Hey, I’m Jenna Wadsworth

Photo: Jenna Wadsworth

Farmers, like small farming, are a dying breed—but not if Jenna Wadsworth can help it. At 32 years old, she’s amassed more than 10 years of agricultural policy experience, having been elected at 21 years old as North Carolina’s youngest woman in political office. In fact, she’s been re-elected to the Wake County soil and water conservation district board of supervisors an additional two times since. Her election to the board – which neighbors the district where her family of farmers have called home for many generations – also made her the first out LGBTQ person to serve in the position. 

She was elected in 2010 while a junior at North Carolina State University, a tough year for North Carolina Democrats, one Jenna described as a “tipping point.” Suffering losses in the state legislature and in long-held Democratic Congressional districts, her victory in Wake County, not quite the bellwether in the traditionally conservative red state, gave the party some kind of hope. Democrats wondered if her emergence was a foreshadowing of a bumper crop of young, liberal-leaning political seedlings, germinating for the next election cycle. Like Jenna, smart, rural children are often persuaded to abandon their roots in corn fields and hog farms and encouraged to use education to leapfrog into big-city living. Jenna was firmly planted. Instead, she used her education from The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a top-10 national high school for education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), along with her undergraduate degrees in political science and women and gender studies to come up with creative policy ideas that are guided by research and that promote economic, political and social equity and equality. Her way of thinking challenges the status quo that has traditionally been run by cisgender white men in rural America.

With all its patriarchal hubris, farmers are running themselves in the ground. Decades of monoculture and big farming, consolidation, technological isolationism and climate change have left farmers in debt, hungry and even suicidal. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that suicide rates among farmers had increased by 40 percent over the last two decades. Some 450 farmers in nearly ten Midwestern states killed themselves between 2014 and 2018. The Trump administration’s trade wars with China haven’t helped either. They have significantly impacted traditional distribution channels and available markets for farmers to buy supplies and to sell their produce internationally. Many hardworking farmers now subsist on government relief checks, with crops rotting on the vine and not enough funds to pay their overhead costs. The picture is only getting grimmer. 

The coronavirus disease pandemic has now made a bad situation worse. At the beginning of the pandemic there was disruption in the meat supply, resulting in shortages in grocery stores throughout the country. Because of consolidation, only a handful of companies control 80 percent of the production of meat nationally which creates a tremendous amount of risk and bottleneck. Small meat processing facilities that would have helped to allow small farmers to meet the need locally have largely been displaced due to federal law that require small farmers to take their produce to approved slaughterhouses which can be hundreds of miles away. As well, there have been several cases of disease outbreak in meatpacking facilities that compounded the problem, where some 10,000 or 56 percent of Latino meat and poultry workers across 21 states reported having the virus. Border closings have hampered the legal  and illegal immigration of farm workers and regional trade. The few small farmers that haven’t yet sold off their farms or are strong armed to sign contracts with big farming have been unable to bridge the technology gap in operating their businesses remotely—many with no access to high-speed internet. Considering all the above, Jenna has her plate full. 

As the vice chair of the soil and water district board, Jenna has oversight in administering federal and state agricultural programs in conservation, resource management and protection for citizens and landowners. Her department also responds to natural disasters and projects of local interest. She’s worked hard to build distribution channels for locally grown foods and invested in environmental education. She’s voted to protect water quality and fought to preserve farmland in partnership with the US. Marine Corps. The causes she champions hit home directly and affect her own family business, where she oversees farm operations of about 8 acres of land with her father and rents out another 70. Most recently, she worked with state legislators to create a senate bill to help shore up the food distribution pipeline via a partnership with NC State and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. The bill would have offered farmers a tax credit for donating food they can’t sell otherwise to schools, churches, food banks and non-profits, but the bill is still sitting on the senate floor, awaiting the Republican-controlled legislative body to act. While North Carolina is among the top 10 states in international and domestic agricultural production, it’s also top 10 in food insecurity where 1 in 5 children don’t know where their next meal is coming from. 

