Name as it appears on the ballot: Jenna Wadsworth
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.JennaWadsworth.com
Occupation & employer: Vice Chair, Wake County Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors; small business owner; hobby farmer
Years lived in North Carolina: my whole life
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 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 since, 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 development pressures—and advance environmentally friendly policies that benefit all of our community members.
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.
As a Supervisor, I helped co-author the County’s Agricultural and Economic Development Plan that helped create market opportunities for local food producers. 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, reduced urban runoff and erosion, and invested in the environmental education of our community—particularly, in our children.
For more information on the projects I’ve supported in this role, my 2018 Indy Week questionnaire is a great resource: https://indyweek.com/news/elections/jenna-wadsworth-wake-county-soil-and-water-conservation-dist/
Stepping back to my bio and professional career, I believe I am a testament of the power of great public schools, having graduated from both the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) and North Carolina State University. I am currently the treasurer of the NCSSM Alumni Association Board of Directors, and I understand how to build relationships both amongst financial partners and government leaders to advance budgetary needs and development goals.
Furthermore, I am the Co-Founder and former Co-Director of a progressive training ground for young leaders called New Leaders Council-North Carolina (NLC-NC). Our organization has trained many of the young leaders throughout the state that are developing or enacting progressive policies that raise up whole communities. Rep. Chaz Beasley, Hillsborough Councilman Matt Hughes, Durham County Commission candidate Nida Allam, Holly Springs Councilman Aaron Wolff, Fmr. Raleigh Mayoral Candidate Zainab Baloch, NC House Candidate Antoine Marshall, Fmr. NC House Candidate Da’Quan Love, Fmr. NC Senate Candidate Andrew Barnhill, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley’s Chief of Staff and General Counsel Anna Stearns, NC House Candidate Ricky Hurtado, Councilman Jonathan Melton’s campaign manager Virginia Reed, NC House Candidate Terry Brown, Fmr. Greensboro City Council candidate David Wils, Rep. Allison Dahle’s Legislative Assistant Anne Evangelista, NC Supreme Court law clerk Wes Tripp, 2020 Presidential Leadership Scholar Michael Cooper, and so many other amazing human beings have gone through this NLC-NC fellowship program.
I believe in being a woman who lifts as she rises, and I’m always looking for opportunities to help change makers build connections and develop their leadership potential. I believe this skillset will be an asset in supporting talented employees within the NCDA&CS and will help foster an atmosphere where leadership and innovation are encouraged rather than discouraged as it currently is now.
Additionally, I am the founder and managing partner of a small business.
I speak to international delegations of diplomats and change agents for the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitors Leadership Program and US AID. I was recently appointed to the North Carolina Advisory Committee of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. I value the contributions of immigrants and refugees in this country, and I find that my work with international populations helps to ground my understanding of the power of having diverse voices at the policy making table anywhere across the world. All people deserve to be treated with respect. I also believe that these experiences will help me achieve a favorable position when it comes to engaging in international trade policy, developing new markets, and discussing economic issues and environmental standards with both prospective and current trading partners as your Commissioner of Agriculture.
Given all of that, my most meaningful role has been as a farmer.
To truly understand the depth of my passion for serving in public office, we have to go back to where it all started. I grew up on a dusty, dirt road in Johnston County on my grandparents’ farm—where we raised or grew 7 of our state’s top commodities: hogs, cows, chickens, corn, cotton, tobacco, and soybeans. I can still remember afternoons spent picking up pecans and shelling snap peas on Granny Wadsworth’s back porch—and the day my father made me climb up on our old, red Farmall Tractor and he taught me how to run rows. Of course, he and I still disagree over just how straight those rows were.
It is from those experiences—and countless others—that I learned early on the value of hard work and the importance of the family farm in putting food on our tables and clothes on our backs. While we rent most of the farm now, to this day, I still farm 6-10 acres of garden and cover crop every season.
With the input of diverse voices and a commitment to both equity and inclusion, my office can address the biggest issues North Carolinians are facing and ensure a prosperous future for everyone. I’m ready to lead on climate change, support our family farmers, advocate for hemp and cannabis legalization, and meaningfully engage in the immigration and farmworker debate. I will bridge the growing urban-rural divide by investing in rural broadband access and prioritizing rural health, while making sure no child goes hungry.
