Name as it appears on the ballot: Jenna Wadsworth
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: JennaWadsworth.com
Occupation & employer: Small business owner. Hobby farmer. Elected Wake County Soil & Water Conservation District Supervisor.
Years lived in North Carolina: 31
1) Please tell us what in your record as a public official or private citizen demonstrates your ability to be an effective Commissioner of Agriculture? These might include career or community service—please be specific.
I was born in Raleigh, but grew up off a dirt road on my grandparents’ farm in Johnston County which raised hogs, cattle, and chickens, while growing corn, cotton, tobacco, and soybeans. To this day, I work this land and help manage operations of the farm alongside my father. Agriculture is in my blood, and that’s why this race is deeply personal to me. This past season, I tended over 45 rows of fruits and vegetables, as well as various fruit trees and vines, and saw to nut trees on the farm. I am a proud graduate of both the NC School of Science and Mathematics in Durham and NC State University. I am also the Co-Founder of the progressive nonprofit New Leaders Council – North Carolina, as well as the managing partner of my small business. Last year, I was appointed to the NC Advisory Committee of the US Global Leadership Coalition.
I am currently the Vice-Chair of the Wake County Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors—a role I’ve been humbled to serve in for the past 10 years. Together, with the voters of Wake County, we made history in 2010 when I became the youngest woman ever elected to public office in North Carolina. Back then, folks took a chance on a bright-eyed 21 year old, and we’ve been able to develop innovative solutions to problems like farmland loss—especially in the face of mounting developmental pressures—and advance environmentally friendly policies that benefit all of our community members. In particular, I co-authored the county’s Agricultural Economic Development Plan that gave farmers a viable pathway to market. I led in building innovative public-private partnerships that created training opportunities for farmers in transitioning to new best management practices with an eye towards soil health, as well as created opportunities for nontraditional farmers to enter into the agricultural field. Our Board secured conservation easements, preserved farmland, bettered drinking water quality, and reduced urban runoff and erosion. I also advocated for meaningful investments in both public and private environmental education programming because I know that it is our children who will have to live with the brunt of our inaction in addressing climate change unless we begin to elect leaders—who from day one—prioritize addressing the climate crisis head-on. My record of working with people of diverse backgrounds and differing political affiliations to accomplish real policy successes for the people who call Wake County home is a translatable skill to serving all North Carolinians and the agricultural sector as your next Commissioner of Agriculture. For more information on the projects I’ve supported in this role, my 2018 Indy Week questionnaire is a great resource.
I’m ready to lead on climate change, support our family farmers, advocate for reforms in the hemp industry while working with the Legislature to fight for the legalization of cannabis, and meaningfully engage in the immigration and farmworker debate. I will bridge the growing urban-rural divide by advocating for investments in both rural broadband access and rural healthcare, all while making sure no child goes hungry. It’s past time to tackle mounting food insecurity in this state while working to build more resilient local food systems. COVID-19 has shown us just how broken the food system is, but my campaign has helped folks to see that it doesn’t have to remain that way. We’re building a movement for a new North Carolina: one that recognizes our strengths, gives a nod to our past, builds upon our agricultural heritage, commits to being better for the benefit of our collective population, and inspires innovation in tackling whatever challenges may lie ahead because we know we will work together to do just that.
I’ve also been endorsed by over 120 current and former elected leaders, candidates, and prominent organizations from across the state. I am proud to have the support of the last Democrat to sit in this office, Former NC Commissioner of Agriculture Britt Cobb. I am also proudly endorsed by the NC Association of Educations, NC Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, NC AFL-CIO, Emily’s List, Lillian’s List, NARAL, NOW, Planned Parenthood Votes!, Equality NC, and the LGBTQ Victory Fund, among others.
2) Do you believe the Department of Agriculture does an effective job of assisting the state’s farmers? In what ways could the state improve?
Not currently, especially if you’re a smaller farmer or agribusiness. Republican incumbent Steve Troxler was elected in 2004. It’s been over 15 years, and in that time, he has grown complacent. He’s been bought and paid for by international corporations like Smithfield Foods and special interests like Monsanto, dirty oil, and big chemical that are denigrating both our environment and the image of small farmers—who are unfairly being lumped together with the few bad actors down East—in a way that will forever cripple the ability of the industry to seek common ground and mutual understanding with both the consumers and the lawmakers who overwhelmingly live in our urban cores. Any business that the Department regulates should not be allowed to donate to candidates for this office. This is a clear conflict of interest for the Commissioner. From day one, I have pointed out that this office needs someone who will be a fighter for all, not for just the corporations and individuals that can afford to cut campaign contribution checks. Unlike my opponent, I am proud to be running a race powered by people instead of special interests I would have to regulate or oversee if elected. I made a commitment not to accept any corporate PAC money or any money from fossil fuel executives.
