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North Carolina ag’s united strategic plan

NC Ag Leads, sponsored by Gold Leaf Foundation, will refine diverse state's focus on agriculture goals and success.

John Hart, Associate Editor

May 7, 2024

6 Min Read
Ray Starling of NC Chamber
Ray Starling, NC Chamber general counsel and president of the NC Chamber Legal Institute, discusses Ag Leads at Imagine Ag Day March 28 at the SAS Campus in Cary. NC Chamber

At a Glance

  • The strategic planning initiative will consist of two phases.
  • In addition to production goals, the focus will be on the needs of the industry.

Anyone involved in agriculture in North Carolina knows their industry is not only the largest in the Tar Heel State but also the most diverse, producing everything from hogs and tobacco to corn and strawberries.  

And while each commodity produced in North Carolina faces unique challenges, many of the issues cut across commodities and impact the industry statewide. And the question arises, “Is there a way where all of agriculture in North Carolina can come together to form a strategic plan to ensure that the state’s largest industry continues to thrive, prosper, and grow?” 

For many in North Carolina agriculture, the answer is “yes,” and therein lies the creation of NC Ag Leads, a new strategic planning initiative sponsored by Golden LEAF Foundation. The program is set to position the state’s number one economic driver for continued success. It launched in November with numerous focus groups, planning sessions, and stakeholder meetings held since then and still more planned. 

Program phases 

Phase one of NC Ag Leads focuses on researching and discerning opportunities, barriers, and alignment within North Carolinas’ agriculture industry, and will culminate at the end of June. Pending steering committee review and approval, phase two will consist of solving and executing initiatives identified in phase one. Phase two begins in July and concludes in January 2025. 

At the North Carolina Commodity Conference at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in Durham Jan. 11, Farm Bureau’s Killian explained that the idea for NC Ag Leads came out of a strategic planning retreat for the board of the Golden LEAF Foundation in January 2023. Golden LEAF Chairman Don Flow asked if North Carolina has an agricultural strategic plan, and if not, how his organization could help. 

This led to discussions with representatives including Agriculture Commissioner Troxler, Farm Bureau President Harding, and the NC Chamber’s Starling, and it was decided that a comprehensive strategic plan was indeed needed for North Carolina agriculture.  

Starling explained that leaders at Golden LEAF and others recognize that agriculture is “not only the number one industry in North Carolina, it is absolutely disproportionately the number one industry in many of our rural counties.” So, a plan was needed to strengthen the state's top industry, amid the rapidly growing population.  

“As an industry some of the things we are competing and dealing against are common across the industry, although sweetpotato may be dealing with this one particular pest, the swine industry may be dealing with something else, and the egg folks something else, but there are bound to be issues that cut across all of those different commodities, all of those different communities. What are they and are there some of them that we can do something about at a statewide level?” Starling said in an interview with Southeast Farm Press.  

Goals beyond increased production 

Starling said both crop and food animal producers know they will need to produce more, but goals move beyond increasing production. Regardless of the commodity produced or operation size, all farmers recognize the need to remain profitable. 

“I think we have a lot of farmers that would tell you they’re producing more bushels per acre than they ever have, but that’s not going to be enough to stay in business if the profitability piece isn’t there as well. Whatever we do, it’s got to fit in this paradigm of making us a not only better producers, but certainly more profitable producers.” 

So, the next question was which issues to address with the strategic plan. 

“The number one issue is workforce. It’s people. And it’s in every stage of the industry,” Starling says. 

“On the talent piece, is there some sort of alignment work we could do that would allow the systems responsible for producing our talent to be more in tune with what the industry actually needs?” 

The second issue is the land competition issue. Starling says this “has been louder than I thought it would be” in the various focus groups held so far with farmers from even the most rural parts of the state raising concerns. 

“It mostly centers around housing, sometimes industry, and sometimes renewable energy. So, what do we do about that? What does that mean? Is there a difference in policy that we need to adopt that would help us stem some of that?” Starling says.  

Vision statement 

Killian says the sponsors of the strategic plan want to discern the next big question for North Carolina agriculture and what can be done to ensure industry sectors remain viable and profitable.  

She says they established a vision statement to direct that effort: “At the conclusion of this project, the North Carolina agriculture community will have agreed to a set of priorities that are both aspirational and which if given effect, would significantly strengthen the productivity, economic vitality, and community spirit of our sector.” 

Killian says the workforce issues go beyond just on-farm labor shortages, but to the processing and service sides as well. She notes that focus group findings show fewer people are going into the work to support the farmer, and most are prioritizing profits. 

Starling adds that the first question raised in most of the focus groups held so far is: “What do you believe is the key strength of North Carolina agriculture?”  

Starling says 90% of the time the answer was North Carolina agriculture’s diversity. 

The state is diverse in crop production numbers, its different soils, varied climates and topography, and farm sizes. Starling says these differences, while strengths, also make it more difficult to formulate a strategic plan. 

“If you compare us to some of those Midwest giants where it’s corn, beans, wheat, when you raise the price of corn 70 cents per bushel, you’ve given those guys a bonanza. In North Carolina, it’s more complicated than that,” he says.  

Unique community spirit 

Starling says there is a unique community spirit found in agriculture, often not found in other sectors such as banking, construction, retail, or dentistry. 

“Across the leadership level, at least, there is a lot of kinship in the space, and we want to leverage and take advantage of that. I think that is going to be relied on. The only way to keep these discussions going is frankly that we kind of like each other, and we like what we’re working on,” he says.  

Ag Leads is sponsored by the Golden LEAF Foundation with support from the NC Chamber Foundation, North Carolina Farm Bureau, and Google.  

Ray Starling, NC Chamber general counsel and president of the NC Chamber Legal Institute; and Laura Kilian, associate state legislative director at North Carolina Farm Bureau; will lead the NC Ag Leads strategic planning process. The planning is directed by steering committee members North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, North Carolina Farm Bureau President Shawn Harding, NC Chamber President and CEO Gary Salamido, and Golden LEAF board members Lawrence Davenport, Laurence Lilley, and Don Flow, and Golden LEAF President and CEO Scott T. Hamilton. 

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About the Author(s)

John Hart

Associate Editor, Southeast Farm Press

John Hart is associate editor of Southeast Farm Press, responsible for coverage in the Carolinas and Virginia. He is based in Raleigh, N.C.

Prior to joining Southeast Farm Press, John was director of news services for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C. He also has experience as an energy journalist. For nine years, John was the owner, editor and publisher of The Rice World, a monthly publication serving the U.S. rice industry.  John also worked in public relations for the USA Rice Council in Houston, Texas and the Cotton Board in Memphis, Tenn. He also has experience as a farm and general assignments reporter for the Monroe, La. News-Star.

John is a native of Lake Charles, La. and is a  graduate of the LSU School of Journalism in Baton Rouge.  At LSU, he served on the staff of The Daily Reveille.

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