PERSPECTIVES Spring 2000: What's Past is Prologue
Perspectives On Line
NC State University Spring 2000 Contents Page Features What's Past Is Prologue The Farm of Tomorrow Wonderfully Functional Precision Farming is Focus of New Lab Teaching in the 21st Century Noteworthy News Awards Alumni Giving From the Dean College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  Photo by Herman Lankford

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What's Past Is Prologue

Photo by Herman Lankford

ither you have it or you donít: that heart, that passion for the job that makes your loyalists more loyal and evokes from your detractors a grudging respect. Itís the ability to inspire hope, joy and enthusiasm. Itís an intimate knowledge not just of subject matter but of the cares, needs and aspirations of the people you lead.

In the final analysis, itís a matter of doing the best with the tools youíve been given, getting the job done because itís yours to do and your responsibility to do it well.

Itís why Hemingwayís old fisherman Santiago, in The Old Man and the Sea, persevered to catch that marlin and bring it into port.

Jim Graham has much to be proud of as he heads into port after so many years of fighting the good fight for North Carolina agriculture and agricultural people. The milestones of success are many: from historic breakthroughs in animal health to the research programs that have enabled the state to become the nationís third most agriculturally diversified. They are and will be lasting monuments to his leadership.

But, like Santiago, he sees sharks approaching as he brings his prize home.

"Agriculture has been through tough times before, and weíve always come through," Graham says, "but things have changed and will continue to do so."

tís early March in the last year of his tenure as commissioner of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and James A. Graham is talking about the future.

As Graham envisions what tomorrow holds for North Carolina agriculture ó and for his successor óhe describes a landscape in which the challenges will be many and some unprecedented. And itís a landscape where the traditional collaboration between the NCDA&CS and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will be essential to hurdling obstacles.

"The main thing I want to see is the price of commodities go up," he says, zeroing in on one among many issues he will tackle all the way up to that post-election day when he officially retires from the office heís held for 36 years. "We produce the highest quality food for the lowest price in the world, but Iím afraid weíre going to lose our productivity. No industry can survive selling its products below the cost of production."

If this trend continues, he says, we will lose most of our small growers and may for the first time in our history face a time when we cannot feed ourselves from what we grow in this country. Furthermore, he says, "Farmland preservation people tell us that at the present time the United States is losing more than 50,000 acres of farm land every hour to non-farm use. Our children and grandchildren may need that land to grow our food. Otherwise we may have to depend on getting food surpluses from off-shore."

A continued collaborative research effort between the NCDA&CS and the university will provide many solutions, he believes. "For 36 years, that cooperative effort has been one of my goals. No other state in the nation has this relationship between its department of agriculture and the land-grant university like we have. Iím referring to the 16 research farms.

"Future legislators will need to be reminded that we have the abundance of food we have now because of this relationship. As the tight squeeze comes in, we must not neglect agricultural research. We need it to stay in business."

Painting an even bigger picture, he says, "During my tenure, tobacco has provided a living for many families. At the same time, it has provided many, many tax dollars to local, state and federal governments. If we lose our tobacco program, we may eliminate some of our tax dollars that will have to be made up somewhere else. We must work to open other export markets for tobacco and tobacco products in countries where there is little or no trade, especially China."

And what will happen without such measures? "Government programs will be cut because tax revenues don't come in."

The bottom line is, he says, "Agriculture must be kept strong for health programs, for education programs, for social programs, for university support, for the state to continue to prosper."

"That will be the charge to the new commissioner."

Pondering that point, he says, "I hate to be stepping out now. I would welcome the challenges."

raham has a detailed list of challenges at the ready.

In addition to the low product prices and threats to the tobacco program, among his greatest concerns for todayís agriculture are inadequate cost-of-production insurance for producers and a low appreciation for those who produce, process, protect, deliver and market the food supply.

"Every time we lose a small farmer," he says, "we stand the chance of having food prices increase or, in the long run, stand the chance of not having enough
to eat."

