By Hope Anderson ’22 (she/her) and Emma Brentjens ’21 (she/her), News Editors
Jenna Wadsworth is the Democratic candidate running for NC Commissioner of Agriculture. Facing Republican incumbent Steve Troxler, Wadsworth’s platform focuses on protecting small, family farmers, legalizing cannabis, combating climate change, advocating for farmworkers, and expanding both broadband access and healthcare options in our rural communities.
The Davidsonian sat down with Jenna on Zoom to talk about representation in politics, environmental, social, and racial justice, the urban-rural divide in North Carolina, and what exactly the Commissioner of Agriculture does.
Emma: Thank you so much for being with us. We’re really excited to talk to you.
Emma: You were the youngest woman ever elected to public office in North Carolina in 2010, and if elected this year, you would be the first LGBTQ Constitutional Officer in North Carolina. What is the importance of representation in politics today and in the future?
Jenna: Well, first I want to say thank you all for having me again, I really appreciate it. And you were right, back in 2010, we did make history in North Carolina with my first race in Wake County as the Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor; I became the youngest woman ever elected in the state. For me, something that has always kind of been a guiding principle is the idea that young people are not just the future, we’re capable of making real meaningful change starting today. When I see injustices I cannot just sit by; I have to act. I hope that that’s a lesson that translates: no matter your age, you have the ability to make real transformational change.
As far as being a proud bisexual woman who is running statewide […] this election has, once again, an opportunity to be kind of a game changing moment. I would be the first out LGBTQ person ever elected to serve on the Council of State in North Carolina, and I would be the youngest LGBTQ statewide elected office holder in the history of the country anywhere if elected this fall. And so for me, you know, I realized from day one that this race and me being unapologetically who I am is so much bigger than just me, right? Amongst LGBTQ youth, the suicide rate is higher than it is among other groups. There’s this feeling sometimes of hopelessness, or being unwelcomed in certain spaces, especially spaces of power. To see someone serving on one of the highest levels of government in North Carolina who is unapologetically who they are has the ability to send a message that your identity has no bearing on your ability to be successful, and to be passionate about your work, and to achieve great things in your life.
Hope: Commissioner of Agriculture is one of the lesser known public offices at the state level. What impact does the commissioner have on the everyday lives of North Carolinaians, and why are you the best person for this position?
Jenna: This is a race that sometimes doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves. But it’s incredibly important, and it absolutely affects every single person who calls North Carolina home every single day. The primary responsibility of the commissioner is to ensure and promote and enhance the ability of agriculture to produce an adequate storage of food and fiber for the state of North Carolina. And it’s kind of a bulky way of saying ‘making sure that we’re supporting our farmers, we’re supporting the agricultural community, [and] we’re building resilient food systems.’
Agriculture as a whole brings in $92.7 billion annually to the state’s economy and employs over 770,000 people. Something I’ve said over and over again is I think it’s really, really important that the person leading our state’s biggest industry, one of the most powerful industries, shares our values and priorities. I early on made a commitment not to take any corporate PAC money. And that’s basically who is funding my opponent’s campaign. I made a commitment not to take any money from fossil fuel executives or their PACs, and not to support any new pipeline projects. On top of that, I made a commitment, especially in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, not to take any money or endorsements from Police Association PACs. I believe in living my values, authentically living my values. At the end of the day, I think that is the most important thing.
And so when you talk about the Department of Agriculture, there’s so many things that it deals with in your everyday life. If you eat, you should absolutely care about who’s sitting in this role. If you drink water, if you want clean air and natural spaces, you should absolutely care about who is sitting in this office. As far as what I’m going to do, my biggest priorities are supporting our small family farmers. Again, to me it’s about keeping it local. It’s about supporting the actual people who call North Carolina home, not international corporations that denigrate our environment and natural resources and largely suffer none of the consequences while doing so. It’s about allowing our small farmers to be economically viable again to be independent, to build locally resilient food systems.
