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Troxler is perplexed

by Kirk Ross

North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler is a bit perplexed these days. The North Carolina Senate wants to move 165 of the department’s employees and roughly 15,000 acres of state-managed research farms to the university system, then slash the budget that funds the program. So far, the way it’s played out in the media is that senate Dems were inclined to take a poke at the Republican Ag commissioner. Lest you believe that the effort to move control of the state’s 18 Agricultural Research Stations from the Agriculture Department to the UNC system is purely a case of partisan jousting, you might want to consider that these stations are not just a few test plots of corn and tobacco. Those 15,000 acres are some prime lands, and while much of the acres are being used directly for research, there’s a considerable amount of territory in conservation, including thousands of acres of forests. “North Carolina is losing one hundred thousand acres of farmland and timberland a year,” Troxler said in a recent interview. “This is not the time to be selling off research farms.” The senate plan would move the Ag department’s Research Station Division’s roughly 165 full-time positions to the UNC System Board of Governors, where it would then pass to the control of NC State, which along with North Carolina A&T already conducts research at some of the stations. That might make sense if this was a pure shift of research efforts and there were, say, an extensive study of the plan along with meetings and hearings with the stakeholders. But UNC officials claim they didn’t push for the change and budgets put forward by the house and governor say nothing about the idea. Troxler says the department was “blindsided” by the budget provision and he’s not a happy man. So, why is it happening? Troxler isn’t speculating, but he is quick to point to some discrepancies between the plan and some of the state’s goals for preservation and conservation of key lands. “I’m confused,” Troxler said. “We’re supposed to have a one-million acre initiative,” he said referring to a long-running and perpetually underfunded effort to retain and add to lands in conservation and farming. If the policy of the state is to increase such lands, he said, why would it sell off some of its best research farms and conservation projects? The efficiency argument put forward to explain it, he said, falls very short of a logical explanation. “There’s got to be something else.” It’s almost impossible to look at the plan and not see that it would force a sale of some of the holdings. The funds for the division follows to the university, of course, but under the budget plan drops from $9,188,217 this fiscal year to an even $7 million next year. Troxler says that’ll mean about 52 research division positions will have to go next year. That’s on top of losing 33 positions from budget cuts over the last five years. Going forward, he says, it’s hard to imagine the program staying afloat without selling off some of the properties. Indeed, part of the senate’s budget provision says the program must review the lands and see which ones might go. There’s the 2,200-acre Cherry Farm, for instance, home to the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, and situated on a lovely spot outside of Goldsboro crossed by the Little River. Nearer the coast, there’s the 122-acre horticulture station at Castle Hayne – just a short drive from the new I-140 – and the 1,558-acre Tidewater Research Station just east of rapidly growing Plymouth. There are a handful of spots in the mountains and the Piedmont region features the 667 acres surrounding the Chinqua-Penn Plantation and lands around Umstead and Butner. It is not hard to imagine that there are eyes already on some of these parcels. “Some of the stations are in developing areas and have a good value,” Troxler said. “But these are same places that need open space.”

Kirk Ross travels the state for Cape-FearMercury.com and writes about state governance at ExileOnJonesStreet.com. He can be reached at editor@capefearmercury.com.

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