Agriculture is important to a rural community and a strong rural community is vital to the future of North Carolina. Rural areas provide the state with the food we eat, green spaces, tourism, recreation, and hopefully clean a clean water source. Rural communities need the same things urban areas need and that is jobs, education, health care services, utilities, and infrastructure. We need to continue to expand public internet to rural areas until every community has access to broadband internet. Just as agriculture provides stability, jobs, and products for the community, the community provides jobs for small farmers who need additional income to pay their bills. We need to build partnerships between agriculture and the business community by engaging local politicians and chambers of commerce to encourage them to promote the use of locally produced farm products. Sustainable agriculture ventures need to be expanded throughout the state. The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project in Asheville is a great example of a successful project that links local farmers with local markets that helps to build healthy communities through connections to local food.
We have an abundant, nutritious, and affordable food supply in North Carolina. We need to find a way to get excess food that is produced into the hands of families that don’t have enough to eat. There is a lot of food wasted at the farm through no fault of the farmer. Some of the food produced by a farmer may not fit the size or shape needed by a retailer or the price the farmer is offered does not justify the cost of harvest. This food is still safe and nutritious We need to find ways to reduce the waste thereby increasing the amount of utilized production per acre, generate more income for the farmer, and have additional food available to feed the hungry.
Another issue we have to address in the urban-rural divide we have in North Carolina. Recent data shows that as urban areas are gaining population at almost record levels while rural communities are actually losing population. As a result rural towns and communities have lost local business, experienced a decline in county tax bases, lost local hospitals, and have seen young people leave the community and not return. Between 2000 and 2018 private employment has grown 30% in large urban counties and fell around 6% in rural counties. So, what can we do. Rural areas must have access to broadband internet, increased medical providers, jobs, better transportation, affordable housing, and reliable utilities. We start by making our farms profitable again, finding new crops and increasing markets for those crops, adding value added products, finding agricultural related fields that interest young people , creating jobs through agricultural related businesses, and promote agritourism. It will not happen overnight, but it can be done. As an example, if we continue to expand specialty crops we can put farmers back to work on farms that can generate a profit and provide additional jobs. We will need businesses to process and package these products.
The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, other state and local agencies, and tourism groups must work together to do a better job promoting agricultural related tours. This includes wine tours. North Carolina has over 186 wineries that we can showcase and most of them are located in rural communities. The wine industry generates $1.9 billion to the economy of North Carolina, but has the potential for much greater growth. We need to enhance the reputation of our wineries as a high quality producer of wines and grapes so we can increase our market share in the US and beyond. For those wineries that want to continue to market locally we will continue expand local wine tours. These tours can be used as one of the tools for rural community development and to provide more income to local economy. We need a commissioner who understands and can work with the wine industry. I live in the heart of the Yadkin Valley American Viticulture Area and have worked with grape growers while employed by the U.S Dept. of Agriculture.
I believe that we can and must do a better job of educating the public about the importance of agriculture. I will advocate adding a course on the history of agriculture in North Carolina to elementary schools and taking the children on tours to local farms. Many of the children in school today do not know where eggs, milk, cereals, and vegetables come from. We need to take a look at our vocational agriculture courses and make sure they continue to reflect current needs and then recruit students for these courses. I will encourage our community colleges to add more agricultural related courses and degrees. This is important because not everyone can afford to attend four year colleges.
These are just a few ways we can continue to strengthen and revitalize our rural communities. The bottom line is it will take a cooperative effort from many areas using every resource available. I believe that strong rural communities are necessary for the future of North Carolina and I will help to coordinate the joint partnerships needed to provide sustainable rural communities in North Carolina.