An Open-Door Approach to Agriculture: William Upchurch Named CALS Distinguished Alumnus
When it comes to North Carolina agriculture, it’s fair to say that the multifaceted William Upchurch, 2023 CALS Distinguished Alumni Award winner, has been there, done that and has the T-shirt. Fittingly, he was wearing an FFA convention T-shirt recently as he recounted how he came to NC State.
Growing up on the family farm in Cary, Upchurch didn’t plan to go to college, but two things changed his mind. To make sure he understood the hard work that farming involved, his dad assigned him the toughest jobs on the farm. Meanwhile, he was active in FFA, culminating in his election as state FFA vice president.
“If it hadn’t been for the hard, long tobacco rows and for the opportunities that FFA gave me, I may have just tried to stay on the farm, which — fast forward with the changes the industry has seen over the years — wouldn’t have been a good long-term game plan for me.”
Upchurch’s NC State experiences helped set him on a path toward his current role as executive director of the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission (NCTTFC). Since 2001, the commission has invested more than $114 million in projects that impact farmers, train new agricultural leaders, and support crop research and extension programming. Firsthand knowledge of tobacco production informed his work in helping farmers adapt to seismic changes in the industry, as well as making adjustments on the family farm.
A Career Fit
Upchurch enrolled at NC State as an agronomy major but quickly pivoted to agricultural education. “I knew I wanted to be in agriculture and to help people, but I didn’t know if I wanted to be in a classroom,” he says. “I was one of the first students to sign up and take agricultural extension and, oh my gosh, it was just the perfect program for me. Working with adults and helping adults with agriculture suited my interests.”
Upchurch served as president of the Agricultural and Extension Education Club at NC State before completing an internship with the marketing division of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS). “The time I spent there propelled me to make decisions about what the rest of my career would look like,” he says.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1991, Upchurch had a brief stint with an agricultural chemical company before returning to NCDA&CS for the long haul. He started as a market news reporter, giving daily commodity reports on the radio.
Paramedic Training to “I Do”
As a teenager in rural Wake County, Upchurch served as a member of the fire department, eventually obtaining captain and later, as a member of the Apex Rescue Squad. In college, working part-time for Wake EMS in Raleigh, he enrolled in paramedic school at Nash Community College in Rocky Mount.
“Lo and behold, my future wife, Amanda, who was riding with Clayton EMS, decided to sign up for the same class. Mutual friends at a rescue squad down in Garner said, ‘Why don’t we meet here in Garner and we’ll ride together to class?’” The carpool and class time led to their becoming a couple.
Upchurch soon took on a new role as NCDA&CS’ cotton marketing specialist, traveling far and wide for specialized training and service, while Amanda became a nurse. They stopped riding with EMS but worked for WakeMed’s critical care team on weekends for several years.
Amanda earned a doctorate as a nurse practitioner. “She’s an inspiration to me because she worked full-time while doing it, from associate’s to bachelor’s to master’s to doctorate, all while working and raising a family,” Upchurch says.
Landmark Tobacco Settlement
Upchurch left emergency medicine behind when he began work as administrator of tobacco programs for NCDA&CS, which opened doors to his involvement in the landmark 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with cigarette manufacturers. The settlement money was designated to help North Carolina tobacco farmers with the transition from their top cash crop.
Upchurch sat shoulder to shoulder with governors and commissioners of agriculture as they worked out an agreement that resulted in the creation of the Phase II Tobacco Settlement. He later spent time with legislators as North Carolina’s Golden LEAF Foundation, Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, and Health and Wellness Trust Fund were established.
“Working on something that could have a tremendous long-term impact on agriculture in North Carolina was an eye-opening experience,” he says. “I felt like an 18-year-old full of energy some days and a silver-haired individual some days, depending on how the negotiations went.”
Following a competitive search, Upchurch was selected as the first staff member with the NCTTFC, which was designated to administer 25% of the tobacco settlement funds through an 18-member board. Driving across the state, he can see the impact that grants to local communities have made, such as a livestock facility in Canton that provides a place for farmers to sell their cattle within the state.
“A lot of people who had an acre or two of burley also had a pasture of beef cows, and so there was a commonality between those two commodities,” Upchurch says. “We knew that if we could invest in helping the livestock industry in the western part of the state, we would in turn help people who had been involved in the burley tobacco market.”
Upchurch says the most valuable and long-lasting investments are in people. He’s pleased to work with his alma mater on funding initiatives such as the NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission Ag Leadership Program, Executive Farm Business Management Program and NC AgVentures cost-share program through the NC Agricultural Foundation.
“A shining moment of the Tobacco Trust Fund is when we endowed the Ag Leadership Program that has put out leaders constantly into the agricultural communities. To hear about a graduate who is now a county commissioner or on the school board or the CEO of a foundation, you can’t even begin to measure the tremendous impacts of those young people who went through the program.”
Upchurch is proud of his tenure as member and past president of the CALS Alumni and Friends Society Board. “I wouldn’t have traded the time for anything,” he says.
He has served on numerous state and local boards, putting into practice his life advice for current students: “Study hard, work hard, pay attention to the details and never close any doors.”