Exports vital to Wilson farmers: Farm bureau president says free trade is key to ag economy

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Now more than ever, agricultural leaders must be engaged in the conversation about trade and trade agreements that affect North Carolina farmers, according to Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, speaking Tuesday at the annual Wilson County Farmers Appreciation Dinner.

Wooten, who leads more than 187 Farm Bureau offices in all 100 counties in the state, was the keynote speaker the dinner attended by more than 200 farmers and agribusiness representatives in Wilson County.

“North Carolina agriculture is dependent upon foreign trade,” Wooten said. “We export 25 percent of our pork products in North Carolina, and 80 percent of all of the tobacco that is produced in this state we export.”

North Carolina farmers grow 50 percent of all the tobacco grown in the United States, Wooten said.

“Where is it going? Obviously China,” Wooten said. “There are more people that smoke in China than we have in population in the United States. Any time you can export a small amount of a commodity to China, that’s a lot.”

“Every third row of the state’s grain crops has to be exported,” Wooten said.

“When people start talking about exports and trade, we’ve got to have it,” Wooten said. “We have a lot of farm meetings, but I can tell you one farm meeting that I don’t want to preside over is that farm meeting where we’ve got to decide here which third of you farmers we don’t need anymore because we can’t sell outside of this country. That’s why this whole discussion on NAFTA is so important.”

“We are particularly dependent in North Carolina on our trade with our neighbors in Canada and Mexico,” Wooten said. “They are two of our top trading partners. Almost a fourth, or 21 percent, of all of the agricultural exports that we ship out of this state go to Canada and Mexico.”

With 1,388 farms, about 84,161 in harvest acres, Wooten said Wilson County is one of the strongest agricultural counties in the state of North Carolina.

“The big number is that $144 million annually that agriculture and agribusiness contributes to the economy of your county,” Wooten said. “It’s strong and I believe it’s poised to remain strong into the foreseeable future.”

Agriculture is an $84 billion a year industry in the state and by far the largest industry in the state of North Carolina.

“About 17 percent — or one out of every five people that got up and went to work in North Carolina this morning — owe their jobs to agriculture and agribusiness,” Wooten said. “It’s huge. The goal of this agriculture industry is to reach $100 billion annually by 2020. I believe we can do that.”

According to Wooten, the important part of that is the farm gate value, which is about $12.5 billion annually.

“That’s the part that goes to the farmers and the producers in the state of North Carolina,” Wooten said. “The biggest challenge facing our farmers year after years is maintaining the profitability of agriculture and maintaining the profitability of our farmers.”

Wooten said farmers are not going to have sustainability without profitability.

Commodity prices have dropped significantly since 2013, Wooten said.

“Net farm income has decreased in the United States for our farmers by 46 percent, or $56 billion,” Wooten said. “That’s a big number. With that amount of decrease in farm income it puts a stress on our farmers in terms of debt-to-asset ratio. At the same time since 2006, while income has been dropping, farm debt has increased by $169 billion nationally. With farm income remaining flat in the years to come from now out through 2024, we’re hoping to hold our own. They don’t look like they are going down but they are certainly not going up significantly. With that kind of prognosis for the future of income, our farmers are going to have to watch their debt on equipment and real estate.”

Most of that debt, Wooten said, is not in real estate but in increased equipment debt.

The sector of agriculture that is under the most stress right now is row crops.

“Our row crop farmers, corn, soybean, wheat and primarily cotton, they are battling a saturated market,” Wooten said. “We are almost drowning in those commodities. With a saturated market, it brings low prices and a lot of stress.”

Wooten said the livestock and poultry sector is a bright spot.

“We know in this state, we know our swine and poultry is vertically integrated, but we are thankful that our farmers are going to be able to maintain those contracts and certainly some profitability for the integrators that are supplying contracts to our farmers,” Wooten said. “Certainly, our cattle producers and poultry and swine producers are in the best position this year because with the glut of grain, the feed costs go down.”

Diversification will help North Carolina farmers, Wooten said.

“We’re the third-most diverse state in the nation in terms of agricultural commodities. We grow everything from apples to zucchini,” Wooten said. “Our farmers continue to make judgments on those crops that have the possibility of producing the most revenue for them.”

What will help farmers is access to alternative energy, rural economic development, improvements to roads and bridges, good high-speed internet connectivity like rural broadband, a modern electric grid and access to natural gas.

“Farmers that rely on propane for curing tobacco, drying sweet potatoes, warming turkeys, pigs and chickens are at an economic disadvantage to those who have access to natural gas. The facts are there,” Wooten said. “We believe, and certainly there is room for disagreement, but we believe that this Atlantic Coast Pipeline is necessary and will benefit many farms and businesses in North Carolina.”

Immigration policy must be worked out and the guest worker program is vital to North Carolina farmers, Wooten said.

“This is an issue that has tremendous impacts in an agricultural economy particularly in the state like North Carolina,” Wooten said.

According to Wooten, a quarter of the $12.5 billion farm gate value comes from four crops, tobacco, Christmas trees, fruits and vegetables, which includes sweet potatoes and ag nursery and greenhouses.

All of them have labor in common.

“Our immigrant labor is huge in North Carolina and certainly we are the second largest user of H-2A labor,” Wooten said.

Wooten said gatherings like the farmer appreciation dinner are important.

“I think it’s important that we recognize our farmers for the hard work that they do and the many contributions that our farmers not only make to agriculture but certainly the contributions they make to the rural communities in the state of North Carolina,” Wooten said.

This is the eighth year the Farm Service Agency has actually hosted the Wilson County Farmers Appreciation event with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Wilson Soil and Water Conservation Service and the North Carolina Forest Service, according to David McBryde, Farm Service Agency director.