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Meet the woman running for NC Ag commissioner to empower rural residents

Meet the woman running for NC Ag commissioner to empower rural residents

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By Daily Yonder

March 27, 2024

It was a rainy January morning when Taber took her campaign efforts up the mountain from her residence in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to the rural town of Spruce Pine, the seat of Mitchell County. The local Democratic Party invited Taber to speak at a Q&A style event at the public library, where a handful of residents welcomed Taber to town with two fresh pots of coffee and lots of chatter about the upcoming March primaries.

After the opening pledge of allegiance, Taber stood to introduce herself to the listeners. Both the American and the North Carolina flags hung from tall poles behind her. Taber said she grew up moving around a lot because her father was in the military, which gave her the opportunity to work on farms all over the country. That’s one of her strengths, she said, because it gave her the chance to see what worked and what didn’t on farms.

After spending time in the field, Taber earned a doctorate in plant medicine from the University of Florida in 2011. She now runs a consulting business where she helps farmers figure out how to make their operations profitable. Together, her clients are worth over $4 billion.

“I’m happy to say that all of my clients are still in business, which is weird in agriculture,” Taber said. “Building rural livelihoods is the thing we know how to do. It’s not rocket science.”

In North Carolina, the commissioner of agriculture is elected by voters to serve a four year term, in contrast to most other states, where the position is appointed by governors. Commissioners of agriculture are elected to work on improving food supply and enforcing certain regulatory programs. And Taber has a lot of ideas about how she plans on fulfilling those job responsibilities, which she sees as crucial to the economy of North Carolina.

But to do that, Taber said she has to confront people’s expectations about who typically holds that position.

Garnering Rural Support Is the Easy Part

Jan Hamilton, asked Taber how she plans to gather support from people in places like rural Mitchell County, who tend to vote Republican. Hamilton, a Democrat, is currently running for a county commissioner in a heavily Republican county that favored Trump by a 58 point margin in 2020.

But Taber told Hamilton she isn’t nervous about getting the rural vote, even though she’s a Democrat. It’s the urban and suburban vote she has to fight for.

Meet the woman running for NC Ag commissioner to empower rural residents
Sarah Taber speaks at a meet and greet with the Mitchell County Democratic Party at the public library in downtown Spruce Pine, North Carolina. (Photo by Sarah Melotte / The Daily Yonder)

Almost 80% of North Carolina’s population lives in cities and suburbs, according to the Office of Management and Budget 2013 list of metropolitan areas. It’s the metropolitan voters that Taber needs to target if she wants to swing the election in her favor, she said.

“Folks in rural areas get what I’m saying,” Taber said later in a phone interview with the Daily Yonder.

Taber said incumbent Steve Troxler fits the image of what many voters imagine when they think of someone who works in agriculture –  he’s a man and a Republican. But Taber thinks she’s a better fit for the job, given her track record with arming farmers with the tools and knowledge they need to be successful.

Strengthening an Agricultural Economy Is not “Rocket Science”

Taber said crops like vegetables, fruits, and nuts are more profitable per acre than crops like tobacco, which has been a historic staple crop for North Carolina. But it can be intimidating for farmers to make a transition from tobacco or other row crops like corn and soybeans, to something unfamiliar.

“I think there’s a reluctance to do things differently from your neighbors,” Taber said. “If you see your neighbor is doing something and they’re not dead yet, then if I copy them, I’ll be fine. Right?”

Taber said that without the right tools and support  it can be easier for farmers to sell their land to developers than to make the land profitable by growing food. That’s one of the things she says is driving farmland loss in North Carolina, she said. Between 2017 and 2022, North Carolina lost a quarter of a million acres of harvested cropland, according to data from the Census of Agriculture.

RELATED: NC farmers can’t repair their own equipment. It affects us all.

As Taber told the Yonder, many people think that people from cities are coming into rural areas and buying up all the farmland for development. But she said that’s not quite the whole picture. Farmers might be selling land to developers because their operations aren’t making money. With the right support from elected officials like her, Taber said North Carolina farmers could hold on to family land by turning a bigger profit from agriculture. It’s about learning how to follow market trends.

“You can’t control the market, but you can control how you respond to it,” Taber said.

If the prices of beef, corn, soybeans, and tobacco are too low to be profitable, for example, Taber said that’s a sign the market is saturated and the farmer needs to move on to another crop.

“As a politician in agriculture, it is expected that you tell people it’s so sad that [farmland loss] is a tragedy. ‘Stay mad and vote for me. These problems cannot be solved,’” Taber said. “But that is absolutely the wrong thing to do. These problems are real and that means they have real solutions.”

Infrastructure Is Necessary for a Sustainable Agricultural Economy

Adaptation to market trends aside, sometimes there’s a need for more systemic change in how we grow and process food, Taber told the Daily Yonder. Operating a profitable farm operation is a lot easier when infrastructure like food processing plants are nearby.

“If we actually want to have a local and regional food system that replaces the big scale commodities, you have to think a little bigger,” Taber said.

It’s one thing to have fresh tomatoes in August, but what about when everyone brings their tomato harvest to the farmers’ market at the peak of the season, and the price of tomatoes plummets because supply is so high? Taber said infrastructure like canning facilities can make sure that farmers can sell their tomato products in a preserved form year-round.

“[A lot] of the tomatoes Americans eat are in sauces and soups and most people do not have enough kitchen equipment to can their own sauce. And that means you have to have facilities to do that, and they better be at scale,” Taber said. “So regional food systems don’t just mean farmers markets, they mean infrastructures. And that’s the thing I’m pushing.”

Meet the woman running for NC Ag commissioner to empower rural residents
Altapass Orchard in Spruce Pine, North Carolina overlooks the Appalachian mountains on the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. (Photo by Sarah Melotte / The Daily Yonder)

Canning tomatoes is just one example. A facility that processes frozen vegetables or shells hazelnuts might also be a good fit for the North Carolina economy.

Farm Laborers Need Year-Round Employment

Contrary to the popular talking point that “no one wants to work anymore”, it’s most likely that the reason farmers often have trouble hiring laborers is because the work isn’t full-time, according to Taber.

“It’s a temp job,” Taber said. “No matter how much [it pays], as soon as you get the job, you have to start looking for another one. As soon as you find [a job], you might as well go. That’s the problem. It’s not that it’s hard. It’s not that it’s outside. It’s not even that the wages are low. It’s because it’s temporary.”

Other industries have figured out how to make seasonal employment work, so there’s no reason why we can’t do it for farming, she said. Construction companies hire full-time workers even for projects that don’t last all year, while actors have organizations like guilds and unions that give people health insurance in between jobs. Taber said the agricultural industry could leverage some of these processes to provide more sustainable job growth for farm laborers.

Taber said she feels good about how her agenda is hitting with her potential constituents, even the ones who don’t work in agriculture.

“It’s an empowering message and people always respond to that,” she said. “We can help ourselves. We are not helpless. There are solutions. Here’s what it looks like. Let’s go get them.

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.Meet the woman running for NC Ag commissioner to empower rural residentsMeet the woman running for NC Ag commissioner to empower rural residents

 

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CATEGORIES: RURAL
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