Monday, March 11, 2024

For Czar of NC Agriculture, It's Good Ole Boy vs. Brainiac Innovater

Sarah Taber, Insurgent Democrat

The most popular campaign photo of Sarah Taber is the one copied here, which is a studied pose, yes, but she looks to me like someone who knows farm work and heavy work at that. The look is especially crucial when you're a woman running with the boys, not to mention against a very popular incumbent Commissioner of Agriculture.

Did I say "running with the boys"? 

The boys should be so lucky to keep up with this woman, or any farm woman for that matter. Taber published an amazing little essay in The Nation in January of this year and did some woman'splaining to the men about the importance of her gender on farms: 

"We’re the ones who balance the family books, take outside jobs, handle invoicing, and turn raw crops and livestock into goods ready for people to buy. We are the business backbone that makes farm country work." 

Her personal background sounds raw enough to trust and real as dirt: "I grew up working on farms. I got good at chores, sure — but I also got good at the livelihood part of agriculture." She built a business being expert in aquaculture and aquaponics and greenhouses. She started her consultancy in 2006 to help farms and farmers transition away from traditional crops like tobacco and toward non-traditional but highly lucrative forms of agriculture -- growing food under glass or in water. She has a justifiable brag: 

...growing vegetables in greenhouses [is] a great livelihood if you get it right—but if you get one detail wrong, you’ll lose your shirt. I’m proud to say every single one of my farm clients is still in business. Altogether, they’re now worth $4 billion. [The Nation]

She alludes to a cascade of bad practices and bad decisions that some big (and a few small) farmers have engaged in, struggling to make lucrative what often has not been lucative: "Rural poverty causes radicalization. So does pollution from farms. Farm radicalization isn’t just a local problem. Farm outfits that hire undocumented workers put serious money behind hard-right legislators and sheriffs who pledge to collaborate with ICE. That means local country politics can get ugly. And those ugly politics don’t stay local. They can undermine democracy for the whole state." 

Taber holds a doctorate in plant medicine from the University of Florida. In her case, education has sparked an imagination for big agricultural projects that could actually save the planet, like the idea of turning abandoned oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico into seaweed-growing operations that could cleanse Gulf waters of their pollution.

On, her professional consultancy site that's disappeared from the Web in favor of, she self-identified as "crop scientist and writer." Regrettably (for me at least), she decided to highlight in her campaign lit her academic credentials a little more than I think can help her with a population used to good ole boys who are careful not to act too smart. Very first words of autobiography on her website: "Dr. Sarah Taber." Because I R also an overeducated "Doctor" and happened to have been close to lots of farmers growing up and heard their jibes, I tend to wince when I hear someone describe themselves as Doctor So-and-So. Might as well go ahead and parody yourself as "Perfesser So-and-So" for the country folks, cause that's what they're thinking. When is the flashing of higher education ever not off-putting as a social class marker?

Nevertheless, for her obvious smarts and practical wisdom, not to mention her vision for expanding and improving vegetable production in North Carolina, Taber is revolutionary as a candidate, but she'll have to be more than that to pull anywhere near even with the popular Republican incumbent.

Steve Troxler, Incumbent Commissioner of Agriculture (since 2004)

Photo Joseph Bradley, for The Assembly

Here's Troxler's history of election margins, making him often the most popular Republican on the ballot below President:

2004 -- his 1st election, he won by 2,287 votes or 50.3%

2008 -- won with 52% of the vote

2012 -- won with 53% of the vote

2016 -- won with 55.56% of the vote

2020 -- won with 53.86% against an unconventional woman, Jenna Wadsworth

His popularity rose steadily after his first election but dipped noticeably in 2020 and possibly because his Democratic opponent came at him from a novel direction. Sarah Taber will be his second time up against an accomplished, out-of-her-traditional-womanly-lane candidate who may come off a little more electable than Wadsworth was.

Plus Taber is going squarely at Troxler as corrupt, the single biggest factor -- if it's true -- known by political science to motivate significant shifts in the vote. Sarah Taber herself summed up the Troxler era in her piece for The Nation, "Why I'm Running for Commissioner of Agriculture":

We’ve had the same commissioner of agriculture for 20 years, despite a series of fumbles and corruption scandals on his watch. He presided over the largest crop insurance fraud ring in US history. His department tipped off meat plants suspected of animal abuse before a “surprise” inspection. His greatest success was encouraging China to buy North Carolina-grown tobacco—only for Trump, for whom the incumbent helped raise funds and votes, to destroy that market with a trade war

Meanwhile, Taber claims, Troxler and his aides "misspent taxpayer dollars on high-end lodgings and dining."

So why is ole tobacco-farmer Troxler so popular? Says Taber, he's actually quite unpopular with an increasing number of farmers. Her evidence is partly anecdotal: 

I’m struck by how eager North Carolina’s farmers are for change. It’s not hard to see why. After you account for inflation and population growth, North Carolina’s farm economy has shrunk by 19 percent in the last 20 years. Our farmers and ranchers feel it. And they know what the problem is: corrupt leadership. One hog farmer put it to me this way: “Politicians are a bit like piggies. They’re frisky when they’re little. But then they discover corn and become hogs.” He paused and went on. “Maybe it’s time to put this one in the smokehouse.”

But her best evidence that Troxler's popularity may be illusory is numbers:

In 2020 several North Carolina farm counties voted for the Democratic candidate for commissioner of agriculture [Jenna Wadsworth], and not by a little: Anson. Bertie. Northampton. Hertford. Vance. Hoke. Chatham. Watauga. Halifax. Warren. Edgecombe. Our incumbent doesn’t win because of the farmer vote .... In 2020, hundreds of thousands of suburban North Carolinians voted for both Joe Biden and a Republican commissioner of agriculture who’s wildly unpopular in much of our actual rural farm country.

Why would our suburban brethren, who only look at meat when it's under cellophane, stick with Troxler? Explains Taber, "Because he looks and sounds like what suburbanites think a farmer should look like."

Looks are important, O my brethren, especially in politics. If this is the year the progressive resistance rises up against the corruption of Trump and the extremism of Mark Robinson, Michele Morrow, Dan Bishop, at al. then constant pounding of the message of Troxler's corruption might wilt that big bushy mustache.

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