We’re building a movement for a new North Carolina. One that recognizes our strengths, gives a nod to our past, commits to being better for the benefit of our collective population, and that inspires innovation in tackling whatever challenges may lie ahead because we know we will work together to do just that.
I’ve been endorsed by over 70 current and former elected leaders, candidates, and prominent organizations from across the state. I’m proud to have the support of the last Democrat to sit in this office, Former NC Commissioner of Agriculture Britt Cobb. My campaign Co-Chair is Former NC Court of Appeals Judge Linda Stephens.
I have the support of Senators: Sam Searcy, Wiley Nickel, Jeff Jackson, Paul Lowe, Mike Woodard, and Fmr. Sen. Doug Berger, as well as Representatives: Marcia Morey, Pricey Harrison, Wesley Harris, John Ager, Joe Sam Queen, Raymond Smith, Jean Farmer-Butterfield, Gale Adcock, Cecil Brockman, Scott Brewer, Evelyn Terry, Derwin Montgomery, Christy Clark, Susan Fisher, and Zack Hawkins. 20 sitting Legislators have endorsed me so far, which means I’ll have the relationships from day one to begin implementing policies that will protect our natural resources and begin to combat climate change as we tackle environmental justice issues that have been neglected for far too long.
I’ve been endorsed by the NC AFL-CIO, and I am committed to fighting for our workers.
I’ve also been endorsed by the NC Sierra Club, and I am the only candidate in this race—in either Party—who even has the political courage to talk about climate change and say it is real.
Furthermore, I’ve been endorsed by both the Durham People’s Alliance and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, because both organizations recognize my commitment to social justice and equity—especially in the fight against the climate crisis—and feel that I am the best candidate to ensure a future we can all be proud of.
You can view a list of my endorsements here: https://www.jennawadsworth.com/endorsements.html
I announced my campaign in March of 2019 at the Teen, College, and Young Democrats Convention at East Carolina University in Pitt County. It was very intentional that I, as a young woman who has made history because of my age at the time of my first election and who has paved a path to help other young and diverse voices be heard in our political debate, announced in front of a room of people who would disproportionately be affected by inaction on climate change and environmental justice policies. I wanted to start my campaign in Eastern North Carolina—somewhere that has been on the frontlines of both the climate crisis and environmental degradation by international corporations—because I believe that most rural folks understand that in order for agriculture to survive and thrive, we must adapt and evolve. I wanted to inspire our youth to get involved with the movement we are building to do politics differently. Since that point, I’ve spoken at Universities throughout the state and now have five college interns working on this campaign to help us organize campuses, register voters, and engage with communities that are typically written off by other candidates because it’s assumed they won’t actually turn out to vote. I’m not sure why people think that, given that the leaders of both the climate movement and the gun sense movements are youth voices.
We have been traveling the state, building a diverse coalition of supporters who are eager to elect new, responsive leadership to this office. I have been showing up places where candidates have not been in a long time, and that matters to people.
For illustration, the last week of January, I had events or stop-ins in 12 counties alone. I started the week a little sleep deprived from attending a 4.5 hour candidate forum on Saturday, followed by an all-nighter responding to an endorsement questionnaire, after having been out of town at a candidate forum and regional meetings for the two nights prior. Sunday morning began bright and early with an endorsement interview with environmental leaders before the Women’s March in Raleigh, after which I drove to Johnston County to speak at a political event before ending the day on a videoconference with young activists. Monday began with a visit to a processing plant and learning about USDA compliance before harvesting kale on my farm. Tuesday was spent in New Hanover County meeting with extension agents and agricultural leaders before visiting the coast to examine issues in the fisheries industry. That was followed by an afternoon touring a woman-owned farm in Pender County—chasing newborn piglets out of a hoop house and learning about how technology can help us connect with local producers—before an evening kickoff for a local candidate where we discussed rural healthcare and regional hospital closures. Wednesday was spent speaking to LGBTQ+ leaders, onboarding new staff, and doing call time while prepping research on early voting locations and volunteer coordination. Thursday was a travel day to arrive in Boone for a tour at the High Country Food Hub in order to better understand how regional organizations are meeting the demand for locally-grown products and what challenges they are facing in changing the culture of food. That evening, I was the keynote speaker at the App State College Democrats 50th Year Celebration, followed by meeting local elected officials and activists, all before having to complete yet more questionnaires. Friday morning began with a roundtable in Watagua County with agricultural and political leaders, followed by a roundtable in Ashe County (complete with a couple inches of snow!) that was organized by Rep. Ray Russell, before I went on to tour local agribusinesses and view Christmas tree farms in the region. While traveling icy roads (from the passenger seat as we were) heading to Wilkes and Yadkin Counties, I desperately tried to get a wireless signal so I could write and send an email to our list about the concerns rural folks have before attending events in both Forsyth and Guilford Counties to meet voters and party officials. This was followed by meetings and a Black Excellence Gala in Mecklenburg County the next day, and an event in Chatham County on Sunday.