What’s worse is that my opponent is an honorary Co-Chair of the Trump/Pence 2020 campaign, as well as being the largest recipient of campaign cash from the racist Sons of Confederate Veteran’s (SCV) NC Heritage PAC. SCV regularly has a booth at the NC State Fair from which they disseminate stickers with hateful Confederate iconography to fair attendees, which I contend creates an unsafe and unwelcoming environment for many other fair attendees. Furthermore, the State Auditor proved that he and his Chief of Staff also misspent nearly $21,000 of taxpayer money on luxury hotels, fancy meals, and valet service. It’s time to restore transparency and accountability to this office. I believe you may also find it notable that the largest contribution my opponent received in the Second Quarter was $5,000 from a man who lives in Arkansas named Ronald Cameron. Now, Ronald Cameron is the Owner and Chairman of Mountaire Farms, which is the sixth-largest poultry processing company in the country. The $5,000 contribution to Steve Troxler was made on April 29th, a single day after news broke that the Mountaire plant in Siler City, North Carolina, had 74 confirmed COVID cases. 21% of the people tested at the plant had COVID, with only 356 workers having been tested, despite the fact that more than 1,800 people are employed there and could have been exposed to those who were confirmed as having contracted the virus. Troxler remained silent. Read more here.
The truth is that rural North Carolina is being left behind. It’s been that way for a while, but now North Carolinians have a fighter who wants to be their champion. I am that fighter. I’ve seen firsthand how local growers and producers are being put out of business while we prioritize the interests of large agribusiness to the detriment of local farmers. I am disheartened that one in five children in our state do not know where their next meal is coming from, despite the fact that we grow so much of the nation’s food supply. I have watched as farmers struggle with increasing farm stress, go bankrupt, and are committing suicide at record rates while our political leaders refuse to expand Medicaid and make meaningful investments in rural health—including the destigmatization of mental healthcare in our rural communities. The people with the institutional knowledge to produce our food are ending their lives because they feel hopeless and helpless. That’s heartbreaking and absolutely unacceptable to me. The leader of the agricultural industry should be screaming from the rooftops about this crisis in our community and doing everything possible to address it. We need a Commissioner who represents all North Carolinians, not just the select few who can cut a corporate campaign contribution check. We need a Commissioner who is a fighter and who is ready to lead our biggest industry into the future, all while prioritizing economic, environmental, and social justice issues which impact agriculture and our food system in this state.
Together, with a focus on encouraging our farmers on how to diversify their crops, we can transition them to best management practices that better soil health, teach them how to effectively market their brand or products online in order to increase their customer base and net profits, and help them explore agribusiness opportunities. As we ensure farmers are addressing both their physical and mental health needs, we can truly support our small growers and producers in this state. Additionally, the Commissioner must also stop the bleeding of the agricultural Extension offices in our state budget. Extension agents are a valuable resource to ensuring the long-term success of our farmers in communities throughout the state.
Furthermore, the disenfranchisement, neglect, and silencing of minority groups is reprehensible, and has been shamefully enabled by leaders for far too long. Agriculture in North Carolina is yet another example of an unfair system, and I am fully committed to the work that needs to be done. The history of Black land loss and Immigrant worker exploitation in North Carolina farming is unacceptable, and I will unequivocally stand up for the overlooked farmers and farmworkers that have been unjustly cast aside. I am all too aware of what needs to be addressed in the entire food network of North Carolina, and I believe that progressive changes focused on helping people instead of large corporations is the only way for us to support our rural communities. Whether it’s plans to prioritize sustainability in order to combat climate change, fix funding disparities to better support advancement opportunities for people of color and women, or ameliorating mental and physical healthcare in rural communities, I have strong priorities and values, and I can’t wait to create lasting structural change in North Carolina.
3) In parts of the Triangle, rising land prices have made farming expensive—and some farmers have chosen to sell their land rather than stay in the business. Is there anything the Agriculture Department can do to encourage farmers to stay in the industry?
Absolutely! I’m proud of the work I’ve been doing for the past decade to help our farmers in Wake County keep their land and continue to do what they love. Through our Voluntary Agricultural District Program, our Keeping the Farm workshop, and various other trainings and resources for installing practices that are not only environmentally friendly but also the most cost efficient in the long run, we’ve seen many of our farmers keep their farms and serve as models for adapting to modern times.
