Shawn Harding couldn’t have taken over as president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau president at a more difficult time for agriculture: low commodity prices, ongoing trade skirmishes and nuisance lawsuits are just some of the challenges.
Add to the mix the coronavirus crisis, and it’s safe to say that Harding certainly has his work cut out for him as head of the state’s largest general farm organization and a leading provider of insurance to North Carolina residents.
The good news is Harding says he is up to the task and both North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation and North Carolina Farm Bureau Insurance Companies and affiliated corporations are financially secure and sound.
Fact is, North Carolina Farm Bureau, the nation’s second largest Farm Bureau with more than 570,000 members (second only to the Tennessee Farm Bureau) is also the nation’s fastest growing Farm Bureau. Harding emphasizes that Farm Bureau is very strong, in good shape and in a good position to serve its farmer members in these difficult times.
North Carolina Farm Bureau Insurance sells more than $1 billion of property-casualty insurance annually, with revenue climbing 22 percent over the last five years. It trails only State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. and Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. in volume in the state. It has 1.1 million policyholders who buy coverage on more than one million vehicles, about 400,000 homes and 14,000 farms.
“We’re doing a lot of things right. Our strength comes from our county Farm Bureaus; we have some really great county Farm Bureaus,” Harding said in an interview March 18 with Southeast Farm Press that had to be conducted over the phone instead of in person due to the social distancing brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are all going to be tested with this new world and coronavirus. I’m confident we are going to come through it. We’re going to be a strong Farm Bureau and the county Farm Bureaus will be the first in line to help with their communities and do what needs to be done,” Harding emphasized.
Harding took over as North Carolina Farm Bureau president on Dec. 10 at the group’s 84th annual meeting at the Joseph S. Koury Convention Center, Sheraton Greensboro Hotel at Four Seasons when 552 voting delegates elected the Beaufort County farmer to succeed retiring president Larry Wooten, who served for 20 years.
Harding is the 12th president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau since it was founded in 1936.
Leave the Farm
At the time of his election, Harding said the opportunity to lead North Carolina Farm Bureau is the only thing that could make me leave the farm. Harding was formerly Beaufort County Farm Bureau President and chairman of the North Carolina Farm Bureau Resolutions Committee.
He also previously served on the North Carolina Farm Bureau Board of Directors and as a member of various state advisory committees.
He also serves on the board and trade committee of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Prior to taking over as president, Harding served on staff as public policy director for the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation.
Harding said he is pleased because the farm remains in the family, with son Billy running the operation. Harding’s wife Tracey is also involved in the operation, but Farm Bureau president clearly is a full-time job for Harding.
In addition to son Billy, Shawn and Tracey Harding have another son, Jonah and a daughter, Mandi and two grandchildren, Zoey and Russell.
“This job is keeping me pretty busy so I’m not going to be involved. I do get to go home and visit,” he said.
Southside Farms is located near Chocowinity in Beaufort County. Harding farmed tobacco and other crops with his brother until the late 1990s when they transitioned to fruits and vegetables. Harding also worked with his father on the farm prior to graduating from North Carolina State University with a degree in Field Crops Technology in 1988.
The Harding’s planted their last tobacco crop in 2004. Today, strawberries are their main crop, but they also grow blueberries, blackberries and greenhouse tomatoes.
Harding said the work of Farm Bureau remains the same: “To help our farmers; that’s what we’re here to do.”
He says the North Carolina Farm Bureau remains a strong and respected voice for farmers and rural North Carolina in the North Carolina General Assembly and this legacy of advocacy for members will continue and grow stronger both in Raleigh and in Washington, D.C. Still, programs that serve members are key to Farm Bureau’s mission.
The Young Farmers and Ranchers Program and LEAD leadership development program for farmers age 35 to 50 who move out of the YF&R program are just two Farm Bureau programs that are important to Harding as president. Programs for Farm Bureau women are also vital.
“I’m a product of the YF&R program, so it is near and dear to my heart. We believe strongly in leadership development and this continues to be a big part of Farm Bureau,” Harding said.
Harding emphasized that the strength of Farm Bureau comes from county Farm Bureaus. He said his goal is to strengthen the county Farm Bureaus which will in turn strengthen the state Farm Bureau. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic which put restrictions on his travel, Harding visited county Farm Bureaus across the state to introduce himself and listen to the concerns of county Farm Bureau leaders.
“North Carolina is a big state with a lot of people. We put that on hold for now. We will pick it up again, hopefully this summer or earlier. We want to be a stronger organization at the local level. That’s what makes us strong at the state level,” Harding said.
Folks who are active in Farm Bureau often say Farm Bureau is like family. It’s a refrain you hear in virtually all of the 50 state Farm Bureaus across the country. Harding agrees and says Farm Bureau is family
“From being a farmer for 30 years and then coming into this role, sometimes you can feel isolated on the farm. You think nobody knows what I’m going through, nobody cares. The big thing I would leave people with is that we care, North Carolina Farm Bureau cares. We have an awesome staff here that goes to work every day for farmers all across the state and for our rural citizens as well. We do care,” Harding said.