Program a hit for Carolina agriculture

Got To Be NC is North Carolina's agricultural buzz phrase that is rapidly becoming a common place logo in the state's grocery stores and popular among school children in the Tar Heel state.

When North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture, Steve Troxler, took office in 2005, one of his primary goals was to develop a comprehensive agricultural marketing program that would provide more outlets for North Carolina-grown agricultural products, but also raise consumer awareness of the State's agriculture industry.

“We struggled for some time to come up with the right approach, but couldn't quite seem to put it all together,” Troxler recalls.

“Then, one Monday morning I came into work and some of the marketing staff, working over the weekend, had come up with the name, Got To Be NC. I knew it was what we were looking for, and we've been building the program every since,” Troxler explains.

The North Carolina Commissioner knows what works when it comes to marketing agricultural products. A long-time farmer, Troxler also spent a number of years in the produce business. “Selling tomatoes when everybody has plenty of them will make you a better marketer,” Troxler laughs.

Once the Got To Be NC concept was in place, Troxler and his staff began the chore of getting the many components of North Carolina agriculture on board with the program. “All of the commodity groups that I am aware of in the state are involved in the program,” according to Troxler.

Likewise, the major grocery store chains doing business in North Carolina are participating in the program. “We have a shared cost advertising program with grocery stores that they love, and it gives our farmers some priority for providing the produce needs of in-state stores,” he explains.

A major component of Got To Be NC is the use of the Department of Agriculture's 34 tractor trailer trucks used to deliver food to the North Carolina school system, to food banks in the state and for emergency situations in other states.

“During the Katrina disaster, we drove some of our trucks down to the Mississippi coast to deliver North Carolina grown products to victims of the hurricane. The response we have gotten from people who saw those trucks with North Carolina agriculture logos and pictures on them has been phenomenal,” Troxler beams.

Each of the 34 trucks is emblazoned with plastic panels promoting one of North Carolinas commodities. These removable vinyl panels cover both sides of a tractor trailer. Each commodity group pays for the cost of the panel, and as the program has gotten more popular in the state, demand for truck space is greater than trucks available. The same truck that promotes poultry and eggs one day, may promote North Carolina watermelons on the next trip.

“Regardless of what commodity is being promoted, it's hard to miss those 40-foot mobile billboards going up and down highways in the state,” Troxler proudly proclaims. “In the past, these trucks had the North Carolina Department of Agriculture logo on the cab of the truck, but the trailers were white. Now, these trucks are hard to miss,” Troxler explains.

Educating the state's non-agricultural population to the importance of agriculture is an ongoing success story for Got To Be NC. “We want our children to understand from a young age the importance of eating nutritious food,” Troxler emphasizes.

Part of the funding for the program comes from a Gold Leaf Foundation grant. These funds, designed to help farmers who have been displaced by changes in the Federal Tobacco Program, are being used to promote North Carolina products, especially fruits and vegetables. Many former tobacco farmers have switched to vegetable production.

Though in its infancy, Got To Be NC has been widely accepted by grocery store chains operating in the state. Large chains, like Piggly Wiggly and Harris Teeter, promote North Carolina products.

The first cooperative programs were started in 2005, so no data is available on how much the program has impacted the use of state-grown products in these stores. “Reducing the time and distance to market provides a fresher product for these stores and at the same time saves in fuel costs,” Troxler notes.

“Our goal is to generate a million dollars in advertising to promote North Carolina products. With shared cost advertising, we are already there, but I want us to be in a position to spend a million dollars a year just to promote North Carolina products,” the Commissioner says.

North Carolina currently ranks among National leaders in cotton and peanut production, and with 1.2 million acres of soybeans is by far the largest soybean producer in the Southeast. The state ranks second in total poultry production and first in sweet potatoes. In addition, North Carolina has a built in market, which is growing. Projections are for the state to become the seventh most populous in the country within the next 10 years.

The huge demand for development, including the infrastructure needed to support such a large population sometimes conflicts with agricultural growth. Troxler is committed to working in harmony with the state's expected population growth.

North Carolina is the first state in the Southeast to build both ethanol and biodiesel plants. The ethanol plant is already under construction in Aurora and the biodiesel plant is close to the start of construction near Williamston.

Though excited about the alternative fuel opportunities in the state, Troxler notes that North Carolina is a corn-deficient state. He points out that Aurora is near the North Carolina coast and in an ideal position to bring in and process corn from surrounding states. With over a million acres of soybeans and world stores of beans at a record high, the opportunities for meeting the needs of the biodiesel plant provide a good market for North Carolina soybean farmers.

Another goal of the Got To Be NC program is to develop new niche products for North Carolina farmers. “We work closely with our land-grant university and have marketing staff members at a research facility near Kinston, N.C., which is geared to develop niche products that can be grown in our state,” Troxler notes.

“I like to tell people that thanks to variety development by our North Carolina State researchers, I can eat fresh North Carolina strawberries in October,” Troxler says. These strawberries, grown at 2,000 to 3,000 foot elevations in the western North Carolina mountains, provide a valuable niche crop for farmers in that part of the state, he explains.

Establishment of a Dole Foods salad plant in eastern North Carolina promises a new market for state-grown lettuce, cabbage, carrots and other salad crops. Recent announcement of a Dole fruit and berry frozen foods plant further expands opportunities for growers all over the state,” the Commissioner adds.

Though Got To Be NC is in its infancy, commodity groups have been quick to endorse the program. “We have gotten nothing but positive feedback from people who have seen our display of a young boy eating watermelon,” says Gloria Richardson, president of the North Carolina Watermelon Growers Association.

Troxler adds that schools often have special programs that are built around delivery of food to the state's schools. And, still a licensed truck driver, from time to time, Steve Troxler, North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture has taken the wheel of an 18-wheeler to personally promote North Carolina products.

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