We should support Present Use Value (PUV), which keeps taxes low on farm and forestry land, at least until we can approach this problem from another angle. PUV may eventually be an outdated idea if, in the future, we see agriculture shifting from land intensive practices to more urban models. From traveling the state, smaller farmers in the West may not currently meet those rigid definitions of what qualifies as a farm under PUV, so we must be flexible and update policies to match the reality. I believe we must find a definition that reflects where we want agriculture to go. There are mushroom farmers and basil growers who make more income off 50 square feet than some larger, traditional farmers do off of conventional production agriculture. As more people call cities home, we have to look at homesteading, urban agriculture, community gardens, and small-scale production as forms of farming too. Our Commissioner should be examining what we can do to encourage more engagement in this industry instead of only advocating for one type of farmer.
Lastly, we must innovate and work towards creating a future where our farmers don’t have to rely on subsidies and bailouts to survive. Young people are apprehensive about exploring a career in farming that means a future spent working one of the hardest jobs at all hours of the day with a very low profit margin, high risks, dependence on political leaders to create financial lifelines, extreme uncertainty, overwhelming stress, and difficulty in safeguarding their mental, physical, or economic health.
4) This year, the North Carolina State Fair was canceled due to COVID-19. What do you believe the future of the State Fair looks like in North Carolina? While we await a vaccine, how do you plan to use your office to support the farmers and businesses that participate in the Fair?
I believe that this year offers us a unique chance to think about how to innovate the State Fair. I think we should look at ways to preserve the rich history of the State Fair while also expanding modern amenities. I would like to increase our digital payment options and potentially move into the use of a cashless system that increases transparency and accountability in payment transactions while reducing the exchange of germs. Also important is placing emphasis on our state’s developing small-scale urban and non-traditional agriculture, and increasing opportunities to showcase our state’s many breweries, vineyards, and distilleries. We should also continue to use this as a chance to expand opportunities for new vendors, small businesses, and highlight the work of North Carolina artisans. I would love to see more food offerings by our state’s farmers and chefs instead of your typical run-of-the-mill fair food. Given our proximity to RTP, let’s engage the tech community in developing an app that allows fairgoers to use smartphones and location tracking to navigate around the fairgrounds in order to find various culinary offerings (i.e. meats versus dairy versus gluten-free or other dietary restrictions) while also helping them ensure they do not get turned around and disoriented when the sun sets and it may be more difficult navigating the grounds. Additionally, we should use this opportunity to think about ways to increase accessibility for fairgoers with disabilities. The State Fair will certainly return triumphantly as soon as it is safe for all fairgoers. Let us look brightly to the future and the new opportunities and practices we can begin to implement. The Fair has delighted North Carolinians for generations, and we now have the opportunity to continue to improve upon its many offerings.
5) Are the state’s universities adequately tied into the farming communities in a way that benefits the next generation of farmers? What steps could be taken to improve those relationships?
As a state with top-tier land grant universities at our disposal, we should be a beacon for food safety research. We should be driving agricultural research and innovation, which absolutely includes expanding rural broadband access and giving our farmers the tools necessary to compete in a global economy. Within a few years, a significant percentage of grocery purchasing will likely occur online. Currently, we’re not thinking about how to help our farmers transition to that reality. Students could help develop opportunities to make this prospective economic gateway more accessible to our agricultural community and assist in training our older generations in using technology to remain competitive.
NC A&T is doing exciting work with urban agriculture and community horticulture programming that trains students how to look at producing crops in urban environments. This opportunity to parse the connection between agriculture and land holds much potential for the future of vertical grows, aquaponics, sustainable agriculture, and greenhouse and nursery production that is less susceptible to the effects of climate change. Investing in educating students about small-scale production has a multitude of possibilities in our rapidly growing urban cores and could be a way to address both food deserts and food insecurity, as well as helping to reconnect people to where their food comes from. Oftentimes, NC A&T doesn’t receive the budgetary funding that it should versus other universities, so we absolutely need to reconsider our investment in their programming.
Coronavirus has greatly hurt our small agribusinesses and farmers across North Carolina. We need to ensure they have access to the necessary resources to not only survive but also to rebuild stronger than before. As a Department, we should move toward building more resilient local food systems, which means growing the small farm division and I believe that we could also harness the capabilities of our University system to do this important work.