Her position as vice chair gives her a wide berth in administering and delivering policy, but none of the extraordinary powers to set the state’s agricultural policy agenda. For this reason, she ran for state office in the commissioner of agriculture race against the four-time Republican incumbent, Steve Troxler, 68. For his part, Troxler operates a family owned farm that produces soybean, tobacco, vegetables and wheat. His campaign website lists as his focus: the development of North Carolina farm products, preserving working farms and the state’s food supply. The state of agriculture and farming in North Carolina largely falls right at his feet and has for the past 15 years that he’s been in office. He oversees 20 divisions and over 2,000 employees in a position that has no term limits. As a constitutional officer, the commissioner of agriculture reports directly to the governor and is a member of the council of state, which is the highest ranking body of the executive branch. 

The difference between them couldn’t be starker. Troxler, as Jenna described, “looks exactly like what you imagine a traditional farmer from the south to look and sound like. Some might even say he speaks through his mustache,” meaning a little pastoral, a little burly and a lot conservative. In a recent Smoky Mountain News interview they laid out the differences between them. For example, whereas Jenna supports the legalization of cannabis and medical marijuana to offer farmers an additional revenue stream, which 33 other states have already done, Troxler opposes it. On climate change, Jenna said she would create a department to help mitigate its effect on the industry, Troxler touts his track record in conservation and disaster relief programs. On nearly every issue, where Jenna embraces fresh ideas and being proactive, Troxler is more traditionalist and reactive. 

The commissioner of agriculture job is no small stakes. The powers the department wields impacts a vast swath of the state and even the American economy. Farming in North Carolina is big business and generates $90 billion in yearly revenue, representing one-sixth of the state’s net income. Although she didn’t win, that Jenna could come within 8 percentage difference or 500,000 votes of Troxler on her first state-wide run speaks as much of her talents and message as it does for a shaky level of confidence in Troxler’s leadership. 

Fresh off her run for state office, we sat down to talk with Jenna about her experience and the challenges and future of farming.

What was it like growing up on your grandparents' farm in Johnston County?

I grew up on a hog, cow, chicken, corn, cotton, tobacco and soybean farm on a dirt road in Johnston County. It’s eastern North Carolina; very rural. The road didn’t even get paved until I was 16. I left home to go to The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, which is a top 10 School in the country for STEM education for juniors and seniors in high school. When I think back then, I realize just how idyllic my childhood was like. I was playing hide and seek in the corn and grain silos. I got to have actual hayrides for every birthday or slumber party that I had growing up. I remember what it was like chasing guinea hens and their chicks down rows of tobacco, sitting with Granny and shelling snap peas on the back porch, and a wooden school chair for my old one-room schoolhouse that had been on one of my uncle’s farms. 

With such a deep family history in farming, why was it important for you to pursue a career in public office, representing farmers? Where did it come from?

Once I had registered to vote, I actually took my mom to go register. She had never been registered before that, and it prompted my father to get involved in party politics because of my engagement and experience. I was always kind of this self-starter, driven by something deep inside me. I think there was always something that I was taught about fighting for justice and not idly standing by while injustices continued to be perpetuated. My grandfather who was very engaged in education desegregated schools in eight or nine counties throughout North Carolina and thought that the science curriculum should include science in this state. Creationism was what was the base of what we were being taught in schools in the state for a long time. So, I think that is why I felt this natural inclination towards politics, because I thought that that was the place where you could do the most good for the most people and you could do so in a really significant and powerful way. 

What is the reality of farming and farmers in North Carolina today?

The average age of a farmer in North Carolina is actually about two years older than what it is nationally, and a lot of these folks are lacking access to high-quality medical care. North Carolina is one of the few states that hasn’t expanded Medicaid expansion and so our farmers are really struggling. Covid-19 has only further exacerbated this on top of years of trade wars and tariffs and a lack of leadership on both the state and federal level. The fact that we continue to elect or support leaders who don’t believe in the science behind climate change and are not actively doing anything in order to address it, you’re seeing farmers face a tougher and tougher time year after year. 

