How a diversity of crops, geographies and farms makes North Carolina’s agriculture sector uniquely resilient

Climate change and extreme weather pose serious threats to North Carolina agriculture as both temperatures and precipitation totals are expected to rise. However, North Carolina’s diverse agricultural production system provides a strong foundation for building climate resilience.

Environmental Defense Fund partnered with Cooperative Extension at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to study the financial impacts of climate resilience on farms in North Carolina.

As an NC A&T student and EDF summer intern, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Mark Blevins, assistant administrator for agriculture and natural resources with the Cooperative Extension, about the current state and future of North Carolina agriculture.

Can you explain your role and the purpose of Cooperative Extension at NC A&T?

Summer Lauder is an intern at Environmental Defense Fund and a senior at NC A&T studying agricultural and environmental systems.

The Cooperative Extension brings resources and research from the land-grant university to counties throughout North Carolina via extension agents and other educators to support farmers and families across the state.

We are focused on research, academics and outreach. I work to ensure that our research includes issues that small and minority farmers care about, including solutions to make their farms more sustainable and profitable.

When people picture a North Carolina farm, they probably think of big tobacco or cotton farms. But that’s hardly all that’s grown here. How would you describe North Carolina agriculture?

North Carolina is the third most diverse agriculture state in the U.S., just behind California and Florida that beat us out because of the tropical fruits and vegetables they can grow. But most people don’t realize there are very few things you cannot farm in North Carolina.

We are both geographically and agriculturally diverse, with commodities like turkey, pork, chicken, corn, soybean, wheat, fruits and vegetables. We have large family farms and lots of small family farms as well. This diversity of commodities and operations makes for a healthy agricultural economy.

What does sustainable agriculture look like in the state?

Dr. Mark Blevins is an assistant administrator for agriculture and natural resources with NC A&T’s Cooperative Extension.

Sustainable agriculture typically revolves around three things: economic, environmental and social sustainability.

In North Carolina, that could look like someone who farms conventionally, sells to farmers markets and uses sustainable, best management practices, for example, applying nutrients more efficiently. It could also look like a small organic farm that has been using organic practices even before it was trendy and has a direct market for their produce.

Sustainability to me is not about the crop or the production type, it’s about the journey toward being more economical, being a better environmental steward and being a supportive part of the community.

As the nation’s largest historically Black university, how is NC A&T’s Extension program serving Black farmers and other farmers of color around the state? What do you see as unique opportunities or challenges faced by farmers of color?

The major difference I see for minority growers is starting and sustaining an operation when other growers have a longer legacy of being landowners and being involved in government programs.

Minority growers don’t always have the same shot at success in agriculture, so our role with Extension at NC A&T is to make sure those folks have equitable opportunities to participate in our programs to get the support they need.

Ag sustainability is about the journey toward being more economical, a better environmental steward and a supportive part of the community, says @NCATExtension's Mark Blevins Click To Tweet

Are farmers feeling the impacts of more extreme weather or other climate impacts yet? If so, how? And how are they bracing for impacts to come?

Yes. We have been feeling it for quite some time. Our winters are not the same length, and the summers are hotter. Water doesn’t come consistently across the year. Farmers say that in past generations, things were more consistent.

However, there are things we can do to make our farms more resilient to those issues that are going to become more prevalent. We can add more resilience into the agriculture system, but all of those are departures from the sole focus on yield.

You must take a step back and look at the whole year and when the water is coming to plan how a crop will do best. We can look at new crops and new enterprises to adapt.

In the next 5-10 years, what changes would you like to see happen in North Carolina?

We need to make sure that agriculture can support generations of North Carolinians to come. We must ensure that the policies we put into place in the next few years amidst rapid population growth in the state support a resilient food system to feed us and the world.

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