To celebrate the Sampson County Friends of Agriculture’s 20th anniversary, the group is welcoming back one of Sampson’s own to deliver the keynote address for its annual rally, on tap for Thursday.
The Rally for Agriculture will begin at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 24, at the Sampson County Agri-Exposition Center in Clinton with a sponsored meal.
“This is our 15th rally and it is on the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Friends of Agriculture,” said Ronnie Jackson, chairman of the Friends of Agriculture Board of Directors. “We always try to keep the focus on the importance of agriculture to our community.”
This year will be no different.
Autryville native Ray Starling, chief of staff to North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, will present this year’s address. Starling’s involvement in agriculture began with early life on the farm and continued in his later life during his time as a university professor, legislative liaison and policy adviser.
The son of M.F. and JoAnne Starling, Starling grew up on a diversified family farm. He attended Midway High School, where he was involved extensively with the Future Farmers of America and was elected as a national FFA vice president. He stayed active in FFA during college, serving as a national officer in 1996-97. He received a B.S. in Agricultural Education from N.C. State in May 1999 and similarly graduated with honors from the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law in 2002.
From 2007-12, Starling was the general counsel and a legislative liaison at the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDACS), subsequently serving as general counsel and senior agricultural policy adviser to Tillis when he was speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives. Upon Tillis’ election to the U.S. Senate in 2014, Starling moved to Washington to continue serving as his general counsel and senior policy adviser.
At the beginning of 2016, Tillis tapped Starling to become his chief of staff, the highest ranking employee in his U.S. Senate office.
In addition to his work with the NCDACS, Starling has been an adjunct professor of agricultural and food law and policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Campbell University. After stints as a law clerk to a N.C. Supreme Court Justice, and then as an associate at a firm, he took the position as legislative liaison at the NCDACS.
His agricultural experience is extensive in the legal field.
Active in the American Agricultural Law Association (AALA) for many years, Starling has taught and organized numerous courses at the annual meeting, served on the conference planning committee and received the 2012 American Agricultural Law Leadership Award. In 2013, he was elected to serve on the National Board of Directors of AALA. For several years, he taught a continuing legal education (CLE) class on agricultural law at the N.C. Festival of Legal Learning.
Starling was recently named a “50 To Watch in Business” in the Raleigh-Durham area and was named a “rising star” by his fellow members of the bar. He was a 2011 Marshall Memorial Fellow and received the 2011 Honor Award from the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. Additionally, Starling was recognized by N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as its Outstanding Young Alumnus in 2010.
“We are very excited to welcome him back to Sampson County for this annual event,” said Jackson of Starling, who lives in McLean, Va., with his wife, Tina, and their 5-year-old daughter Victoria.
A main event of the Friends of Ag each year, the rally is a way of thanking the community for its support while again driving the importance of agriculture home to the masses.
“It’s just a feel-good rally about agriculture,” Jackson has said of the annual event. “It’s designed to deliver pertinent information about topics related to ag. We try to have topics that are of interest to people who have an interest in agriculture.”
When the Friends of Agriculture was started, it was to educate people about the importance of agriculture — not just in Raleigh, but to those in this community. Bringing information to the masses that highlights the vital role agriculture plays is remains a steadfast goal of the organization.
“A lot of people seem to not really understand how big that is in Sampson County and in North Carolina. Sampson County is probably the top agricultural county in North Carolina and ranks very highly nationwide,” Jackson noted. “The combined value of crops and livestock is about $1.3 billion per year.”
Friends of Agriculture has made it its mission to deliver that message, and Starling will be the most recent voice to do so at Thursday’s rally. Crowds are usually hundreds-strong each year, with some topping out at about 700 at its peak.
“This is a good way of bringing our members together along with other people in the community and hopefully enjoying the fruits of some of the things we’ve done,” Jackson said.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.