Look at what we’re missing by not having that manufacturing here in the state,” Troxler said.
He also mentioned the Connect NC Bond, introduced by Gov. Pat McCrory and $94 million which is being spent to build a Agriculture and Consumer Sciences Lab for veterinary, food, drug and motor fuel testing. While discussing the livestock industry, Troxler mentioned the importance of plant production.
“Our livestock actually eats plants,” Troxler said. “So keeping North Carolina at the very forefront of being able to produce the plants that we need, not only for human consumption, but for animal protein, is going to be vital.”
Like other supports, Troxler said it’s an exciting time to be involved in agriculture. McCrory and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest felt the same way.
“You guys are really the heart and soul of North Carolina,” Forest said. “You guys are what makes North Carolina great.”
Forest said 100 years ago, 40 percent of Americans made their living in agriculture. Today, that number has dwindled to 2 percent or less.
“We’re now feeding more people here in America and more people around the world than we ever fed, in the history of the United States,” Forest said. “You’re doing it with less and less people. You guys really know what hard work is about. You know what sacrifice is about. You know what risk is about. You are what makes North Carolina great.”
Forest said the farmers will have to do more with less and fight problems such as environmental terrorism.
McCrory praised the culture of the farming community.
“The culture of the farming community is second to no culture in the United States of America,” McCrory said. “The farming community understands resiliency more than anything else.”
McCrory told a story about peanut farmers who struggled with too much rain and their willingness not to give up, his example of resiliency.
“They’re resilient,” he said about agriculture producers dealing with challenges such as the weather. “They’re more resilient than any people in any industry in the United States of America. Because there are things that are out of your control that are in God’s hands and they accept it.”
He said it’s something he respects. Another trait was independence and alluded to farmers not wanting to be held back because of government regulations. McCrory also mentioned the entrepreneurial opportunities of farming.
“I read about all of these Wall Street geniuses up in New York, San Francisco and even Charlotte,” McCrory said. “But the people who are really business geniuses are the farmers. They’re the ones who have to trade when it’s up, when it’s down. Do I hold? Do I fold? Do I sell? Do I give it away? Every single day. And I tell you what, your track record is a whole lot better than Wall Street. There’s no doubt about it.”
Many attendees responded to the messages of presenters with applause. Ben Aydlett was one of many who attended Thursday night.
“Being from a small town, I think that agriculture is the backbone of this country,” Aydlett said. “I feel like some of these politicians really appreciate that and giving it the value it deserves.”
Coming from a military Thomas Ritchie enjoyed McCrory’s message about patriotism. His farther served in the military and its one of the reasons his family moved to the state.
“The state is very friendly to its veterans and takes good care of its veterans,” he said. “The culture here, like the governor said is very respectful and reverent towards its veterans.”
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.