Britt Cobb: Unintentional politician

Britt Cobb never intended to become a politician, but there he sits in the office that says Commissioner of Agriculture.

By trade, he's a marketing man, hired by the Sodfather, the late Jim Graham in 1972. He started to work in marketing soon after graduation and sees the expansion of North Carolina agricultural products overseas as one of his main goals as ag commissioner.

He grew up on a farm in rural Wilson County and after graduating with a degree in business from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, he has worked in the department for more than 30 years.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley tapped Cobb as interim commissioner to fill the un-expired term of former ag commissioner Meg Scott Phipps after she resigned amid scandal. The governor later named him ag commissioner.

“I didn't think of becoming a politician,” Cobb says.

“When I came into this role June 6, 2003, I came into an agency that was in a bit of turmoil,” Cobb says in his office as he looks out the window at the Capitol Building in Raleigh.

“I'll never forget what the governor told me,” Cobb recalls. “He said, “There are three things I want you to do: No. 1, restore the integrity and credibility of the agriculture department not only in North Carolina, but nationwide. No. 2, make it a better place for employees to come to work everyday. And No. 3, do all you can to increase the profitability of farming.”

In listing the accomplishments of his administration, Cobb says many issues required a lot of action. He re-bid the contracts for the State Fair. “We made tremendous strides in the State Fair,” he says, “and turned it into the most profitable fairs we've ever had.”

“We moved forward and made tremendous headway in the department,” Cobb says. “There are a lot of dedicated professionals here and they helped rally us and rebuild the department and restore the credibility we had enjoyed for so many years.”

On his watch, the department began a joint project with a number of groups to provide a value-added avenue for growers. The Blue Ridge Food Ventures in Asheville, N.C., offers growers the food science and marketing know-how to turn their produce into profitable value-added products. “It's going to be a prototype that can be replicated across the state many times, I think.”

Cobb also started an AgriTourism program at the department. He sees this avenue as another value-added avenue for growers. “In the U.S., agri-tourism is in its infancy, but in Canada and Europe, it's much bigger.”

The department is also offering a pilot farm-revenue protection package, Adjusted Gross Revenue Lite, which insures the gross revenue for small, limited resource farmers. “We grow about 150 commodities in North Carolina and only 21 are eligible for crop insurance.”

He says the department has consolidated work on its research farms in order to get more bang for the buck and offer growers more opportunities to diversify. “A lot of work was done on the buyout before I got here, but in the last four or five months, we've been planning for the post buyout period,” Cobb says. “We're encouraging growers to diversify, but down the road, I see North Carolina growing more tobacco than we do today.”

Before becoming ag commissioner, Cobb spent more than 30 years marketing North Carolina ag products to export markets. He headed up the department's European office in Germany. “My background is international marketing,” he says. “That's our market in the future. We're No. 10 in the United States in the amount of ag products we export. We export 29 percent of everything we grow in this state. This market represents not only the growth, but the survivability of agriculture. I am optimistic. That's why it's so important for the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and the U.S. Trade Representative to have a trade policy that is going to be conducive to us in the international marketplace.” North Carolina's three big markets are Canada, Mexico and Japan. Cuba is also a good market. “Let me be very clear, I don't agree with the form of government, but they're paying cash in advance for North Carolina products and we are shipping them a lot of products,” Cobb says.

Getting into international markets is an expensive proposition, Cobb says. It's one that requires a good banker and a good freight forwarder, a travel agent that handles cargo. USDA, through its programs, matches half of the funds that companies put up in order to get into the international markets.

In deciding to run for the office of ag commissioner, Cobb says he looked at it as a way “to give back service to the department and the people of this state. I love this department.”

The ag department has been his one and only job. He says the late Jim Graham was a mentor. “He was one of the best ambassadors and salespeople you could have,” Cobb says. “We became very good friends. In his last term, he called me down to his office about four or five times a week.”

After Cobb came into the role of ag commissioner, he often asked Graham for his advice. “He said, ‘Son’ — that's what he always called me — ‘just do what you think is right.’”

“Speaking of politics, he told me don't judge any beauty contests, don't break in line and don't draw raffle tickets,” Cobb laughs.

Cobb describes himself as a person who surrounds himself with the best people possible. “I let them know what we want done, and provide them with the tools and support and encouragement that will get results,” Cobb says. “I'm not a micromanager at all, but my wife tells me that I'm the very tightest person with a dollar she's ever seen. When you're working with public funds, it's even more important to be fiscally conservative.”

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