It’s already one of the hardest jobs there is out there but because of all of these additional strains, not including severe natural disasters that really seem to be affecting their ability to be productive and to know for sure what their future, their livelihood looks like, you’re seeing farmers experience mental health issues at one of the highest rates we’ve ever seen. This tends to be a more conservative group of individuals. There’s a great stigma around seeking mental health treatment and counseling. They are experiencing bankruptcy at record rates here in the southeast United States. As a result of that they are committing suicide or struggling with other addiction or other issues at a higher rate than ever before and they don’t have anywhere to go. They don’t have anyone to talk to and that’s something that should concern every single one of us in this whole entire country no matter where you live, because the people with the institutional knowledge and know-how to produce our food are ending their lives because they feel hopeless and helpless. 

You display a mix of academic interests in the arts and science, and I wonder how both would have served you in your role as North Carolina’s commissioner of agriculture?

For the first time in a very long time, people throughout this state actually gave a damn about this race. There are people who have never cared about the ag commissioner race who were watching and paying attention. I don’t think that you have to have a degree in agriculture to understand and love agriculture or to understand ag policy. That was the other thing that made it really easy for the right to just be like, ‘Oh well, look at this liberal indoctrinated person running for office,’ which is funny because I went to the same college that my opponent went to—NC State University. 

I think my degrees in political science and women and gender studies, and minor in English, make me a stronger communicator, whether it’s writing a speech or writing an op-ed, or writing a letter to introduce myself to a donor or a voter. I think they make me stronger when it comes to those communication skills and being able to tell the story of why our big vision and idea matters to folks. From all of my degrees, I was able to figure out how to connect the dots and create policy that was transcendent of just what people envision this one office was supposed to do. 

I would talk about why you should care about small farms and connect that to new economic opportunities for small farms and how that affects the North Carolina economy as a whole; I would talk about cannabis legalization not just as an economic opportunity but as an opportunity to reinvest in public infrastructure and public education; I would connect the dots to social justice and how communities of color have been disproportionately criminalized on the basis of possession charges here in North Carolina and that Black men are 3.3 times more likely to be charged with a cannabis related event than white men despite the fact that they use the product at roughly the same rate; I would connect the dots to talking about climate change and what that means for every single one of us; I talked about school gardens, how we could also affect childhood nutrition which would have long-term health and educational career outcomes for folks; I would talk about how our farmers could have a guaranteed revenue stream, if they were the ones producing the food that would end up in our children’s schools; I talked about bridging the urban and rural divide through meaningful investments in rural healthcare and in rural broadband and how that absolutely can be transformative for entire communities throughout the state. 

The degrees that I have, and the work experience I’ve had in the political realm helping to craft policy on multiple different levels, allowed me to figure out a platform that would appeal to people who traditionally did not care about the ag race.

Your age is often referenced as a compliment and a surprise, what does your youth uniquely bring to the causes you serve?

Yesterday I celebrated my 32nd birthday. It was not a celebration that I had hoped for, really. I was hoping that right now I would have been naming a transition team. 

My age was seen both as something exciting but also it was absolutely weaponized against me from time to time. I was 21, a junior at NC State University when I became the youngest woman ever elected in political office in the state. When I talk about this now and why that’s important, it’s because I think it matters to realize that young people are not just the future. We hear that a lot. You hear people say, ‘Oh, you’re the future. You’re the future.’ Well, yeah, we are but we’re also “the now.” We’re capable of making meaningful transformative change in our communities, starting today, and that’s work that I’ve been doing for a decade. I helped create a pipeline in order to see the distribution of locally grown food in your local economy, allowing farmers to keep the land that has been in their family for generations and they could keep doing what they love to do, which is farm. I pushed for meaningful investments in environmental education programming in both our public and private schools. 

