Ties That Bind

Date posted: August 16, 2010

Dr. Tom Monaco (right), CALS commodity relations director, confers with Jeff Mast, president of the N.C. Flower Growers Association, at the 2010 Landscape Color Field Day at JC Raulston Arboretum.Photo by Dave CaldwellDr. Tom Monaco (right), CALS commodity relations director, confers with Jeff Mast, president of the N.C. Flower Growers Association, at the 2010 Landscape Color Field Day at JC Raulston Arboretum.

Partnerships forged between the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and commodity groups benefit both.

Some 70 organizations that represent either various agricultural commodities produced in North Carolina or the state’s agriculture generally will hold annual meetings in 2010. College of Agriculture and Life Sciences representatives will attend all of these meetings.

The College devotes considerable time and effort to its connection to what are often known as commodity groups. In addition to annual meetings, College representatives participate in activities such as strategic planning and educational meetings.

“Our interaction with commodity groups highlights our connection to the state,” says Dr. David Smith, director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service. “This connection keeps the College grounded and focused within the state and keeps us working on things that are important to the state’s producers.”

Photo by Becky Kirkland

CALS’ Dr. David Smith (left) joins state commodity leaders at their annual meeting in May.

Staying connected in a state as agriculturally diverse as North Carolina can be a challenge, says Dr. Tom Monaco, the College’s director of commodity relations. Monaco has been working part time as commodity relations director since 2003. He is aided in this endeavor by Dr. David Monks, assistant director of the Agricultural Research Service, and Dr. Ed Jones, associate director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.

Monaco said there are approximately 95 North Carolina organizations that represent agriculture. Of that total, 50 to 60 organizations represent growers or producers of specific crops or animals. The remaining groups — such as the North Carolina Farm Bureau — represent agriculture generally.

In addition to participating in commodity group meetings, the College keeps in touch through field days at which faculty members whose work focuses on a particular commodity discuss their latest research or extension efforts. The College typically sponsors 15 or more field days annually on commodities important to North Carolina.

Monaco adds that the College also provides an annual professional development workshop each fall for commodity group leaders. These workshops typically draw 15 to 20 leaders, usually group executive directors or presidents
The College’s partnership with commodity groups is mutually beneficial. The groups provide much-needed funding for agricultural programs. In return, agricultural producers get new technology and knowledge. In addition to direct funding, commodity groups help leverage funding from other sources, including state and federal sources.

“Our programs wouldn’t exist without the agricultural industry,” says Monaco. “However, the industry wouldn’t advance as quickly without our programs.”

Photo by Becky Kirkland

In May, commodity leaders heard from CALS administrators and state agriculture leaders, including Larry Wooten (above), N.C. Farm Bureau president, and Steve Troxler (below), state agriculture commissioner.

Funding for agricultural programs has become particularly important in recent years as state funding that previously supported these programs has declined. North Carolina’s commodity associations and agriculture-related groups provide more than $5 million a year in support of the College’s students, faculty, research and extension programs. And over the years, more than 80 organizations have created endowments with a market value in excess of $10 million.

Among those organizations is the North Carolina Soybean Producers, which provided nearly $500,000 in 2009. Like a number of commodity groups, the Soybean Producers raise money with what is known as a “check off” system. Farmers agree to donate a percentage of crop sales or agricultural input purchases such as fertilizer.

“We fund research primarily in crop science, but our funding has spilled over into other departments, such as plant pathology and entomology,” says Charles Hall, chief executive officer of the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association. “We try to find the people in the university who are doing the type of research that will increase yield or address pest problems.”

In recent years, Hall added, his organization has begun providing $500 grants to Cooperative Extension agents for projects at the county level. Hall sees the funding his organization provides as an investment.

For the North Carolina Sweet-Potato Commission, partnering with the College is a way to help ensure the long-term viability of the state’s sweet potato industry, says Sue Johnson-Langdon, commission executive director.

The Sweet Potato Commission has established the Henry Covington Endowment Fund in the College and has raised approximately $700,000 toward a $1.3 million goal to support research and extension programs in sweet potatoes.

“We established this endowment for the long-term good of our industry,” Johnson-Langdon says. “Funding from the endowment will address our future needs in research and other areas. Our industry is looking forward.”