I share this because I think it’s important to know that there is a candidate who prioritizes meeting the people they would be serving and working with while in office. The Commissioner of Agriculture oversees nearly 2,000 employees who work in 99 of our 100 counties, and I believe she should be putting face time in with departments she’s overseeing—whether they are located on our coast or in the mountains. I believe I’ve proven that I’m willing to travel the state to see what is happening on the ground. Firsthand knowledge makes a leader better informed and allows them to be a better advocate when it comes to making the case for funding opportunities, meeting the needs of our farmers and consumers, and addressing the systemic issues that are currently plaguing both the industry and the Department.
Perhaps, most importantly, I’m a fighter who no one else is going to out-work on the campaign trail or once I’m sitting in this office. I think that commitment to doing the hard work and showing up is something North Carolinians want not just in their Commissioner of Agriculture, but in all of their elected officials.
I have a vision for addressing pressing social issues in our society and ushering in a new future in agriculture that will give our family farmers and true North Carolina producers the opportunity to succeed not only in our state but also in the global marketplace.
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 family farmer.
To truly understand why I feel that way, I think it’s important to discuss my platform and what issues I would prioritize in addressing how the Department supports and interacts with farmers and consumers throughout our state.
I’m offering North Carolina the chance to look forward: a chance to modernize our state’s biggest and most important industry. Agriculture is a $91.8 Billion industry in North Carolina. We have 50,218 farms on 8.4 million acres of land, with an average farm size of 168 acres. Over 95% of our farms are family-owned and family-run, but they need someone sitting in this office who is truly there to support them—who will stand up and speak out.
Republican incumbent Steve Troxler was elected in 2004. It’s been 16 years, and in that time, he has become complacent. He’s been bought and paid for by the pork and poultry industries and the international corporations like Smithfield who are denigrating both our environment and the image of small farmers—who are, perhaps rather unfairly, being lumped together with the few bad actors down East—in a way that will forever cripple the ability to seek common ground and mutual understanding with both the consumers and the lawmakers who overwhelmingly live in our urban cores.
Rural North Carolina is being left behind. The truth is, 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 who faces the reality of where we are and who has the capacity to implement bold solutions to get us to where we need to go.
The top 3 issues in my race that I feel I am uniquely qualified to address, and from which I have envisioned solutions from an inclusive and intersectional approach, include:
1. Climate change. I believe it is, indeed, real and is the most fundamental problem that will be faced by any of us in this lifetime. It is a dereliction of duty on the Commissioner’s behalf to not admit that this is the root cause of so many of the problems our farming community faces—often resulting in dire circumstances, including the inability to produce crops and the eventual loss of the farm through bankruptcy which has led to the highest number of farmer suicides we’ve ever seen. Just because it’s uncomfortable to talk about doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist.
North Carolina’s farmers, coastal community, and our most vulnerable folks are on the frontlines of the fight against climate change. We need to build resiliency into both our farm and community planning, and move to more sustainable agricultural models with a focus on soil health, regenerative agriculture, and value-added agriculture, as well as crops like plant-based foods in order to continue feeding our state and the rest of the world that is depending on us.
