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Commissioner of Agriculture

Food safety becomes a key issue

By Lynn Bonner
lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com

The state agriculture commissioner is the face of N.C. farming, but the candidates for election as the state's top farmer have more on their minds than sows and seeds.

Steve Troxler, the Republican incumbent, has put much stock in his concentration on food safety and his work with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the quick inspection of food during the contaminated produce scare last summer. He says he wants to expand this work in food safety in cooperation with the federal government.

“We'll work with them on better ways to do national recalls for products and do it quickly,” Troxler said.

Ronnie Ansley, a lawyer with an office in Raleigh, said he would emphasize developing a biofuels industry, which would open a new market for woody plants. And he wants to use the office to encourage students to consider agriculture-related careers in biotechnology, marketing and sales.

“It isn't just cows and plows anymore,” he said. “We can provide well-paying jobs for North Carolina's children.”

The candidates' approaches to the campaign are typical of their positions as incumbent and challenger. Troxler emphasizes keeping the department on track, while Ansley proposes pushing hard into a relatively new industry, biofuels.

Troxler, a former tobacco farmer who still grows wheat, soybeans and sweet potatoes on an 85-acre farm in Browns Summit, is running for a second term. He lost the general election in 2000 to Democrat Meg Scott Phipps, who was forced to resign before her first term ended because of a fundraising scandal. Troxler beat the Democrat appointed to take her place.

Ansley may be familiar to voters because of the frequency with which his name has appeared on ballots. He's sought a variety of offices since 2000.

“The only thing I would consider running for again is agriculture commissioner,” said Ansley, who has degrees in agricultural education in addition to his law degree. Ansley grows trees in Pamlico and Wake counties but has not harvested any.

Even with the broadening of the state's economic base, agriculture remains at its foundation. The state leads the nation in tobacco and sweet potato production and Christmas tree sales, and is second in hog and turkey production. Net farm income is about $3.7 billion a year – third in the nation.

But the state is losing small farms each year, as farms consolidate or land is sold for development.

Troxler pushed to develop a farmland preservation fund to buy farm easements. The fund had $7.6 million to distribute this year, far less than the $25 million to $30 million a year Troxler says it needs.

He points to expansion of international and local markets.

Agricultural exports accounted for $1.5 billion in 2003 and $2.1 billion in 2007. Troxler launched a marketing campaign that he said opened avenues for the sale of state produce in major grocery store chains, fancy restaurants and cafeterias.

Troxler says the state can work to develop biofuels, but he does not focus on it as Ansley said he would.

Ansley envisions the department helping develop a new state industry by encouraging landowners to expand cultivation of woody plants that could be used to make biofuels. He faults Troxler for not moving aggressively into the field.

A new industry will take time to grow, he said, but the agriculture commissioner could use the position to promote research and development.

“There is going to be money available to move us forward if we have someone who is willing to push the agenda in North Carolina,” he said.

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