Thursday, May 17, 2018 The Farm to Fork Disconnect

The following commentary is by North Carolina Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend Thrive NC in downtown Raleigh. The event had some great food prepared by truly exceptional chefs, live music, a praiseworthy service project, and a summit to discuss food insecurity and childhood nutrition. As the leader of the state’s largest general agriculture non-profit and a farmer myself, I left that summit with a nagging question: where is the disconnect?

Let me explain.

Today’s farmers are growing the most affordable, abundant, and nutritious food in human history. And they are growing more of it while using less inputs thanks to advances in precision agriculture and biotechnology – advances that include everything from drones that help farmers target their water and fertilizer applications, to GPS-driven tractors that improve safety and efficiency, to GMOs that help reduce the need for chemicals while also increasing yields. It’s estimated that today one farmer feeds 155 people compared with only 26 people back in 1960.

Additionally, North Carolina is the third most diverse agricultural state in the nation, and our farmers are top producers of pork, poultry, sweet potatoes, trout, catfish, eggs, cucumbers, strawberries, blueberries, peanuts, and bell peppers. We also grow corn, wheat, tomatoes, watermelon, cabbage, squash, and apples; we raised 830,000 head of cattle and produced 965 million pounds of milk in 2016 alone.

It’s true that not all of this food stays within the state, or even the nation. Farmers feel the responsibility of feeding a growing world population, but the reality remains that they are running small businesses. This sometimes means exploring export markets, especially in times when commodity prices are so low, as they are now.

Despite these sometimes difficult circumstances, North Carolina farmers are doing a remarkable job growing the world’s food and fiber.

Yet last week I learned that North Carolina is the tenth hungriest state in the US, one of every four children face hunger on a regular basis, and approximately 1.5 million North Carolinians struggle to buy affordable and good-quality, fresh food. Those statistics are staggering, heartbreaking, and when taken together with what I know about North Carolina agriculture, those statistics are also bewildering.

Which takes me back the question that has been troubling me since the Thrive NC summit last Thursday – where is the disconnect between the nation’s ninth most productive agriculture state and the nation’s tenth hungriest population? And more importantly, how do we fix that disconnect?

I applaud the efforts of Thrive NC and the discussions it generated were certainly through-provoking. But perhaps my chief disappointment with the summit, and hopefully something that can be remedied at future events, was that more farmers were not included in the discussion. I know our farmers care deeply about feeding people and are passionate about what they do. I also know that they have valuable insights and experiences that will only strengthen and lend credibility to the conversation. And considering they are responsible for growing the vast majority of the food that we eat every day, I think they deserve to be part of the solution.

I realize that the challenge of ending hunger is complex. I understand that the paths that end in failure far outnumber the ones that end in success. I also know that it will take collaboration from countless individuals and groups with varied backgrounds, experience, and knowledge. For our part, North Carolina Farm Bureau is engaged and I hope we can help connect those North Carolinians who don’t have enough to eat with the abundant food and fiber our farmers work so hard to grow.