Leadership starts from the top. If the Commissioner unapologetically declares that addressing the climate crisis as an urgent priority, it could go a long way in changing hearts and minds in the agricultural community. Farmers know there is something happening. It’s just hard for them to actively vocalize that concern if the leader they are depending on to help them “weather the storm” doesn’t have the political courage to buck his Party’s position that climate change is fake news. When the person at the top becomes complacent and stops looking for innovative solutions to our most pressing problems, it’s time to vote him out.
2. Advocating for our small, family farmers and creating new crop markets that result in economic success. I support expanding the hemp industry and revising some of the prima facie discrimination biases in the licensing process. I also support the legalization of cannabis. It has huge economic potential, in addition to allowing us to begin to combat the opioid epidemic that so many North Carolina families are facing. Additionally, it is a chance to help our African American community members begin to achieve true social justice given the disproportionately higher rates of policing and incarceration for possession versus Caucasian users. We can begin to fight back against the school to prison pipeline as I advocate for dismissal of past misdemeanor possession charges while also alleviating workload issues for an already over-burdened court system.
Right now, cannabis is not legal in NC. However, 33 states across the country have now legalized it either medicinally or recreationally. It’s not a question of IF but WHEN North Carolina will, and right now, we have no department within NCDA&CS to deal with or study it.
We’re missing out on a huge economic opportunity. Legalization has travel and tourism benefits, can reduce brain drain from our rural areas to urban centers, and completely revitalize towns on the brink of nonexistence. We can repair vital infrastructure needs like the bridges you’re driving on day in and day out that should have been repaired 10-20 years ago and see a budget surplus that can go on to fund public transit and our public school systems that desperately need the revenue to purchase new educational resources or to absolve student lunch debt.
Economically, for reference, just look at what has happened in Michigan and Illinois now that they have legalized cannabis. After just five weeks, Michigan has seen $8.2 million in total sales and $1.3 million in combined excise and sales tax. Even more astounding, in just the first two days of sales in Illinois, the state has seen $5.5 million in total sales. The Chicago Tribune even reported the closure of several shops throughout the state because they ran out of product.
NC has lost nearly all of our tobacco trading market with China in recent years between trade wars, tariffs, and cheaper options for Chinese buyers coming from elsewhere.
Cannabis legalization would also benefit those needing medicinal relief. It could begin to combat the opioid epidemic that has largely been perpetuated by Big Pharma. It’s also great for seniors and others with certain chronic health conditions.
As far as hemp is concerned, the current licensure process is problematic. You must have a schedule F or FSA number. A Schedule C doesn’t count. You must have tax revenue and have completed your taxes on time. You cannot get a license if you’ve had a felony charge in the last ten years. You cannot get a license if you’ve EVER had a drug or controlled substance charge. Furthermore, at last check, there are only approximately a dozen employees in the Department tasked with all licensing and testing and everything else concerning hemp. The Commissioner also has not stood up to the SBI and the Legislature in advocating AGAINST a ban on smokable hemp, which is an economic opportunity farmers are depending upon.
3. Bridging the ever-growing urban-rural divide in our state: I am a bridge builder who has lived in rural Johnston County and then represented highly-urbanized Wake County. I have seen firsthand the advantages of calling an urban zip code home. However, just because someone was born in or chooses to live in Duplin or Watauga Counties versus Durham or Orange does not mean that they are any less deserving of high quality medical care and a good paying job. We have to invest in rural healthcare. I will fight for Medicaid Expansion and Medicare for All. We have to prioritize our rural folks, especially in the areas of mental and reproductive healthcare—even more so in the wake of so many regional hospital closures. Additionally, rural folks need access to broadband connectivity. In particular, our farmers can’t succeed without the technology necessary to compete in the global marketplace. If they can’t continue to produce food, we end up with a larger number of food deserts, which in turn affects the health of our most vulnerable and rural communities. 1 in 5 North Carolina children are food insecure. This is a crime in a state that produces so much of the country’s food supply. We can and we will do better.
Together, with a focus on encouraging our farmers how to diversify their crops, transition to best management practices that better soil health, market their brand online, explore agribusiness opportunities they can participate in with their farms—i.e. pumpkin patches, school tours, wedding venues, etc.—and ensure they are addressing both their physical and mental health needs, we can truly support our small farmers in this state. 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 longterm success of our farmers in communities throughout the state.