Graham believes it is imperative to come up with an insurance pro-gram for producers that will protect them against natural disasters like floods and hurricanes, from insects that cannot be controlled because some pesticides have been declared illegal, from diseases that have no known cure or from losses due to other uncontrollable risk factors.

"At least give them a level of protection equal to the actual cost of production. Donít wait till thereís a disaster to take action," he says.

There are many related issues and action items that, due to his dwindling time, will ultimately fall to his successor. "Disaster relief programs," he says. "We need an ongoing program funded and in place to cover losses."

Then thereís the issue of agricultural credit: "To operate, many farmers have borrowed from future generations by using the equity in their property to secure loans. We fear as many as 15 percent in eastern North Carolina will lose their farms, mainly due to floods. Eastern North Carolina was built on strong agriculture and must be revived on strong agriculture.

"One charge to the new commissioner will be to revive the east."

As soon as possible, he says, "We need to be very creative in planning and developing a tax policy for farmers that will allow rapid depreciation of farm machinery and equipment and tax credits for using special conservation methods to improve the environment."

Such a tax policy, he explains, would allow farms to be appraised for their current use value and not market value and would let farmers place part of their income in non-tax savings accounts to be used at retirement or "as a financial legacy, not just land, for their children."

International issues will take center stage for the new commissioner as well, Graham says. "Weíve gone from thinking at a county level, to states, to regions, to worldwide. Weíve got to find out what the world wants and market it."

Yet, at the same time, he says, "We must insist that agricultural trade policy be fair for all our farmers and not allow the import of products produced with unrestricted chemical use and underpaid forced labor."

Finally, his successor must enforce the challenge Graham has issued to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and others in Washington: "Advice and counsel from farmers and growers of all sizes need to be considered in the development of a new farm bill," Graham says. "Weíre going to wake up one day and not have enough food. If we donít make farming profitable again, even at a minimum level, we will lose much of this industry. We must reach a balance in agriculture where a soybean farmer can make a similar living to a poultry producer or where a dairy farmer can do as well as one raising beef cattle and hay.

"The TOP priority of the new century will be the new farm bill," he says vehemently. "Youíve got to have farm programs. I donít care what anyone says."

He pulls from his desk a page that reads, "To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often."

"Thatís from Winston Churchill, and I believe it," he says.

Last fall, when Graham announced he would retire at the end of 2000, one among the 10 candidates for his office commented that the commissioner "is a wonderful asset to North Carolina, but every good farm recognizes there comes a time to rotate crops."

Thatís a glib sound-bite, to be sure, with just the requisite amount of clever agro-imagery. But itís also laden with irony. For while the leadership has been consistent for three decades, the program has been one in which the crops have been constantly rotated, literally and figuratively.

Photo by Herman Lankford

Jim Grahamís tenure has been one marked with dynamic progress.

"Look at the change in the mix of crops we grow," he says. "In 1964, tobacco made up 46 percent of the cash crops from agriculture. Last year it made up 10 percent of our receipts. During that same time cash receipts from greenhouse and nursery crops grew from 1.5 percent to 12 percent. There has been a big shift from row crops to livestock, poultry and aquaculture enterprises."

And as proud as he is that North Carolina is first in the nation in turkeys raised, first in tobacco production and first in sweetpotatoes, he takes special pride in revealing that the state is the second-largest trout producer in the nation, producing five million pounds last year. "Weíre also second in Christmas tree production and cucumber pickles," he says. "We have diversified, and we continue to diversify."

But donít forget, he says, "Itís because of tobacco that we had the cash flow to go into other enterprises."

Since 1964, agriculture has grown as fast or faster than any other industry in the state. Cash receipts from agriculture were $1.2 billion in 1964; by 1998 that figure was $8.4 billion. Also during that time the number of farms dropped from 150,000 to fewer than 60,000.

