March summit celebrates economic value of agriculture in North Carolina

Seven eastern North Carolina counties produce 20 percent of the state’s agricultural output, accounting for a multi-billion-dollar chunk of the industry and nearly 40,000 jobs.

It’s impressive, said Dr. Blake Brown, professor of agricultural and resource economics, not only in terms of volume, but also variety.

Edgecombe, Greene, Johnston, Nash, Pitt, Wayne and Wilson counties, according to Brown, are part of “one of the most agriculturally intense areas of the United States,” with significant production of pork, tobacco and sweet potatoes, among other crops.

“Just 10 years ago, sweet potatoes were considered a seasonal product,” Brown said during the Wilson Regional Ag Summit in March. “Now they’re a year-round product, and consumption is on the rise.”

At the summit, he delivered a state-of-the-industry report on the seven-county region to a crowd of nearly 500 farmers, industry leaders and citizens. The event was hosted by Scott Farms Inc., one of the largest sweet potato producers in the state.

The five-generation family farm operates on about 7,000 acres, producing sweet potatoes, tobacco, wheat, soybeans and corn. In 2015, the Scotts expect to raise 1,100 acres of flue-cured tobacco and nearly 2,500 acres of sweet potatoes. They also process sweet potatoes and recently opened a new state-of-the-art packing line.

“One of the things that makes our business excel is that we have the ability to grow the product, market the product, process the product and sell it,” Sonny Scott said. The new facility has enabled the family to significantly expand the capacity of their operation (throughout the United States and overseas) and enhance their ability to accurately grade and sort sweet potatoes.

Summit participants toured the pristine facility during the event, after hearing from Brown, CALS Dean Richard Linton and North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

“This region of the state is all about innovation and moving agriculture forward,” Linton said. “Today we are celebrating the economic value of agriculture and its potential as we move into the future.”

North Carolina is the nation’s leading producer of sweet potatoes, he said, and now there are exciting new opportunities to create value-added products from the crop, including French fries and pet food.

College researchers have played a pivotal role in the development and success of the crop, Linton added, by creating better varieties, implementing advanced production and storage practices and developing value-added products.

“The economic future of agriculture in North Carolina could not be brighter,” Linton said. “The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is proud to be a partner with this industry.”

Brown echoed this message during his talk.

In a presentation loaded with agriculture statistics for each of the seven counties, Brown reported on everything from acreage to income, explaining the data and offering recommendations to the growers. His underlying message: This seven-county region has a globally competitive agriculture industry that encompasses a number of different crops and value-added products, with sweet potatoes as the rising star.

“I hope you will leave here today with the understanding of how critical the agriculture sector is to your community,” Brown said. “At NC State, we remain focused on the sector and how significantly it impacts North Carolina’s economy.”

Troxler described the success of the agriculture industry in the seven-county region as “symbolic of what we’re trying to do throughout North Carolina,” and he encouraged the farmers in attendance to continue working hard to meet the state’s goal to grow agriculture to a $100 billion industry.

“The other thing that is exciting to me is the relationship between the industry and NC State University. We’re all pulling in the same direction.

“If we’re going to feed a monstrous world population by 2050, we’ve got to have agricultural research, and I believe that efforts like the Plant Sciences Initiative at NC State will carry us forward, as well as improved production techniques, variety development and technology. This is one of the most exciting times to be involved in agriculture and agribusiness in North Carolina.”

– Suzanne Stanard