Photo by Becky Kirkland

State agriculture commissioner, Steve Troxler.

For agricultural programs, commodity group funding has become what Monaco calls “survival funding” as the state funding that once supported these programs has dried up. Perhaps Dr. Jim Dunphy, crop science professor and extension soybean specialist, puts it more succinctly when he says commodity groups are “a source of the dollars needed to do what we do.”

Dunphy’s work is illustrative of the return that commodity groups can get on their investment in the College. Beginning in 2002, Dunphy began looking at the amount of seed soybean growers plant. More and more growers were switching to what are known as Roundup Ready soybeans, soybeans that are genetically modified to resist Roundup herbicide.

Planting Roundup Ready soybeans simplifies weed control; producers can spray the crop with Roundup, killing weeds without harming the soybean plants. But Roundup Ready seed costs more than twice as much as regular seed. In field tests, Dunphy showed that growers could decrease seeding rates considerably and actually get higher yields. Based on crop estimates provided by Extension agents, Dunphy estimates that soybean growers who used lower seeding rates between 2006 and 2009 saw the total value of the crop increase by well over $45 million.

The partnerships the College has built with commodity groups give North Carolina’s agricultural community unusual access and input, producing a two-way stream of communications that benefits both parties.

As Dunphy puts it, “They get the answers to the questions they’ve got.”

Dave Caldwell

Sidebar:
Commodity leaders and elected officials gather for annual CALS updates and to meet Chancellor Woodson

Photo by Becky Kirkland

Chancellor Woodson greets commodity leaders.

When North Carolina’s commodity leaders gathered for their annual meeting at N.C. State University on May 7, the event drew more than 250 attendees, their largest meeting ever. Afterward, some noteworthy guests joined the group for a luncheon program and reception, where they all had the opportunity to hear from and meet N.C. State’s new chancellor, Dr. Randy Woodson.

Traveling from Washington, D.C., to take part in the meet-and-greet activities were Rep. Bob Etheridge and Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina; Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia; and Don Villwock, president of the Indiana Farm Bureau. Villwock, an alumnus of Purdue University who has known and worked with Woodson for years, was invited by N.C. Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten as a special surprise for the new chancellor. While a main purpose of the meeting was for commodity leaders to meet the chancellor, it was also an opportunity for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) administration to thank the group for their support of College programs and to convey news and status reports.

The morning meeting included an overview from CALS Dean Johnny Wynne and reports from Dr. Ken Esbenshade on CALS Academic Programs, Dr. Ed Jones on CALS Cooperative Extension and Dr. David Smith on the N.C. Agricultural Research Service. Wooten delivered Farm Bureau updates, and Steve Troxler, state agriculture commissioner, brought news from the NCDA&CS.

Wynne reviewed the teaching, research and extension mission of the College and told the group that N.C. State’s status as a land-grant institution is the key to all its activities, because “the land-grants were established to serve the citizens of the state.” He then thanked the commodity leaders for their partnerships and contributions to the College’s efforts in fulfilling the land-grant mission, noting that “commodity groups have provided $5 million annually in support of the College. … These dynamic partnerships have enabled us to create excellent programs that have impact.”
Describing the current economic challenges to the College, Wynne told the commodity leaders, “We’re going to need your help as the legislature deals with our budget in the coming year.”

During a question-and-answer session, commodity leader Debbie Stikeleather of Iron Gates Vineyards and Winery praised the CALS faculty and the Piedmont Research Station for valuable support of her wine-grape production. She also wanted to make sure the research station would stay in operation and not fall victim to budget-related closure. Smith assured her that “we have no plans to close the station,” and Troxler echoed that assurance, saying he had heard of no such closing and that “we’re committed to maintaining these research stations and making sure agriculture stays strong.”

After presentations by Wooten and Troxler, Wynne closed the meeting, telling the group, “We want to serve your needs in the best way we can. We don’t exist if we don’t serve you.”

Then at the luncheon, Woodson told the commodity group, “I came to N.C. State because of the land-grant tradition” — a tradition, he noted, that has remained vital “largely because you [commodities] have held our feet to the fire.”

Earlier, Etheridge, a CALS alumnus, had told the commodity leaders, “We’ve got to work smart and work together and continue to be creative and use the great resources that no one else in the world has — our great research universities.”

— Terri Leith

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