With a growing population and need for more infrastructure, N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler urged more state investment in three department areas during a joint House and Senate Agriculture Committee meeting last week in Raleigh: department staff, farmland preservation, and agriculture research.
Troxler told lawmakers that while he is not opposed to growth and development, the influx of companies and people to North Carolina over the last several years necessitate the investments. He questioned whether the existing infrastructure can support such rapid development while continuing to support the existing agriculture and agribusiness base.
He touched on the rolling blackouts that many North Carolinians experienced over the Christmas holidays and the current issues with the power grid in the state. With increased population and business growth and the push to transition to electric vehicles, he asked if there would be enough power generation or power infrastructure in place to handle continued growth.
shortage of roads, water, and staff
Troxler also talked about the infrastructure of roads, with traffic increasing every day across the state, and where water supplies will come from if there is another drought, like the one Raleigh experienced in 2011.
He turned to the first need of his department, more investment in his staff, by requesting $7 million to help increase pay across his 2,033-person agency. He said he made a request last year to raise pay levels in the department, but the need has intensified.
There are currently 278 vacancies, with a turnover rate including transfers of 19%. When the department finds a qualified candidate they would like to hire, they decline over salary.
Troxler said not only are their salaries not competitive with the private sector, but they are also not competitive with other state agencies, school systems, or with county governments.
He cited an open Med Lab Supervisor position, which has been vacant for 2.5 years, in which a doctorate degree is required, which was declined by two candidates due to the $70,000 salary.
Troxler cited that 70% of the department’s employees are below the midpoint in their pay ranges, and not just new employees with minimal experience. Other troubling statistics include that 9% of employees could retire right now with full benefits, 11.5% could retire with full benefits in the next year, and 25% within the next five years.
Interest in open positions has also dropped steadily, from 22,338 applications in 2019 to 13,574 in 2022.
All of these issues could create a ripple effect.
Troxler said the workload continues to expand for many department areas, and people are being asked to do more and more. And when positions are not filled, or qualified people leave for another position, things like inspections are not happening, and testing samples and program services are delayed.
NC leads in potential farmland loss by 2040
Troxler next focused on farmland preservation, which has been a priority of his since he first took office. He asked the General Assembly for $15 million in recurring funding for Farmland Preservation.
Currently, there are 8.3 million acres of farmland across the state, and in 2022, the department topped 30,000 acres protected through the Ag Development and Farm Preservation Trust Fund since its beginning.
In the department’s most recent farmland preservation funding cycle, they received 84 applications, 67 of which were for perpetual easements, totaling $20.2 million.
Farmland preservation may be at risk despite those numbers due to economic progress and clean energy initiatives.
Troxler said that a recent article noted that North Carolina is in the running for 18 major economic projects that would attract manufacturing facilities.
Projects include VinFast, an electric vehicle manufacturer planning to build a Chatham County plant on nearly 2,000 acres. It was reported last week that those plans may be in jeopardy as the company said it will hold off producing vehicles at the proposed plant until 2025.
Work is also underway for a $1.3 billion 1900-acre Toyota electric vehicle battery plant in Randolph County. A total of 280 acres were purchased in the Research Triangle Park for the planned Apple campus. And in Johnston County, a planned multi-use waterfront development at Flowers Plantation that at completion would include 1,000 new condos, townhomes, and apartments would add to the already existing development in this area, with the entire site being 3,000 acres.
Troxler said those are just a few examples that underscore the urgency of preserving farmland for future agricultural and forestry production.
He reported that in July, the American Farmland Trust’s report “Farms Under Threat 2040” noted that North Carolina ranks second in the country in potential farmland loss by 2040. It also projected that 1.1 million acres of North Carolina farmland would be converted from agricultural use or 13.25%. The figure was based on current development numbers, but the land loss could increase to 1.6 million if development increases or over 19.2%.
Those numbers don’t include the amount of farm and forest land that has been lost to solar development, which Troxler estimates is over 45,000 acres.
He said a key buzzword we hear about today is climate change, and ironically, agriculture and forest lands already sequester 26 % of carbon emissions. “Every time we remove ag land and forest land, we are contributing to more carbon in the atmosphere,” he said.
The final request he had for investment was in agricultural research. He stated the global population is growing and will need more food, with the United Nations predicting the need for 75% more by 2050. He said the research will help meet the demand.
Troxler said the economic impact of agriculture and agribusiness in North Carolina is $92.9 billion, and it may have hit $100 billion in 2022. It is an industry that accounts for one-sixth of the state’s income and employment, again stressing the need for more investment at such a critical time in its history.
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