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After a two-day survey of crops in coastal counties, North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said tobacco was hit hardest in Hurricane Dorian.
Surrounded by row after row of drooping upper stalk tobacco leaves, Troxler was received by about 50 farmers, agribusiness representatives and state officials.
Troxler’s visit to Wilson was postponed a day when foggy weather temporarily grounded helicopters taking him and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis on an aerial tour of affected counties.
“We did get off the ground and fly all the way down to the coast,” Troxler said. “Of course, the closer you get to the sounds, the worse the damage is. But from what I have seen so far, it’s nothing like what Florence and Matthew were. There is more salvage value in crops it looks like to me than there was then, but I know as hard as times are, but any hit is a big hit.”
The gathering was at a Vick Family Farms field off Shallingtons Mill Road.
“I have had people say that this may be the new normal, and I sure hope it ain’t the new normal, but four hurricanes in four years and three of them major hurricanes, that’s tough to deal with,” Troxler said.
He said it was good news that North Carolina was the only state in the country that had a disaster program at the state level last year.
“We’ve got some money left in the program, and I wanted to explain that to you,” Troxler told the farmers.
Damage to crops last year was about $950 million, with some 7,500 people applying for assistance in the disaster program.
Troxler said it hasn’t been decided how to send out the remaining assistance money.
“So have input with your legislators on that,” Troxler said. “Whichever way they decide to go, I will be glad to send another check out. Hopefully that will happen very quickly.”
Troxler said the federal Farm Services agency is expected to roll out its disaster program as early as today.
“I hope that we get out of farming the mailbox, but I think right now that’s the only way to get by, I realize that,” Troxler said.
SEVERAL HARD HITS
He said he knows that farmers have been hit on many fronts.
“So pick one. Is it the hurricanes? Is it tariffs? Is it trade wars? Is it the low commodity prices? All of it combined has put us in a situation that takes us back to the ’80s, which was very devastating,” Troxler said.
Troxler is working with the Trump Administration to raise a tariff on Brazilian tobacco from 17 cents to $1 per pound.
“If you raise it to $1, it puts us on par with Brazil, almost dollar for dollar, and I think that would help,” Troxler said. “I sent that to the president to see what will happen, and I felt very good about it until the word came out that there was a deal with Brazil on ethanol, so it puts them in the place, are they going to look after tobacco farmers or corn farmers? You know what the answer is?”
Troxler said he has been in talks with the U.S. secretary of agriculture, senators and congressmen to try to figure a way to get tobacco farmers some type of disaster payment money.
“I hope that will be some help, but when it comes to federal programs, I can advocate and I can talk and I can educate, but I don’t have a way in how that money’s going to come down,” Troxler said.
AGRICULTURE ‘ON HOSPICE’
Farmer Jerome Vick told Troxler that “agriculture, as we know it, is on hospice.”
“If we don’t do something major, agriculture is a dying industry in eastern North Carolina. We spend our cash. We are burning equity like we are burning firewood,” Vick said. “It’s right at the end of the road unless something happens. The tobacco is what has brought us to where we are, but all of our crops are in bad shape. You have got farm families who are going to sell their family farm because they aren’t going to make it. That’s why I say we are on hospice.
“A tariff on imported tobacco is the only hope we’ve got to get us on par with these other countries,” Vick said. “These companies don’t love us, regardless of what we thought, and if we don’t do something to force their hand, we’re never going to get back in the tobacco business.”
Troxler said Vick was “exactly right.”
“I will tell you, after Florence the things I saw when I visited like this on many different farms, I saw tears in more people’s eyes than I had ever seen in my lifetime because of what had happened,” Troxler said. “But it’s like I said before. Pick what part it is. Is it the hurricanes? That’s part of it, but losing export markets, that’s another part of it. Low commodity prices, that’s another part of it.
“When you put all of it together, it’s a disaster waiting to happen, and that’s where we are,” Troxler continued. “I know a lot of you came through the 1980s and a lot of the things that happened then with interest rates at 18% or 20%, and the shakeout that occurred then. I think we are sitting right there at the edge of that again.”
Vick told Troxler that he appreciated the effort that Troxler put into supporting farmers last year.
“We are looking for another check any minute,” Vick said. “We all need an eight-row mailbox. But the ones from the feds, we are kind of disappointed that hasn’t come through.”