I would contend that the current commissioners inability to look for new exciting crop markets — thinking that stevia is the most exciting crop market that we have available to us — frankly, that’s just not enough. And I would further contend that his inability to accept that climate change is indeed real is absolutely a dereliction of his duty, not only to farmers who are experiencing the brunt of his inaction, [because] the root cause of so many of the problems they’re facing is indeed climate change. But also, it’s a dereliction of duty to consumers to make sure that you have access to a long term healthy supply of food that’s being grown here.
I just want to drive home that this election, for me, is about creating a more just, sustainable and equitable future for every single person who calls North Carolina home. It’s about taking an industry that’s largely been left in the past and moving it into the future. It’s about creating hope, and building a future that everybody can benefit from. It’s about giving people a piece of the pie, and the opportunity to succeed, and listening to voices that for so long have not been heard.
Emma: One of your top issues is cannabis legalization. Why is this an important issue for North Carolinians, both in terms of agriculture and social justice? What are other ways you can advocate for social justice for marginalized communities from your position?
Jenna: I love talking about this. When we want to support our small farmers, one of I think the best ways to do that is by looking at new and exciting crop opportunities. One of which is obviously cannabis legalization. The reality is that cannabis is already legal in 33 states plus D.C., and there are more states that are considering ballot measures this year. So it’s not a question of if it’s going to be legal. It’s a question of when it’s going to be legal. I think now we have the opportunity to look at what has been done well and what has been done poorly in other states, and use that to craft and create an equitable and just industry that actually works for people who call North Carolina home.
It is a no brainer that it is a huge economic opportunity for our farmers. Democrats, Republicans, Independents that I talked to — they all are on board, because they see the opportunity that’s there. And on top of all of that, I think one of the most exciting things to me is that cannabis legalization has the opportunity to help create true social justice for communities of color who’ve been disproportionately criminalized and locked up on the basis of possession charges versus caucasian users, despite the fact that the data shows us that white folks and Black folks are using cannabis at roughly the same rate. Right now, there are Black men sitting in prison for doing something that’s legal in a propensity of other states across this country. And now they’re more likely to contract COVID-19 because it is a social justice issue. It is a social equity issue. It’s also a failure of government of both Democrats and Republicans in the legislature, who have had bills come up year after year, at least for medicinal legalization, and have decided to punt on them.
The Commissioner of Agriculture would have to work with the legislature to make this happen, yes. But I’ve been talking to members of the legislature from day one about this, and I have been unapologetic about how I feel about it. And I’m committed to seeing it happen in North Carolina under my tenure. I’ve also been talking to a number of candidates for the legislature about this from day one. They know where I stand, and they know that I will absolutely fight to see this happen in North Carolina.
Hope: Environmental justice has become an increasingly relevant issue, with marginalized groups often bearing the brunt of environmental hazards like coal ash ponds and CAFO manure lagoons. How can North Carolina promote accountability and start to mitigate these effects?
Jenna: Well, one of the biggest ways is by electing a commissioner who isn’t beholden to these big corporations. You brought up a really good point: we’ve pulled the data, [and] it’s mostly socio-economically disadvantaged folks or people of color who are more likely to live next to one of these controlled animal feeding operations. My thing is we should be holding these corporate polluters, these people who are not prioritizing the welfare of their laborers or the welfare of the animals, accountable, and they should be paying their fair share.
And I think this kind of also touches a little bit on what I would contend are labor abuses that you’re seeing in a lot of these big meat processing plants that are connected to these big corporate ag. organizations. The thing about small meat processors is we should absolutely support them, because they allow small farmers to be economically successful and independent. I’ve met with some small meat processors. They treat the animal with as much care and dignity as possible. They treat their workers with care and dignity. The reality is, as long as people are eating meat, you have to have access to, I believe, sustainable and ethical ways that we process and raise these animals. I’ve met with [small meat processors] that literally use every part of the animal. The other thing is a lot of these small meat processors I’ve toured or visited, they’ve put in environmentally sustainable methods of processing. Overall, we’re capable of doing things in a better way.
