Event explores ways to move agriculture forward

Taylor Holenbeck, Happy Dirt grower services coordinator, called for more support for organic and small farms during his presentation at the NC Chamber’s Imagine Agriculture Day on March 28 in Cary. (Ena Sellers / North State Journal)

CARY — Agricultural leaders and industry experts were invited last month to NC Ag Leads: Imagine Agriculture Day at the SAS campus in Cary, where national thought leaders spoke about the future of agriculture and the challenges faced by today’s farmers, engaging participants in thought-provoking conversations about moving the industry forward.

Ray Starling, general counsel of NC Chamber and president of its Legal Institute, provided a brief overview of the program and how the ag sector can leverage resources and knowledge “in the face of daunting challenges to maintain and increase our productivity and our profitability.”

Golden LEAF Foundation president and CEO Scott Hamilton spoke about the Golden LEAF’s strategic plan to help the state continue as a leader in agriculture, leveraging the knowledge from those deeply involved in the industry from across the state.

“We need to focus on what North Carolina can do better than anyone else and deliver a road map of clear and actionable steps,” said Hamilton.

Rowing together

Marshall Steward, Kansas State University senior vice president for executive affairs and a Sampson County native, spoke about the importance of planning and adapting to serve future needs and how people who understood the need were able to move the needle.

“The biggest mistake we could make,” he said, “is not to do anything. … We’ve got to remember that change is better than extinction because that could happen. We’ve got a growing population around the world. We know that it’s going to continue to grow.”

Steward also said environmental changes are impacting agriculture.

“If you look at crops and how they’re moving across North America, north into Canada — something’s changing … and we must adapt to that. We also have regenerative agriculture and soil health and how we deal with that, making sure the land is preserved.”

Steward spoke about innovation and community development, encouraging participants to think about the horsepower they have with 16 UNC system campuses, 58 private universities and 58 community colleges.

“You’ve got great diversity. … You’ve got soil, climate, elevation,” he said.

Steward told the audience to position themselves at the intersection of food and health, and to create a research agenda for food and agriculture in the state.

N.C. spotlight

Taylor Holenbeck, Happy Dirt grower services coordinator, spoke about the organic wholesaler business’ humble beginnings working out of a farmers’ cooler with a Golden LEAF Foundation grant and a partnership with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.

The company trains farmers who want to grow organic produce and works with the Fair Food Program certifying farms to promote farm worker well-being and safety. Holenbeck shared that they do weekly production planning with all their farmers so each knows what the company will buy from them, and each farm is prioritized for various products.

Holenbeck said the aging farmer population — with a national average age of 58 — is an industry challenge. (Their farmers are, on average, 46 years old).

“North Carolina is ranked second in the nation for farmland loss, losing around 1.2 million acres every year to development,” he said. “Farmers have the highest suicide rates of any occupation in America. We all need to let that soak in and really consider how we’re going to support our farmers,” said Holenbeck, who also warned of soil degradation.

“We champion organic farming and regenerative farming, so let’s engage in those movements, but also on building our local and regional food systems.”

Holenbeck shared that they would like to see more support for organic and small farms, more focus on sustainable practices, farmer incubator programs, prioritizing farmers’ physical and mental health, food waste initiatives to redirect imperfect produce and revitalize rural communities by looking at the diversity that can be grown, and state-funded purchasing.

“Up to 40% of our food is wasted in America,” he said.

Holenbeck hopes to create an incubator farm through Happy Dirt, training farmers and providing them access to land so they can grow for the company.

“Let’s look at conservation trusts,” he said. “Let’s look at redistribution of land so there is more access to land for people who don’t have generational access and giving marginalized farmers a chance to grow and our communities to thrive.”

Holenbeck said a study in Brazil about land that was monocropped around cities showed “the temperature was 10 degrees lower where there were small farms around large cities,” said Holenbeck. “We need to build more small farms and medium-sized farms. We need our large farms, too, but we just need more access to land for this new generation.”