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?
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 have to be flexible and update policies to match the reality. I believe we have to find a definition that reflects where we want agriculture to go. There are mushroom farmers and basil growers who make more income off 50 sq ft than some larger, traditional farmers do off of production ag. As more people call cities home, we have to look at homesteading, urban ag, 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 the hardest job 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) The trade war with China hit some sectors of North Carolina agriculture fairly hard. What can the state do to help farmers who have struggled because of those tariffs?
It wasn’t until recent years and recent administrations that farmers were even having to make these difficult and often self-destructive policy choices that are now dominating the headlines. Look no further than our current President, who is engaging in a new trade war every other week, hurting farmers who make up his base by pitting them against foreign powers in trade wars that are putting them out of business with skyrocketing commodity prices. Not only that, but he has rolled back environmental and wetland protections—which will hurt our coastal areas here in North Carolina—and he refuses to recognize that the greatest threat in our lifetime is climate change. Look at Bolsonaro down in Brazil who refused a $21M aid package to help put out the fires in the Amazon Rainforest which provides nearly 20% of the world’s oxygen—fires largely caused because cattle farmers down there are having to clear more and more land to keep pace with rising demands for meat.
Anti-science rhetoric and nationalism will not only be the nail in the coffin for democracy; it’ll also be the death of us. At Trump’s 2019 rally in Greenville, North Carolina, cries of “send her back” erupted in reference to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. My opponent Steve Troxler—the current Commissioner of Agriculture, who that day was named an honorary campaign chair for the Trump/Pence 2020 campaign—did nothing to condemn the hateful rhetoric.
We can do better. We deserve better.
If we want to help the farmers who have been hit the hardest by these tariffs, we can’t do things the way we’ve always done them and expect different results. We have to address the root cause of so many of the problems faced by the agricultural sector, which means addressing climate change.
As we look to the future of agriculture, we have to come to terms with the fact that, by and large, the tobacco market is no longer viable. We have to innovate and develop new markets. We have to meet the demands of our consumers who want to see cannabis legalized, who want to develop a relationship with their farmers, and who want to know the inputs that went into the product they are purchasing. We have to support transitions to organic farming and regional models of selling locally grown products directly to consumers. Say what you will about millennials, but we have a strong desire to buy from and support local farmers.
We must also address the power of the big distributors who are getting rich on the backs of our small farmers and who currently control what products even appear on grocery shelves. The Got to Be NC program is more of a kickback to those distributors than it is to small producers. Currently, even if beef cattle are raised in Texas but if they are slaughtered in North Carolina, they get to use the Got to Be NC label. The chain grocery stores who agree to put a few of these products in their stores get marketing dollars from NCDA&CS that are also used to advertise the rest of their sale products in the weekly circulars. At the end of the day, folks who are actually growing or raising crops here at home are not always the ones who are benefitting from this program with great intentions but perhaps a questionable execution.
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?
We should be a beacon for food safety research, having top-tier land grant universities at our disposal. We should be driving agricultural research and innovation. That 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 occur online. We’re currently 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.
Additionally, building these relationships could result in mentorship of our students by our farmers and allow our next generation of agriculturists to understand how we got to where we are now. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” We must learn how farmers innovated in response to the Dust Bowl. We must learn how farmers have faced mounting pressures to sell to developers but banned together to preserve agricultural spaces. We must recognize their response to facing increased farm stress. All of these experiences will inform how our next generation decides to adapt and evolve in order to continue farming by learning from what did and did not work.
We need to be forward thinking because by 2040, 60% of our “meat” will come from plant or laboratory sources. NC could easily be a leader in that field.
We are going to be responsible for feeding the world’s population, and right now we are home to some of the worst childhood malnutrition and obesity with half of the American diet being ultra-processed. We can change that.
As AI advances, we must caution our students not to forget the human component of agriculture. Students should be learning about the politics of food and labor. Ag education should also interface with environmental studies in order to adequately prepare students for a future where the effects of climate change have intensified and must be addressed in order to run a successful farming operation.
I think 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 to help reconnect people to where their food comes from. Oftentimes, NC A&T doesn’t receive the budgetary funding that it should versus other universities, but we need to reconsider our investment in their programming.
