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N.C. agriculture commissioner race: Farming, marijuana, State Fair and the future

N.C. agriculture commissioner race: Farming, marijuana, State Fair and the future

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Jenna Wadsworth says she doesn't look like a typical farmer. She's a woman. She's young. She's LGBT. She wants North Carolina to legalize marijuana. She posts TikTok videos about it.

She's also the Democratic candidate for state agriculture commissioner. Wadsworth, who has been a Wake County Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor since 2010, is running against the incumbent, Republican Steve Troxler of Browns Summit.

Troxler is a farmer, and his image and his voice, with a distinct North Carolina accent, have been part of promotions for the annual N.C. State Fair since he was first elected in 2004. He has been reelected three times. Democratic agriculture candidates, including Wadsworth, have said they've voted for him in the past.

Both candidates are graduates of N.C. State University. But their approaches to the job of agriculture commissioner are quite different.

N.C. State Fair

The highest profile part of the job — the one that non-farmers see, too — is being in charge of the N.C. State Fair. There's no fair this year because of the coronavirus, but the annual event usually draws millions of people to Raleigh every October. It can be a way to bridge the rural and urban divide with crops, animals, carnival rides and fried food.

But there's a vendor at the State Fair every year that has drawn complaints in recent years: the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who hand out free Confederate flag stickers to fair-goers.

Wadsworth said if she becomes agriculture commissioner, the group won't be allowed at the fair anymore. Under Troxler, they will, he said.

"It's always been an First Amendment issue with us," Troxler said. Troxler listed off Democratic governors during the years the group has been at the fair. Troxler said there is "nothing political about it."

Troxler said he thinks everyone feels welcome at the fair, and that he hasn't seen any problems as a result of the SCV group being there.

Troxler said he's determined to have an even better state fair in 2021, after the "gut-wrenching" decision to cancel the event this year.

"There was no way we could ensure public safety," he said, adding that the burden of the fair cancellation also includes cancellation of about 200 events this year at the fairgrounds, resulting in furloughs.

Wadsworth said the State Fair should be a North Carolina showcase. She also suggested moving to a cashless system using wristbands to pay for rides.

Wadsworth told The News & Observer in a phone interview that she believes in everybody's right to free speech. She thinks that the Sons of Confederate Veterans "in general is a racist hate group, and I don't believe it has a place at our fairgrounds."

She said that the SCV makes people feel unwelcome and uncomfortable, and said she finds the stickers and flag "abhorrent."

After complaints about the group at the State Fair in 2017, group member Darwin Roseman said it is a historical society that wants to educate people on Southern history and heritage, the N&O previously reported.

Impact of coronavirus on N.C.

Asked about Gov. Roy Cooper's handling of coronavirus response, Troxler said though he's not a health expert, he knows the economic impact has been great.

"I would hope that the vaccine comes quickly, people get their comfort levels back and we get back to normal. But there are many restaurants, many, many businesses that won't come back," he told The News & Observer in a phone interview.

Troxler said he's becoming more and more encouraged about a COVID-19 vaccine. He said the federal government has contacted his agency about storage of vaccines if needed.

"Certainly there's got to be herd immunity and that comes with a vaccine," he said.

Troxler said his department has "worked and worked and worked in partnership with DHHS and the health department to help ensure the safety of workers," but does not have regulatory control over meat processing plants that have had COVID-19 outbreaks.

The second part of COVID-19 recovery for the state is public confidence, he said. Troxler said even when restaurants and other businesses reopen fully, people have to feel safe going there. Once there is both a vaccine and public confidence, there will be a return to normalcy, he said.

At Council of State meetings, which is the group of 10 statewide elected officials who run agencies, Troxler is upbeat, sharing updates about how the agriculture department works to meet food supply needs during the pandemic. When barbershops were closed, he joked to Cooper about going to the fairgrounds to get a haircut with sheep shears.

However, like other Republicans on the Council of State, Troxler said he wished they had been more involved in decision-making and been informed. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Republican running to unseat Cooper, filed a lawsuit challenging the governor's decisions without concurrence from the rest of the Council of State. But a judge ruled against Forest, and he dropped the suit.

Wadsworth said the Council of State's role in the decision-making process during the pandemic "should be focused on public safety and keeping North Carolinians fed, sheltered and healthy." She said she would be guided by science and experts.

Agriculture, business and marijuana

Wadsworth said that bridging the urban and rural divide is central to her platform, and that rural North Carolina has been left behind. She sees new crop opportunities for small farmers as being part of the solution, but also issues outside of agriculture: broadband and Medicaid expansion. She grew up on a farm and still works on her family farm, but gives produce away instead of selling it.

Hemp farming regulation was a sticking point in the debate over the state legislature's Farm Act. Wadsworth wants to fix what she says is a testing backlog of hemp crops.

Beyond hemp, Wadsworth wants to legalize marijuana, including for recreational use. She said it's not a question of if, but when, the law changes and wants the state to be ready. She wants to make sure that small farmers benefit and is considering an acreage allotment, which limits the amount of land you can use, so more people could participate in the market.

Wadsworth said cannabis crops would need a different set of rules and regulations from hemp, but sees it as a huge opportunity for the state's farmers.

"Legislators have really missed the mark on this. I think it's a real economic opportunity," she said.

Troxler said he does not support marijuana legalization. He said he has worked hard on the state's industrial hemp pilot program.

Troxler said rural areas will prosper from agriculture and agri-business as an economic driver. He has also touted the NC Food Innovation Lab in Kannapolis and the department's small and minority farms section that works with N.C. A&T.

Troxler said the coronavirus pandemic changed food demand. Schools received fewer deliveries, and demand turned to grocery stores. Troxler said much of his job these past several months has been working to adjust with food supply needs.

"It's been chaos — we've tried to make it organized chaos," he said.

Why they're running

Troxler said he's running again because he has been in agriculture most of his adult life.

"I ran to help people and I'm still running to help people," he said. Troxler said one of his unfinished priorities is the new agriculture science center in Raleigh, which has a ribbon cutting this month.

Wadsworth said the agriculture department needs more women and diverse voices.

"I realize that I had to stand up and fight back because this is an industry that has been left in the past and it needs to move forward," she said.

Contact Jim Sands at (336) 349 -4331, ext. 6141 and follow @JimSandsRCN on Twitter.

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