Editor’s Note: Kate Catlin Payne, the vice president of communications at the NC Chamber, contributed the following blog post following the 2022 NC Chamber Ag Allies Conference. 

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Providing jobs to one in six North Carolinians, agribusiness and agriculture helps drive a major share of North Carolina’s economic success. We all enjoy the (literal) fruits of their labor.  Still, we all sometimes forget to consider how it is, exactly, that food makes it to our table.

This, and other timely topics in agriculture and agribusiness were on the agenda at the NC Chamber’s recent Ag Allies Conference.

What’s impacting the state’s agricultural community, its workforce, and our food supply?  We explored three areas:

State of the Fertilizer Industry

At the event, Corey Rosenbusch, president and CEO of The Fertilizer Institute, broke down a complicated environment for the critical agriculture inputs.

Here’s what’s happening, Rosenbusch explained: New products and technology are entering the market at such a rapid pace that it is challenging for farmers and retailers to quickly determine impact, not only on yields but on environmental outcomes as well.  Proliferation of those technologies is currently the largest ever observed, said Rosenbusch. And while this is a challenge, for sure, there’s also opportunity as these tools can enhance efficient use of existing fertilizers, he noted.

Still, the consumer continues to remain the wild card. We are further than ever from the farm with little understanding about what we are eating and increasing thoughts and ideas on how it should be produced. The industry is always working to respond to those shifting ideals.

Of course, the impact of the conflict in Ukraine cannot be understated. Russia is the second-largest producer of fertilizer, and Russia and Belarus together account for almost half of the world’s potash production. Rosenbusch cautions natural gas as the issue to watch most closely. It is the building block for all ammonia nitrogen fertilizers, and he estimates about 80% of all nitrogen production in Europe is shut down right now due to the high cost of natural gas.

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Investing in Diversity in the Sector

Steve Evans, director of community development at Smithfield, likened criticisms of constant discussion around diversity, equity, and inclusion to annual cholesterol lectures from his doctor.

“When I confront him about it, he tells me that we will stop talking about it when I do something about it,” said Evans.

The first recipients of Smithfield’s Unity & Action Program, J&J Martin Farm Produce, lost their hog production to a storm. Through the program, Smithfield provided financing to rebuild the hog operation, ultimately diversifying the farm’s income to feed generational support of the farm.

In the Martin family for generations, the farm was started when their great-grandfather, Harry Martin, a formerly enslaved individual who ran away to join the Union Army, purchased a small tract on the farm. His family now has more than 100 acres that they continue to invest in and will pass down to generations to come.

“That’s what we have to do as an industry, we have to move beyond the conversation and take actionable steps,” Evans noted in remarks delivered at the conference.

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Food Security is National Security

We live in a bimodal food system, meaning that while half of the world can afford the food that is necessary to sustain life, the other half, frankly, cannot.

That’s according to Ambassador Kip Tom, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture.

But just because it is currently a bimodal system, it does not have to be so, Ambassador Tom said. Instead, we can change global food systems, noted Tom.  It’s just a matter of providing the innovation, education, access to finance and credit, and the willingness and interest to get into the industry, the Ambassador said.

For instance, the World Food Program was originally established as a humanitarian body to deliver food aid after a natural disaster.  But today, natural disaster only makes up 30% of the responses, the remaining 70% are due to manmade conflict, such as that currently underway in the Ukraine.

We must invest and set up food systems for people to be able to feed themselves, said Ambassador Tom, adding that this cannot be done by governments and governmental agencies alone.

“The private sector is beginning to invest in developing nations and prop up food systems so that people can have an economic scale to feed themselves and create a business opportunity for them and their children,” the Ambassador said.

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