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SMITHFIELD — Zane Hedgecock, chief of staff in the N.C. Department of Agriculture, had a busy day on the speaker’s podium during Thursday’s Tobacco Day at the Johnston County Agricultural Center.
Hedgecock not only pinch-hit for N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, who was scheduled to speak, but was also unexpectedly on the receiving end of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service’s annual Tobacco Great award.
“It is a tough time for tobacco farmers right now, and answers to the challenges the industry faces are not easy to come by,” Hedgecock said. “We have always dealt with uncertainty, but it seems like there is even more to deal with today. From an absolutely dismal 2018 season to low prices, declining domestic demand and trade tariffs and trade disputes with our largest buyer, the growers are nervous and for good reason.”
Agriculture and agribusiness remain North Carolina’s No. 1 industry and employ one-fifth of the state’s workforce, Hedgecock said. But it’s not easy, he said.
“While we have a dynamic and resilient agricultural industry in our state, farmers and farm communities are reeling from the past five years of low commodity prices, four hurricanes that have had devastating effects on agriculture, and ongoing tariffs against agricultural products,” Hedgecock said. “Our tobacco industry in particular has suffered, with production down 20 percent from 2018 due in a large part to market uncertainty.”
Hedgecock said he often travels with Commissioner Troxler to speaking engagements across the state, giving him the chance to see the positive impact farming has on rural communities. “When you drive through most small to medium-sized towns, you go by farmland and crops, tractor companies, farm-supply stores, grain bins and agricultural businesses, all of which help drive the local economy.”
“Many people who live in our urban cities have no idea how significant agriculture is to our economy,” Hedgecock added.
Hedgecock talked briefly about trade with China and competition from Brazil.
“It has been Commissioner Troxler’s hope that agricultural products would benefit in the long run from trade negotiations with China, and that continues to be his hope,” said Hedgecock.
“We have continued to try to maintain good relationships with China tobacco buyers here, hopeful that when the trade issues are resolved, our high-quality leaf will be preferred and that buying levels will return,” Hedgecock. “We know we have high-quality leaf that comes from high growing standards, and those are benefits that should be selling points. But we also know Brazil is right on our heels.”
Farmers, Hedgecock said, are caught in the middle as nations seek trade agreements. “One of the things I admire most about folks in agriculture is their optimism that the next season will be better,” he said. “We certainly hope 2020 offers a brighter outlook for farmers in our state and especially tobacco farmers, who put a lot into it. It is important for us to continue being passionate about tobacco and to keep fighting to ensure that farmers and our state’s agriculture industry have a voice with our state leaders.”
Hedgecock said North Carolina has the biggest footprint of any state when it comes to tobacco, and that is what gives him hope. “This is about the next generation of tobacco farmers,” he said.
As soon as Hedgecock had finished his remarks and left the podium, he returned at the request of Matthew Vann, an Extension tobacco specialist and assistant professor of crop and soil sciences at N.C. State University. “It would be hard to find a stronger advocate for tobacco growers than Zane Hedgecock,” Vann said in presenting the Tobacco Great award. “His tobacco farm work ethic remains evident in how he tirelessly works to enhance tobacco across the state.”
Vann said Hedgecock was instrumental in helping growers during the tobacco buyout.
“In his position as chief of staff with the Department of Agriculture, he also works closely alongside Commissioner Troxler and is a conduit of information and support on agriculture-related topics” to Congress, the N.C. General Assembly, commodity groups and agriculture commissioners across the country, Vann added.