I think it’s important to open up people’s minds to the idea that your age does not have to be a determinant of your ability to make important changes in society. I have over a decade of policy making experience, working with the agricultural community in a county with over 1.2 million people, a county that chose to elect me three times by even larger margins each time. Anybody that would try to say that somehow my age must mean that I am lacking the requisite maturity necessary, in order to serve in a statewide office, I would let them know because I’m young, I’m able to think of fresh and exciting solutions to deal with some of the biggest issues that we’re facing. My unique experience, by virtue of my age, brings in a whole different world of opportunities for us in government.

How has the coronavirus pandemic exposed the urgency of facing the issues affecting farming?

Existing disparities have only been further exacerbated by this pandemic. We know from looking at the data across the country that rural areas have been disproportionately affected and also lack access to the same level of high-quality care as folks in urban areas. Roughly related to this is the fact that we have a lack of access to broadband services, which made it very hard when a lot of farmers and agro businesses had to shift to mostly online modes of selling or interacting with customers. If there wasn’t Wi-Fi that made it very very difficult. Given the average age of the farmer, it was particularly difficult for some of these farmers who may not have been trained on how to engage with an online audience. 

At the beginning of Covid-19, you saw disruptions and access to meat on grocery store shelves throughout the country. That’s because we literally have just a few companies that are controlling every single aspect of growing, raising and slaughtering and then shipping meat in this whole entire country. You also see abuses of laborers like your Latinx farm workers because you saw a ton of Covid-19 outbreaks at these meat processing plants throughout the country. We’re seeing an issue with food insecurity being further exacerbated because you’re seeing people shift to just growing or producing one major thing, so you’re not seeing diversification on their farms. You’re seeing a kind of environment and atmosphere of monoculture. Just because you live in eastern North Carolina on or next to a farm doesn’t mean you don’t live in a food desert, because if you’re just producing cotton or feed corn or just hogs, you’re lacking access to other fruits and vegetables that provide, a well-rounded balanced diet, especially one that our children need access to. 

Covid-19 has really highlighted the fact that we need to spend more time supporting small meat processing facilities that are better at serving your local small farmers and allowing your small farmers to continue to stay in business and produce meat in a way that is not only more environmentally sustainable it’s also more ethical and morally sound. I spent a lot of time during Covid, pushing individuals to not just shop in the grocery stores, but to think of farmers markets or roadside stands or your individual farmer as a grocery store as well; to make sure that you’re getting a certain portion of your meat of your dairy of your vegetables from a locally grown source. 

How has your message been resonating with the farmers?

Change is scary. A lot of these farmers are prideful people that have had to work hard every single day of their life. Sometimes they’re a little apprehensive to see someone who looks like me. I don’t look like what a traditional farmer looks like. In fact, I’m kind of the antithesis of what a traditional farmer looks like in a lot of these people’s minds, but I thought it was important to unapologetically run as myself, to let people know that there is a new face, a new generation of folks who are excited about getting engaged in agriculture and involved in this industry. 

I was very open when I was running about not accepting any corporate PAC money. I’m one of the only statewide candidates that made that pledge. It was really important to me to run a campaign based on my values and what I felt like the south, the progressive south should be focused on, the south that was capable of creating a vision where we actually were representative of the people we were serving and that we were responsive to every single person who called this state home: Black farmers, veteran farmers, female-owned and run farms, Latin X farm workers, queer farmers, in particular, queer veteran farmers, who don’t always have the representation or someone who understands them or understand their perspective serving in leadership in ag, instead of just a select few who could cut a corporate campaign PAC check. I think that my message was really exciting for people who feel like their voice hasn’t been heard. But for our conventional farmers, they were not always very receptive to me because I challenged and questioned their livelihood. They saw that as a threat. 