ECU is doing interesting work in addressing farm stress and connecting that to mental health visibility in our agricultural communities. I think this is important, but I do wish we took that research and combined it with addressing climate change which is the root cause of much farm stress and with advocating for Medicaid Expansion and better rural healthcare services.
6) Over the last few years, there have been a lot of lawsuits focused on the environmental and nuisance impacts of hog farming in eastern North Carolina. Farmers, meanwhile, have lobbied the legislature for protections against litigation. Do you believe the state currently has adequate safeguards and regulatory structures in place?
The short answer is “no.” For most of our state’s—and nation’s—history, policy has been made by the privileged few with very little input from diverse voices who are informed by their lived experiences. Corporate interests can pay to play, and the end result is often lax regulations and half-baked legislation that benefits those who had the power to have a say in the process. This is not a new or groundbreaking truth.
This election is an opportunity to change institutional power structures. This election is a chance to affirm that social and environmental justice issues should be taken into consideration when making laws and defining regulations. 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.
Eastern North Carolina is somewhere that understands that no farms = no food. No farms = no jobs. These 500 year flood events resulting from recent hurricanes will not be one-off events. Eastern NC farmers lost 5,500 hogs and 3.4 million chickens in the past few storms. That’s devastating. Some of these farmers are leveraging equity in everything they have this season just to try to make it to the next. That’s not good enough. That’s what we should be addressing, instead of turning a blind eye to polluting our water and loosening regulations to make higher profits at the expense of our neighbors. Just writing relief checks can’t be our only solution to dealing with these crises.
We cannot re-elect a Commissioner who equivocates on climate change. Addressing the bigger picture means realizing we all must hold ourselves to a higher standard. We must equate environmental degradation to economic devastation. The cost of not doing so is too great. Most farmers are good neighbors. Most farmers are conservationists, in large part because they had to be in order for their land to remain productive. Our detachment from science and an inability of the leader of the industry to accept the truth of the climate crisis has resulted in reduced innovation and discouragement in doing things differently. 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’s cheaper for companies like Smithfield to raise hogs in China without the expectation or cost of complying with the same labor and environmental regulations as they are suppose to here—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.
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 blazing sun. There is no person who has a greater moral right to a pathway to citizenship than the people who pick our food. 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.
ADDRESSING RACIAL BIAS IN POLICING: The SBI and certain elected officials in justice departments across our state are vehemently against legalization of marijuana and want to make smokeable hemp illegal. These entities claim that they cannot distinguish between smokeable 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 platform to respond, also 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. Most recently, rapper DaBaby was questionably arrested in Charlotte for marijuana possession after being targeted presumably for his racial identity.
I just 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.
EQUALITY and WOMEN’S RIGHTS: Steve Troxler, the Republican incumbent, is an honorable campaign chair on the Trump/Pence 2020 campaign committee. It’s fair to say that Troxler is tied to a President known for his denigration of LGBTQ rights—specifically transgender military personnel; women’s rights; and the rights of the most vulnerable members of our community, including immigrants and differently abled people.
There are numerous LGBTQ issues at stake in our state. We’re still grappling with the effects of both HB2 and HB142—the bathroom bills. Regarding the HB2 bathroom bill compromise (HB142), incumbent Steve Troxler could allow equal access to facilities at the State Fairgrounds so trans-folks could use the bathroom aligning with their preferred gender identity, but Troxler has taken no steps to guarantee that.
I have been endorsed by NC AFL-CIO. I consider it my charge to support the rights of workers here in North Carolina. First, I will absolutely comply with the Governor’s Executive Orders to extend pregnancy protections to workers and to extend leave to new parents after the birth or adoption of a child. I would like to see us go a step further and extend protections to LGBTQ+ folks under North Carolina laws.
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried is a shining example of using her platform to be an outspoken advocate on her support of women’s rights and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. If elected, I’d be the first out LGBTQ person to serve on the Council of State. 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 and can truly experience lived equality. Whether that comes through advocating for equal pay and advancement in the workplace, to standing on the frontlines in the fight to protect privacy and reproductive health, I’m all in.