JEFFERSON-Continuing to champion the successes of agriculture on both the local and state level while creating more opportunities for small farmers through the expansion of market opportunities were major talking points during the Farm Bureau Issues Forum at the Ashe County Courthouse Tuesday evening.
Candidates vying for seats in the North Carolina General Assembly and the Ashe County Board of Commissioners took their place behind the microphone to lobby continued support of agriculture statewide and discussed how regulations and spending cuts trickle down to the local farmer.
Rep. Jonathan Jordan began the evening’s debate by reiterating the fact that agriculture is the state’s largest industry and explaining how farmers are facing change in the world.
He noted the “tremendous” increase in the state’s leading industry in just a couple of years.
Every dollar spent on agriculture research yields more than $19 in return, Jordan said.
With perhaps this spring’s referendum still fresh in his mind, Jordan celebrated the success of the N.C. Connect Bond and how the funding of key programs puts the state in a prime position as a global leader in agriculture.
Jordan also spoke about the encroachments farms have faced over the years including the controversial extraterritorial jurisdiction zoning regulations that impact farmers.
The majority of the debate remained largely civil, but was not without a few contentious moments, such as when Democratic challenger Sue Counts, alluded to her opposition’s voting record.
Throughout the debate, Jordan encouraged his constituents to examine his voting record in his representation of the High Country.
Counts noted numerous times that she would “stand by our local farmers” and ensure they “aren’t left out of the conversation.”
Relying on her previous experience with cooperative extension, Counts talked about how she is a proven supporter of farmers and referenced her leadership during Watauga County’s transition away from tobacco cultivation.
Along with the barriers facing farmers today, the debate also focused on global issues, as well.
N.C. Senate Democratic challenger Art Sherwood discussed energy policies and how current legislation is moving in the “wrong direction.”
“Unless we want our property to become waterfront property, we need to pay attention to sea level rise,” Sherwood stressed. “We need to be looking at alternative energies.”
In his closing remarks, Sherwood admitted he had never run for office before and how this was an “interesting time” in politics. He stressed he had no intentions of running a negative campaign regardless of the outcome. He said he got into the race due to the challenges facing higher education in the state including the appointment of “hacks” in key positions within the university system.
Challengers Paula Perry (Republican), Polly Jones (Democrat), Donna Weaver (Democrat), Richard Blackburn (Democrat) and Republican incumbents Larry Rhodes were next to field questions. Candidate Gary Roark did not attend.
First off, commissioners talked about what role they see agriculture play in the future of the county.
Much discussion was given to Christmas tress and cattle during the forum.
Paula Perry said a lot of the future of the industry depends on the market itself. As an example, she noted how the price of cattle in the past two years has fallen.
Perry advocated the expansion of the Ashe County Farmer’s Market and the renewed interest in people wanting to produce their own food.
During his floor time, Rhodes discussed the thriving Christmas tree industry and the growing segment of the pumpkin industry. He said land preservation has been key to agriculture although he agreed there is much market fluctuation that impacts farmers countywide.
Weaver, the county’s former Department of Social Services, reiterated some of Rhodes’ key points while adding that values of farmers locally will play a key role in economic development as it provides 700 jobs annually and up to 2,000 positions seasonally.
“Agriculture support a lot of thing in terms of tourism and people who come here to cut trees for their own family use,” said Weaver. “We have a great diversity here. It will play a big role in our economic development.”
Jones, a current school board member, said she was aware of the industry’s importance in the 1960s when developers threatened to dam the New River and thus erode valuable farm land.
In regards to diversity, Jones said the county must find an alternative or transition to the dying tobacco industry.
She stressed the importance of agriculture education and how students should be educated on the jobs available.
“Farming is more than just riding on a tractor,” said Jones, who also advocated for wiser timber management and replacing stands once harvested. Jones also said the county needs to do a better job of advertising and marketing the agriculture industry and mentioned how a cattle market locally can cut down on transportation costs for local farmers.
Blackburn, who once served as a county commissioner, said population growth will drive the need for food and fiber that comes with farming. Clean water, an available labor force, affordable land and costs of production will be major challenges to farming in the future, said Blackburn.
Blackburn is also advocated local governments adopt policies that favor farmers and adopt land use policies, as well as sales tax exemption.
“The future of farming will require a great deal of planning,” said Blackburn.
Considerable discussion to population growth locally was also given during the debate.
Weaver said that since agriculture is the state’s largest industry, she said we need to support the services, such as through the agriculture extension office, that benefit farmers.
“I was amazed at the amount of successful efforts that have been launched over the years that have helped farming progress,” said Weaver. “As a commissioner I would support this funding.”
Jones said she thinks commissioners fund the needs of the county adequately with the current resources available.
“I’m really amazed how much Ashe County gives,” said Jones. “As our county grows and hopefully our job and economy increases, that will allow us to address funding on different organizational levels. We can (also) teach college classes and they can certainly teach agriculture. We can have classes on how to write grants.”
She said the county needs to pay continued attention the dangers of pesticides, as well.
Rhodes again stressed the importance of agriculture to the county and said elected leaders could always do more through the taxes that feed into the system.
Training through Wilkes Community College, which has already benefited other local industries like G.E. Aviation, could also help the industry continue to grow.
Blackburn added that maintaining a strong economy and tax base will also help the agriculture industry. He added that a comprehensive plan with a vision for agriculture should exist moving forward with insight from local farmers.
Reach Jesse Campbell at 336-846-7164.