In your platform for the office of North Carolina’s commissioner of agriculture you embrace the concerns of Black farmers, immigrant workers and women rights, groups that have been generally disenfranchised in society, let alone in the farming community. Why should social justice issues matter to farmers in rural places?

I think that equality and equity and making sure that our neighbors are loved and respected and taken care of by the government is something that every single one of us should care about. That’s just being a good neighbor and being a good individual. I think farmers should care about this. The commissioner of agriculture role, while you would be the biggest voice statewide for the agricultural community, you’re also elected by people statewide whether or not they live on a farm or work on a farm. So, for me, this is also about caring about every single person who calls North Carolina home. This commissioner’s office has the ability to direct or implement or affect policy that affects every single person. For instance, when you’re tackling childhood nutrition or when you’re talking about cannabis legalization, not only is it an economic opportunity for farmers, but it is an opportunity to do so much good in society. I believe as policymakers, we absolutely have a responsibility to use our platform to do as much good as possible for as many people as possible. 

Over 200 LGBTQ folks won in the November election, running on a platform of authenticity. The political sphere more than perhaps any other is kind of a new space for out candidates. What’s the message that visibility sends?

I think my visibility was so important for so many folks in this state. I knew that this race was so much bigger than myself. It was also an opportunity for the voters in North Carolina to prove that representation does indeed matter. I think that’s kind of a little bit of sadness I’ve been feeling since the end of the election because I know there were so many folks, queer folks that were hoping that voters would send a definitive message with this election, saying that they were indeed ready for a whole new breed of leadership. If I had been elected, I would have been the first out LGBTQ person to serve on the council in the state of North Carolina. I also would have been the youngest statewide LGBTQ office holder in the history of this country. So, I have a little bit of sadness that we weren’t able to do those really big exciting things that would have made such a big difference for my community in particular. 

Running authentically, running as an out, proud bisexual woman, I know it made a huge difference in the state of North Carolina. Over and over again, I think some of the most special messages that I received during my campaign came from people who they themselves were out, who were just proud to see someone who truly represented them and gave them hope. Hearing from the parents of young folks who were in the process of coming out and what it meant to see someone who was able to show that there are no barriers to being able to live your dreams and achieve really important and meaningful goals in life. And then also the messages that I received from people who weren’t in a place where they feel like they can authentically live or presented themselves yet and what it meant to see my visibility. So, I know that what we did was important, and I hope that whatever is next for our community that this is kind of one of those steppingstones to shatter the glass ceiling by putting a few more cracks in it and maybe it’ll be easier for the next person who runs unapologetically as an out candidate in this state.

Not so long ago the primary concerns for farmers was soil preservation or monoculture. Now we have a more existential threat as a species but one that acutely threatens the farming industry. How do you get farmers to understand that agricultural and environmental interests are not in opposition?

Climate change is real. This was a point where my opponent and I greatly differed. It’s still so mind-blowing to me that it is 2020 and there are people out there who do not believe that climate change is real and that it’s not one of the most pressing and urgent issues of our time in order to address. 

I would go around and talk to farmers throughout the state and a lot of them knew something was happening. They knew that crop yields weren’t the same; harvest dates had changed. They were seeing unpredictable yields. They knew that there was a chance of a natural disaster or major storm event just absolutely decimating their entire crop. I talked to apple orchard owners up in western North Carolina and some of them were having a hard time getting crop insurance because blooming seasons were now unpredictable. I talked to coastal fisher people, because fisheries also falls under ag here. Because of all these major storm events, every time they turned around, they couldn’t go out in their boats; changing currents changed their yields and made it hard for them to continue doing the job that they love to do. I think for a lot of farmers, they knew something was happening, but it was hard to have the political courage to say the words climate change aloud because the person who is leading the industry absolutely refused to recognize this problem. 