"Because of agricultural research and changes in production and management practices, efficiency has increased many times," he explains. "Where a farmer used to produce enough for his family and 10 others, he now produces enough for that family and 130 other people. When I was growing up, it took half of what my father made to feed our family. Now we spend less than 10 percent of our take-home pay for food."

Even with all these changes, he says, farmers continue to produce an abundant supply of high-quality and safe food at the lowest price anywhere in the world ó and they do it under adverse weather conditions, dealing with diseases and insects no other business has to face.

"And they do it with a solid appreciation for protecting the environment," he says emphatically. "After all, farmers depend on the environment for a living."

Talk of the environment brings mention of another point of pride.

"At the beginning of the 21st century, this department of agriculture has one of the greatest agronomic divisions in the country," Graham says.

The Agronomic Division of the NCDA&CS provides science-based land-management information to all those who need it ó from large-scale farmers to homeowners and weekend gardeners, helping them all to make informed decisions about fertilization, liming, pest control, irrigation, waste management and related matters.

"The whole thing is recognizing where the problem is," says Graham, mentioning that farmers have often been the scapegoat for pollution problems that may be caused by municipalities. "A lot of folks donít want to admit they over-fertilize their lawns, for example," he says.

"Agriculture doesnít violate; we want to cooperate. We can now test soil and animal waste and determine the exact amount to apply to land so it will be completely taken up by the crop growing on that land, leaving none to run off into rivers and streams.

"To me, this is the greatest contribution to a cleaner environment that has been made by any single industry in the country."

And heís proud of the departmentís achievements in animal health, specifically the 1971 eradication of bovine brucellosis, saving the beef and cattle industry in the state; the 1974 USDA declaration that North Carolina was free of hog cholera; and, just this past December, the declaration that the state was free of pseudorabies in hogs for the first time in history. "This means that feeder pigs, top hogs or breeding animals can be shipped from North Carolina to any part of the world," he says.

Another significant milestone is the development of a program to eliminate the boll weevil in cotton ("On March 11, 1987, we held funeral services for the North Carolina Boll Weevil," he says), a program that not only eliminated the need to spray chemicals several times a year on every cotton plant, but also brought back the state production of cotton from a low of 30,000 acres in the 1950s to 800,000 acres in the 1990s. "We are beginning to see genetically modified seed that will eliminate further use of chemicals to control insects on many crops," he adds.

"Iím predicting that in the future youíll see continued growth in cotton as we compete worldwide."

arket globalization is just one among many of the current and the coming things heís got his eye on ó the innovations that will now be his successorís task to explore and implement. These include irradiation of food, bioinformatics, genetic engineering, flash freezing, electronic commerce, organic farming, ethnic food, direct marketing, global positioning systems technology, integrated pest management ... . He is excited about the genomics initiatives in the College and the potential for this new science in the service of agriculture, in leading to new, improved or alternative crops. The research developments and economic trends of the new century are very much in his thoughts.

Were he staying, those would be his new passions in the job that has evolved to fit him as perfectly as those size 15 cowboy boots ó a perfect fit that may never be replicated.

"I just hope those 10 candidates realize how much this office does," he says.

"The future has so many possibilities, and you have to adjust to them. You have to make it happen and be part of that change."

He gestures to a sign behind his desk: "90% Attitude. 10% Ability."

"I canít believe but that our future will be bright as long as we have the right attitude. Weíve got to be willing to change our pattern and solve these problems."

Asked about the biggest change of pattern thatís coming, he says, "Oh, it wonít be difficult to replace me," and offers a formula for being commissioner: "If you love your job, you can stand any kind of pressure. Just try to use practical, reasonable, common-sense judgment. "Youíve got to work at it and love it and dedicate yourself to doing the best thing humanly possible."

Thatís all.

"Iíve been able to meet so many goals," he says. "Graduating from N.C. State was one. Becoming commissioner of agriculture was another. Thirty-six years have just flown by.

"Itís been a good ride. The best is yet to be"

 


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