(WGHP) — I’m convinced Steve Troxler will always be, deep down in his heart, a farmer.
He was certainly that more than 35 years ago when I, as a young reporter in my first months working at WGHP, met him several times at his farm in the Browns Summit community in northeastern Guilford County.
Back then, Troxler was among the region’s major tobacco growers. Many considered him a local authority on the crop.
In the mid-1980s through the late 1990s, the future of tobacco was very much in the news, and Troxler never turned down an opportunity to express his concerns and opinions when I interviewed him for news stories I was assigned to produce.
Fast-forward to today. He’s about midway through his 5th term as North Carolina’s agriculture commissioner. He’s one of the most powerful figures in state government overseeing the state’s largest industry that last year had an economic impact of $95.9 billion.
His goal since becoming commissioner has been to take that number to $100 billion.
“We’re getting there,” he told me. “Had it not been for Hurricane Matthew, Hurricane Florence, Tropical Storm Michael and other tropical storms, I think we would already be there.”
Needless to say, it was a happy reunion when I met Troxler recently at the same farm he’s called home all these years. He’s never lived in Raleigh. On most days, he commutes from Browns Summit to his office in the state capital or works out of the agriculture department’s Reidsville office.
He and I had not met or spoken to each other in at least 30 years!
We joked about how we both have heads of hair that have turned significantly grayer.
He showed me the building out back that shelters his collection of antique, but still working, farm equipment. He built the structure himself using wood from old tobacco barns.
Inside the building is what you could call a banquet ball complete with a kitchen, tables and chairs. He and his wife rent it as an event venue.
It has a covered porch/patio on the other side that overlooks his expansive farmland. It was here we sat in rocking chairs and talked about the not-so-happy topic that prompted me to arrange this meeting.
Earlier this year, Troxler told one of our reporters he feared 2022 would be the most difficult year for North Carolina farmers since he’s been in the business. And that’s more than 50 years!
I wanted to hear more from him.
“Right now, the biggest problem is risk,” he said while rocking back and forth. “We have seen huge escalations of input costs, sometimes 200%, sometimes 300%.”
Input costs are what farmers have to pay out of their own pockets to grow crops.
The cost of diesel fuel, which runs most farm equipment, has set new records. So have fertilizer costs. Fertilizer alternatives (namely “chicken litter” and “manure”) are either in short supply or —to put it bluntly— stink.
“The question is, will the end product (the crops the farmers harvest and sell) be enough to cover those input costs?” he told me. “But then on the flip side of it, if it does cover those costs, certainly food prices are going to rise dramatically. And my great theory is that by this fall, we are going to see areas of the world that are hungry.”
And the input costs were high before Russia invaded Ukraine. According to Morgan Stanley, Russia exported nearly half of the world’s ammonium nitrate (a key ingredient of fertilizer) before the war. Combined, Russia and Ukraine exported 28% of fertilizers made from nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
And all of this is happening after the pandemic was traumatic for many North Carolina farmers as restaurants and institutional food (school cafeterias) operations closed and the demand shifted to grocery stores.
“We’ve got a lot of farmers in North Carolina who sold directly to restaurants (which closed during COVID),” Troxler said. “So we (the state department of agriculture) helped them transition into a different business plan with the products they grew.”
All this led to the last question I asked Troxler: what can we, as North Carolinians, do to help the state’s farmers stay in business during these difficult times?
“Anytime people buy and use local products, they’re putting money back into the local economy and helping farmers,” he told me. “What I’m telling people is if you can’t raise your own food, you need to be snuggling up to a farmer.”
I don’t know about that.
But I will probably head straight to the local farmer’s market this weekend!
To read more about the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Commissioner Troxler and agriculture’s importance to the state, click here.