Brent Jackson was elected to the North Carolina Senate in 2010 and is currently serving his fourth term representing Duplin, Johnston, and Sampson counties. He is the co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations/Base Budget Committee and serves on numerous other committees as well.
Jackson and his wife Debbie are first generation farmers, starting Jackson Farming Company in Sampson County in 1981. They currently grow watermelons, cantaloupes, honeydews, strawberries, pumpkins, corn, wheat, soybeans, peanuts, flue-cured tobacco, occasionally cotton, and various other crops.
Question #1: There are only five North Carolina legislators (about 2% of the General Assembly) who list farming as their occupation. As a farmer, what perspective do you bring to the General Assembly? Conversely, is there anything you’ve learned as a legislator that has given you new perspective on the farm?
There are a wide variety of backgrounds amongst my fellow legislators, and I believe that everyone’s individual and unique experiences are a source of value. As a farmer, I have tried to ensure that my colleagues know where their food comes from and the work that goes into putting food on the shelves. I have also made it a point to stress the goodness of American agriculture and the wonderful and exciting career opportunities that exist, especially for young people.
Question #2: In your opinion, what is the most significant state-level issue facing farmers in North Carolina? And what is one issue that may not be on the front-burner for farmers that you think they need to pay more attention to? Why?
I think there are several main issues that we will have to continue to work on at the state level. The first is labor, although mainly a federal issue and President Trump and Congress are working on a solution. However, it is important that from a state level, we are careful not to pass laws making it more difficult for farmers to use a legal workforce. Without a reliable and legal workforce, crops cannot be harvested.
We must also make sure that our regulatory framework is set up to foster growth in the industry and recognize that one-size-fits-all regulations rarely work in farming. Water rights will continue to be an issue that we must remain vigilant on. It will be important for farmers to make their voices heard as the EPA goes about reviewing and rewriting the Waters of the US (WOTUS) rule.
Farming is a way of life in rural North Carolina, and we must do a good job working with our urban citizens to ensure that rural and urban North Carolina works in harmony.
Another issue that we must tackle to ensure the future of farming is the average of the farmer, which in North Carolina is in the mid-50s. Too many of our children in rural communities are moving off the farm and to the cities. It is crucial that we make sure we inspire the next generation of farmers and expose our children to the career options that the ag industry offers. We must also make sure that we help first-generation farmers overcome the barriers to entry, especially given the price of equipment and land.
Question #3: Obviously, you’re very involved in agriculture policy at the legislature. What is another policy area you spend a lot of time working on?
As a co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, the budget is one of my largest focuses. We have made it a priority to invest wisely in key government programs like education, transportation, and public safety, while eliminating wasteful spending and streamlining government. When I first took office, our state faced a nearly $2.5 billion deficit and we lacked the savings to fill the hole. This past year, a bill I sponsored became law, which moves savings to the forefront of the budget process, and I am happy to report that at nearly $1.83 billion we now have the most in savings ever!
Question #4: North Carolina’s agricultural community has a goal of becoming a $100 billion industry. How can the legislature help farmers and agribusinesses achieve that goal?
Since 2011, we have passed significant reforms in the agriculture sector. From our annual Farm Act, regulatory reform bills, and numerous stand-alone pieces of legislation, agriculture is in a much better place than before to achieve this goal. Going forward, it is going to be crucial to ensure that farmers have access to the inputs they need to be successful.
Whether it is a stable labor force, sufficient water, or having access to the most recent technology, the industry will rely on it all to continue to expand. I also believe that there is a huge untapped sector of the ag industry in value-added production that will help us grow the industry to $100 billion a year.
Question #5: Earlier we asked about how your experiences as a farmer give you a unique perspective in the General Assembly. Despite that, why is it important for you to hear from other farmers about issues affecting their farming operations? What advice/tips would you offer farmers that might help them give their legislators a better understanding of the challenges and rewards associated with farming?
North Carolina has the 3rd most diverse crop selection in the country, so every farmer has a different set of issues they face. The same is true for our terrain; we all know that farming in the red clay of western part of the state is different from farming in the sandy soil of the east. With that said, there are many of the same issues that all farmers across the state face, and this is why it so important to hear from other farmers and ensure that we speak with a unified voice.
My advice to my fellow farmers would be to get to know your representatives and spend time with them. Personal relationships are key. I would also like to add that my door is always open and my staff and I are more than willing to help if you have an issue or concern.
Answers modified slightly for format.