6) Numerous lawsuits have accused North Carolina’s hog industry of degrading the land and the quality of life of populations nearby. Do you believe the current regulations are enough to hold hog farmers accountable and protect the environment? If not, what new policies do you believe are necessary to keep this industry in check?
The short answer is “no.” While I do not believe in unjust burdens for farmers, I believe that we need to better protect our environment and the livelihood of everyday North Carolinians that live near these operations. For most of our state’s—and nation’s—history, policy has been made by the privileged few. Corporate interests can pay to play, and the end result is often lax regulations. This election is an opportunity to change power structures. This election is one that will erode the old idea that agricultural and environmental interests don’t have to work in tandem to produce responsible policy that ensures both economic viability and a commitment to advancing the quality of life for everyone who calls our state home.
Donors from the pork, poultry, chemical, and big ag industries should not set the priorities of the Department. If international corporations are going to lock our hurting farmers into unfavorable contracts—at least until it is cheaper to raise hogs elsewhere—we should make those corporations pay for wrongdoing that occurs on their watch. At the end of the day, it’s the people who call our state home who will have to live with the aftermath of not holding these polluters and bad actors accountable.
We must innovate, convert waste products into energy, and invest in renewable technologies. We should protect natural resources and safeguard the health of our people while supporting family farmers who are putting food on our tables. Regulations should prioritize protecting our environment, the laborers doing the hard work, and the treatment of livestock while allowing farmers to remain economically viable so long as they are in compliance. Disease outbreaks and media coverage of lagoon breaches hurt the industry. The Department has a duty to support consumers too, ensuring the quality of the agricultural product they are purchasing, in a market where more folks want to know their food was produced in a moral and sustainable way.
It is crucial we safeguard our ability to produce healthy nutritious food and can meet the demand of our state’s residents. I am in support of making it easier for smaller meat processors to operate effectively so that they can help reduce any backlog in meat processing in the future. Local processors are generally more humane and work with smaller, local farmers. In recent years, many of these processors have gone out of business—making it very difficult for farmers who now have to travel further distances to reach a processor, assuming that processor is even available to help given the great demand and severe shortage of processors, and thereby, increasing costs and burdens for that farmer since they must also have a meat handler’s license to take their product home after it’s been processed, along with a plethora of other issues that I will spare you the details of at this time. Meanwhile, we’ve subsidized the larger, corporate meat processors, allowing them to significantly consolidate power, such that there are now only 4 companies that own the bulk of our meat capacity (from animal production to processing to packaging to the product that ends up on store shelves). The big four control 85% of beef, 66% of pork, and roughly 50% of poultry in this country. We’ve set up the industry to fail, which is why we saw extreme disruptions in the food system since the start of the pandemic. We need a Commissioner who works with elected officials on both the Federal and State levels to keep this from happening in the future. Investments in local and regional food systems will ensure the health and safety of people as we experience additional waves of this virus or any moving forward.
Building a more sustainable future is both a moral and economic imperative.
7) What other issues do you believe the Agriculture Commissioner should focus on that have not been addressed in this questionnaire?
IMMIGRATION and FARMWORKER JUSTICE:
I want to use my platform to support our immigrant farmworkers. Most farmworkers are paid at or below the federal poverty line and work over 12 hours a day in the sun. I believe that the people who pick our food absolutely deserve a moral pathway to citizenship. A truly great America would have already developed a model of response to immigration policy, especially in the wake of labor shortages in our agricultural sector, instead of treating it like a pest problem. Moreover, nearly 80% of female farmworkers are victims of domestic or sexual violence. These women currently have no recourse for action, which is reprehensible. Other farmworkers are exposed to toxic chemicals and pesticides, skin cancer from UV exposure, and poor living conditions, which need to be addressed. As the effects of climate change intensify, we’re going to see an increase in the number of climate refugees from the developing world seeking shelter and a chance to survive. We need a leader who faces that reality and acts accordingly with bold solutions that take into account both equity and social justice. It’s not too late to adapt and be more resilient. However, if we have to live another four years under the current leadership, it could be.
In September, my opponent issued guidance for farmworkers—who are considered essential employees—requiring them to report to work even if they have been exposed to COVID as long as they remain asymptomatic. While the health of farmworkers is at risk, Commissioner Troxler is placing the corporate profit motives of his big donors at a premium over the lives of workers who make up the backbone of the agricultural industry. I will make sure that farm laborers and other agricultural industry professionals have proper PPE if and when future pandemics or COVID-19 outbreaks occur. There have been large outbreaks of COVID-19 in meatpacking plants, where the bulk of workers are undocumented and without health insurance, or who are too afraid to seek medical treatment because of potential retribution from their employers, concern over their visa status being put into jeopardy, or scared of ICE who is staking out hospitals in search of undocumented individuals. I started sounding the alarm on potential issues our farm laborers and industry workers could face while my opponent essentially laid blame on them for slowing down food production for not showing up to work.