Emma: Yeah, thank you. So we wanted maybe to ask you which questions you wanted to get to first, before we continue.
Hope: How much of a time crunch are you on?
Jenna: I think probably talking about the urban rural divide. That’s a useful one.
Emma: Yeah, that’s one that we were wondering about a lot, too.
Hope: Let’s get to that one.
Emma: Under your main issues, you mention the urban-rural divide in North Carolina. As someone from northeastern NC, I’m curious about what this means to you and what steps you plan to take to improve this relationship.
Jenna: When I talk about addressing the urban-rural divide, this is something that’s really important to me. I grew up on a hog, cow, chicken, corn, cotton, tobacco, and soybean farm on a dirt road in eastern North Carolina, a farm that I still help manage operations of to this day with my father, that I still actively garden on. So as a small farmer, I understand how hard it is to succeed in rural parts of this state. And then also, as someone who has been elected for a decade serving over a million people living in downtown Raleigh, I think I’m well positioned to bridge the urban-rural divide; I have lived in both worlds, I still live in both worlds.
I think that there’s two major ways that we can really go about bridging the urban-rural divide. The first is by making meaningful investments in rural broadband access, because the reality is, if you don’t have the access to the technology to compete in the statewide or global marketplace, you can’t. You’re going to get left behind. I live in Raleigh, and I have an internet speed of over 220 megabytes per second. Someone I know a couple blocks away has fiber; they have over 700 megabytes per second. My parents out on the farm 30 minutes away, their internet speed isn’t even two megabytes per second. And a lot of their neighbors can’t even get internet access because of something called the last mile phenomenon, where it is too expensive to run the cable an extra mile because there aren’t enough consumers for the company to deem it profitable. We are letting corporate profit margins make decisions about policy instead of prioritizing people.
The other meaningful way to bridge this urban-rural divide is by making meaningful investments in rural health care. Because if you are not healthy, you cannot be economically productive. With the older age of the farmers, this is something that is of critical importance. And in rural areas in particular, in North Carolina, places like Asheville, in Wilmington, in Greenville, we’ve seen the sale of a lot of these regional hospitals in the last couple years. Again, we’re allowing corporate profit motives to drive priorities, unacceptable to me. The other thing that I think is really important is destigmatizing mental health treatment, especially in rural areas. And I’ll tell you why. So like I said, [we’ve had a] lack of leadership in agriculture for years on both the state and federal level. All of these tariffs, trade wars, the inability to recognize climate change as a problem, major storm events, lack of new market opportunities… because of all of those things, you’re seeing farmers experience something called ‘farm stress.’ (ECU is doing a bunch of research on this.) As a result of that, they are going bankrupt at record rates. As a result of going bankrupt at record rates, they are committing suicide at very high rates compared to what we’ve ever seen. It is a crisis in the agricultural community that the people with the institutional knowledge and know how to produce our food are ending their lives because they feel hopeless and helpless. And I believe that the person who is leading this industry should be screaming from the rooftops about this crisis and doing everything they can to meaningfully address it. Because this is about the welfare and well-being of our rural communities. It’s about the welfare and well-being of our farmers. It’s about protecting our food supply.
The last thing I will say about rural health is that I think that absolutely includes looking at nutrition and food insecurity. And I am committed to doing better under my tenure to address that. I have an idea […] go with me a little bit on this: to imagine a future without agricultural subsidies. What if we work with the legislature and we develop a program where we contract with our farmers here in North Carolina to grow the fruits and vegetables, raise the meat and dairy products that will end up on our children’s school lunch plates? Not only does that encourage diversification, get rid of food deserts, encourage better soil health practices, help us move into regenerative and organic practices in the long run, but also provides our children with a more nutrient-rich product at a time when their brains and bodies are developing.
