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Cash Crop 2019

Appeared as a sponsored section in the March 2019 issue

North Carolina is much more than its growing metropolitan areas such as Charlotte and the Triangle. It’s also endless acres of cropland, pasture and timber stands.

The state’s agricultural sector is open to growth of all kinds. North Carolina has long been the nation’s leading sweet-potato producer. It’s also a powerhouse pork producer and a leader in forestry products.

As we note in this month’s edition, all that makes North Carolina a player on the world stage as an exporter. The state isn’t resting, with experimental programs focused on crops from hemp to hybrid poplars. Agriculture is also an attractive field for military veterans, and educators are leaping to help those veterans find their place on the land.

North Carolina is the nation’s leading sweetpotato producer and exports more than $100 million worth of the crop. Photo courtesy of NCAGR

A leading ag exporter

Sweetpotatoes, tobacco, pork and wood products form N.C.’s export building blocks.

By Kathy Blake

For many of the products farmed in North Carolina, if it grows, it goes. The exporting of crops, forestry and animal products makes N.C. the 11th-largest overall U.S. exporter, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Each year, millions of dollars’ worth of goods pass through the ports of Wilmington and Morehead City destined for places such as Great Britain, China, the Netherlands, Indonesia and Belgium.

The USDA reported N.C. agricultural exports worth more than $4.1 billion in 2014, an increase of more than 200% since 2005, and showed agriculture supported nearly 1.3 million jobs state-wide in farming, food processing, transportation and storage.

Tobacco and sweetpotatoes are top crops. As of October, the state had exported more than $566 million in tobacco in 2018, with China and Mexico as the leading partner countries, followed by Indonesia, Switzerland and Italy.

North Carolina SweetPotato Commission data lists N.C. as the top-producing sweetpotato state since 1971, with more than half the national supply. North Carolina harvested nearly 95,000 acres of the vegetable in 2016, according to the USDA.

As of last October, the state had exported $132.3 million worth of sweetpotatoes to more than two dozen countries in 2018, outpacing the amount from the previous year by nearly $7 million. The United Kingdom tops the list with more than $54 million spent on N.C. sweetpotatoes in the first 10 months of 2018, followed by the Netherlands at $31.9 million.

“You see a specific country in Europe, but then there is border trade. You see a huge amount going to Rotterdam, the Netherlands, but that is because there is a port,” says Michelle Wang, an international market specialist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “Half of that might then be exported out of that country to Germany or Sweden.”

Canada, Mexico and South America also haul in N.C. sweetpotatoes and, in 2016, Singapore joined the list.

China is the biggest trade partner for forest products, which in 2017 accounted for a total international export value of $1.6 billion and ranked in the top five commodities for both N.C. ports, according to the NCDA&CS’ Clay Altizer, an international marketing specialist.

Sixty percent of the state is covered by timberland, according to the N.C. Forestry Association, at 18.1 million acres. Eighty-five percent is privately owned, with 21% controlled by industrial landowners. Forest products are marketed as wood pulp, wood products, and paper and packaging.

North Carolina exported $480 million in wood products, with China and Vietnam the top destinations, and Canada and Mexico topped the charts as the biggest customers of N.C.’s $325 million of paper-and-packaging products.

While hurricanes and cold temperatures provided some challenges in 2018, growers are optimistic.

Scott Sullivan’s family business, Sullivan Farms, in Wilson County grows about 500 acres of sweetpotatoes. He’s seen the markets rise and fall.

“We’ve been doing it since my dad started in the 1970s. In a normal year, we harvest about 30,000 pounds, but it’s down about a third now, to about 20,000 pounds,” he says. “Farther south it’s even worse. But the price is up, almost a little less than double the price it was last year, and it could go more.”

Recovery takes effort

“Farmers worked around the clock to harvest as much of their crops as they could before and after Hurricane Florence made landfall, which resulted in 60% to 80% of the crop being successfully harvested,” says Kelly McIver, executive director of the North Carolina SweetPotato Commission.

Meat products also are profitable for North Carolina. According to the North Carolina Pork Council, the state ranks second to Iowa in hog production, and the state pork industry provides 46,000 full-time jobs. There are 2,100 pig farms in North Carolina, with 25% of the pork exported.

The council says about 10% of U.S. pork exports come from North Carolina, with Mexico and Canada the main customers followed by Japan, Korea and Hong Kong. State data shows $366.7 in total commodities of pork exports in 2018 through October.

Wang says North Carolina is open for business worldwide and is always looking at new possibilities.

“I have been saying we need to diversify the market. We are actively looking to other markets,” she says. “We basically are looking at any place we have the opportunity.”

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