ADDRESSING RACIAL BIAS IN POLICING:
The SBI and certain elected officials in justice departments across our state are vehemently against the legalization of cannabis and want to make smokable hemp illegal. These entities claim that they cannot distinguish between smokable hemp and marijuana, and they have decided to endanger an entire agricultural industry as a result. I have been vocal and used my social media platforms to respond, calling out the inherent bias and often prejudicial treatment of Black and Brown individuals the police tend to subject to traffic stops and possession charges.
I want to remove any opportunities for folks to be subjected to discriminatory treatment because of the color of their skin, and I believe that there are ways that I can do that as Commissioner of Agriculture.
Black lives matter. Black farmers matter. Absolutely and without any caveats.
A century ago, 1 in 7 US farmers were Black. Now, only 1.5% of the nation’s farmers are Black. This is due to a history of discrimination from within the industry blocking access to loans or educational resources for Black farmers, as well as predatory lending practices on behalf of the Farm Service Agency. After the Civil War, laws were passed preventing Black folks from owning or inheriting land, preventing them from building generational wealth. Of the 46,000 farmers in NC, just over 2,000 are Black farmers.
Small farms—disproportionately Black-owned ones—are suffering massive land loss as large agribusiness grows. As Commissioner, I will work to strengthen revenues of Black-owned farms by enabling access to both the high returns of specialized crops, including cannabis—which I intend to work with the Legislature to legalize—and more markets in which to sell products.
I believe a person cannot effectively govern from within an echo chamber, surrounded by people whose voices and experiences mirror those of one’s own. Representation matters. I am committed to equity and inclusivity, and will include diverse stakeholders at the decision-making table.
EQUALITY and WOMEN’S RIGHTS:
If elected, I would be the first out LGBTQ+ constitutional officer in North Carolina’s history, and the youngest LGBTQ+ statewide elected official in the country’s history. Given my intersectional experience, I believe I truly understand the fight we are in, and I’m eager to help do my part to ensure all people have a future we can be proud of where they can truly experience lived equality. Whether that comes through advocating for equal pay and advancement in the workplace or standing on the frontlines in the fight to protect privacy and reproductive health, I’m all in.
Despite climate change being the greatest threat to farmers, Commissioner Troxler refuses to accept its existence and acknowledges his greatest achievement in over 15 years in office is getting Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature to agree to cut relief checks to farmers in the wake of natural disasters. Farmers needed that money, but that was because the industry’s leader sat on his hands and did not act to mitigate the effects of climate change on farming. Storms will grow more frequent and intense in coming years. Climate change causes unpredictable yields, as well as premature blossoming of crops; alters planting and harvesting dates; and increases the frequency of damage caused by weather events. I believe writing a relief check cannot be our only solution to dealing with natural disasters. It is not only economically unsustainable, but it’s environmentally unsustainable to push conventional practices and support factory farming. We must support transitioning to best management practices—prioritizing conservation while fostering long term economic success. We should pursue regenerative, organic, vertical, and urban farming. We can move an industry largely left in the past into the future while creating greener jobs, building more resilient local food systems, tackling food insecurity, and supporting family farmers throughout the state. It is also incumbent upon us to educate the next generation who will inherit the land, which is why I support putting gardens on every school ground. The world is changing; it is time for North Carolina to change with it.
Since the position I’m running for is specifically about agriculture, I want to work to rebuild the agriculture community in meaningful ways. One vital way of doing this is through rural broadband access. So many rural North Carolinians don’t have adequate access to the Internet and this has been especially detrimental during a time when the Internet is the only way to connect to educational opportunities, employment, to apply for SNAP or WIC benefits, or to access telehealth services. Students should not have had to sit in McDonalds or public library parking lots to access free WiFi to do their homework before this pandemic and they definitely should not have to now that their long term educational and career outcomes are riding on being educated in a virtual environment as a result of COVID-19. I want to advocate to make broadband accessible and readily available, cheap (with the potential to one day become a free public good), and reliable for all North Carolinians. Information is power. Let’s give people access to that information, and, accordingly, let’s help them build power.
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