From the tractor
by Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler
When North Carolina legislators approved the 2011-2012 budget, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services inherited four programs from other state agencies. They are the N.C. Forest Service, Division of Soil and Water Conservation, Grade A Milk and Sleep Products.
These were not changes we sought, but clearly were changes the legislators thought made sense, and I don't disagree. At the federal level, similar programs fall under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
We welcome these new programs to the department and to the ag family in the broader context. I have already learned a lot about these new programs, and know I will learn even more as time goes on.
The N.C. Forest Service wasted no time in helping bring me up to speed as crews have been engaged in fighting multiple fires in eastern North Carolina before, during and after the agency's transition from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. I was able to visit the sites of two major wildfires in eastern North Carolina -- one in Pender County and the other in Bladen and Cumberland counties.
I was impressed with the dedication and profess-ionalism of the fire crews. They had been working long hours in hot weather to try to protect homes and land from being scorched. They understand there is a lot at stake with wildfires, and they work very hard to try to get them under control.
What has been challenging about some of these wildfires is the organic nature of the soil where these fires are burning. The organic soil can reach depths of 8 feet or more. The wildfire can creep underground, drying out vegetation until it reaches a point of combustion, and fire can smolder in the ground for months until there is a soaking rain.
We can certainly use the rain, as many parts of the state are very dry. I hope our forestry staff can soon get a helping hand from Mother Nature.
The N.C. Forest Service not only fights fires, it also has a number of other responsibilities tied to developing, managing and caring for our state's forest resources. This includes reforestation services, for-est fire prevention and suppression, and insect and disease control. The division is involved in the operation of tree seedling nurseries, long-range for-estry planning and tech-nical development, water quality controls, urban forestry assistance, training and support to volunteer fire departments and forestry education.
Our forest resources provide great benefits to us, including clean water and air, timber for wood products, recreational opportunities, wildlife habitats, stable soil and beautiful scenery.
Don't expect any big changes to state-owned lands and recreational areas that are managed by the N.C. Forest Service.
Here are some highlights of our other additions.
The Division of Soil and Water Conservation fosters voluntary, incentive-driven management of soil, water and related natural resources. This group is recognized as having one of the nation's top soil and water conservation programs for private lands, something I am very proud of. Soil and Water staff partner with local conservation districts and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service, as well as private and nonprofit organizations. This strong local district infrastructure has lead to the success in putting conservation measures on the ground across the state.
Soil and water are essential foundations of agricultural production, and they are finite resources. It is in everyone's best interest to use them conservatively and not be wasteful.
The Grade A Milk program inspects dairy farmers and processors to ensure safety and wholesomeness of milk products. It has joined our Food and Drug Protection Division, which already regulates the making of butter, cheese and frozen desserts.
As regular readers of this column know, food safety is an important priority. The department is already involved in inspecting many sectors of food production, so moving this program to our agency made sense.
The Sleep Products program is responsible for inspecting and licensing all sleep products sold or manufactured in the state. It also regulates the sanitizing process for used bedding products. For that reason, it now falls under our Structural Pest Control and Pesticides Division.
This is one of the oldest programs in state government, dating back to 1937. In today's increasingly global marketplace, it is important to ensure that all new bedding products adhere to rigorous sanitary standards.
You will be hearing more about these and other NCDA&CS programs in the future.