And so, you know, I think that our ability to address some of the biggest problems that we’re facing in society, we can do that through agriculture. But it means electing someone who is able to give a nod to our past, to learn from our agricultural heritage, to have a vision for a more sustainable and just and equitable future that works for every single person who calls North Carolina home and the actual ability to implement that vision. I don’t know if you can tell, I’m feisty. I’m a fighter. I am ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work doing that.
Emma: Yeah, thank you. I have to ask quickly, I’m from Chowan County, so I was curious where in eastern North Carolina you’re from.
Jenna: Johnson County.
Emma: Okay, yeah.
Jenna: They grow a lot of cotton in your area, though.
Emma: Yeah. That was just something that really stood out to me on your platform, because going to school here in Mecklenburg County, and home it’s just so, it’s unbelievably different. I feel like I’m in a different, like, they’re two different states sometimes.
Jenna: It is two different worlds.
Emma: Yeah, it’s really, I think it’s important that you make that part of your platform. So yeah, thank you for talking with us about that.
Jenna: Thank you. And I think one of your other questions is just, actually, kind of a perfect segue: was what’s one of my favorite things about living in North Carolina?
Hope: Perfect kind of ending note, if you have a couple minutes.
Jenna: I’m so proud to be from North Carolina, so hopeful and grateful for the potential opportunity to be able to serve this amazing state with amazing individuals who call North Carolina home. I think one of the coolest things is that within a few hours, I could be out on the coast or in the Outer Banks or in the mountains. I mean, we just have such a geographically diverse, beautiful, beautiful landscape. And I really, really hope that I get elected to be able to just serve and preserve our natural resources and environment.
Hope: All right. Well, thank you so much again, I mean, it’s really interesting. I think Emma and I are both really interested in politics and social justice. But we’re also very environmental people and study science. So it’s just super cool how all of that is encompassed by this department, and kind of how much you’ve been able to tie those things together.
Jenna: Thank you. You could go on my website, you can see who I’ve been endorsed by but environmentally […] I’m actually the only statewide candidate right now that the Sunrise Movement has endorsed. And as far as my opponent, […] he is the largest recipient of campaign cash from the racist Sons of Confederate Veterans Organization. Who by the way, as a result of that, had no problem putting on their website that they did so because Troxler is a good friend of theirs who allows them to continue to exhibit at the State Fair. Imagine if you were a Black woman or Black man and you see that; that’s unacceptable to me.
And I think this is probably where I will end. Just I want to be very clear about the fact that I believe that Black Lives Matter and Black farmers matter, and I think that absolutely and without any caveats. It’s absolutely true that Black farmers in this country have faced a long and storied history of discrimination on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Farm Service Agency that’s responsible for lending, and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. Look at the Pigford lawsuit. Black farmers in this country have 1/10th of the land now that they did a century ago. Black farmers only make up 1.5% of farmers in the country now. Here in North Carolina, out of something like 46,000 farms, about 2000 are Black-owned or Black-run, and that’s because USDA and FSA engaged in predatory lending practices.
I know that Black folks know best how to fix the issues that they are facing every single day in the agricultural industry; lived experience is absolutely critical. Because no matter what I do, I will never be a person of color. There has been a history of Black folks, women, LGBTQ voices often not being listened to or promoted within the North Carolina Department of Agriculture under my opponent’s tenure. I just want to say that I understand that you cannot effectively lead or govern from within an echo chamber surrounded by voices that mirror your own, surrounded by people whose experiences mirror those of your own. Representation matters. We know that if you don’t have a seat at the table, a lot of times you end up on the menu. I’m committed to making sure that we have a diverse group of people who are leading this industry into the future. And I’m really really excited again to get to work doing that as well. Thank you all so much.
Hope: This was incredible. Thank you so much again for joining us. I know we went a little bit over, but I’m really glad you were able to get so much in.