I’m someone who believes that leadership starts at the top. Until you have a leader who is unapologetic in their commitment to addressing climate change, it’s going to be very hard for anything else to change in this industry no matter how bad it continues to get. I know that it’s just going to get harder and harder for our farmers to be successful, understanding the reality of the world that we’re living in. After witnessing multiple 500-hundred-year flood and storm events back-to-back that someone might open up their eyes to the reality of the world that we’re living in and say, ‘Hey, maybe I need to adjust my thinking.’ Put simply, no farms means no food. 

There has to be a better solution to dealing with natural disasters than just writing a check every time we turn around because that is not economically productive. It’s not fair to taxpayers to ask them to continue to foot the bill when you are perpetually reactive instead of proactive, and it’s also not environmentally sustainable and it’s naive because storm events are just going to grow more frequent and more severe in the coming years. There won’t be a future in agriculture unless we address the effects of climate change and the climate crisis, unless we begin to give farmers opportunities to install solar and renewable energy so they can move off the grid and be self-sustainable; and until we give them the opportunity to move away from large-scale production ag and having to continually contract with corporate farming organizations that denigrate the environment and natural resources and suffer none of the consequence. I want to make sure that we build more sustainable, local, resilient food systems that would protect us from future pandemics, but also allow farmers the tools, the loans or opportunities to be able to move into sustainable and regenerative and organic practices that would protect their long-term success. 

Is the future of farming trending into more urban models, and if so, is that more advantageous to society? What should farmers be doing today to prepare for this shift?

We’ve always heard this expression, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.’ Why have we been doing that in agriculture for so long? It is incredibly risky and dangerous, and very rarely do you get that big payoff that you’re hoping. Instead, a lot of these farmers are having to rely on subsidies and bailouts year after year after year, and I want to imagine a world or future in agriculture where you don’t have to rely on subsidies in order to ensure your long-term success. I think that farmers need to recognize that continuing to engage in monoculture practices is only going to make it harder and harder for them to survive any future natural disasters, because if you’ve got one major storm event and you’re just growing one crop that may not be resistant to whatever flood or drought comes along, you’re going to lose everything that you’ve put into that growing season. You’re going to lose all of the equity. 

Our population is going to continue to grow. We need to figure out new, innovative, exciting and non-traditional ways, in order to make sure that we can actually feed our ever-growing population. Those new and evolving ways need to be mindful of climate change and how that is absolutely going to impact the way that we grow and produce food not just in this country, but throughout the world. I think that there are places like NC State and Agricultural & Technical University (A&T) that are doing groundbreaking work on second generation farm ownership, non-traditional farm ownership, Black and female farm ownership and urban farms. We should look to some of these places and really make sure that they’re receiving the funding that they need, in order to do that work to help agriculture transition into the future. 

Who do you credit for inspiring your professional journey?

Danielle Adams, who is finishing her very last term as an elected soil and water supervisor in Durham county. She was my mentor. She actually is the person who first encouraged me to run for soil and water back when I was in college. She was one of the youngest women ever elected until she helped support me to break that barrier. And she was the first person to encourage me to run for the commissioner of agriculture’s office. Her mother, Stella Adams, who was the first Black woman ever elected to any soil and water office in the state of North Carolina’s history, has always encouraged me to think about equity, to think about what has happened with a long, dirty history of discrimination on behalf of agriculture organizations to towards our Black farmers and our non-traditional farmers. She and Danielle have really helped my ideas about hemp and cannabis policy in this state. I am so grateful for the two of them because they have been here with me every step along the way. They are definitely part of my support system.

What advice would you give to a young queer person who hasn’t yet had their ‘aha moment’ or know how to recognize it?

Never let anyone else put any barriers on the goal that you wish to achieve and, once you figure out what you think you may want to do, I would absolutely encourage you to seek out mentors both from within and outside of your community and realize that you can chart your own course. You don’t have to travel the same journey that someone else did.

What's the best piece of advice you never got?

Live authentically.

If you didn’t have to worry about being successful, what would you do with your life?

I would convert our family farm into more organic and regenerative practices, and I would love to have a small vineyard on that farm and do agribusiness opportunities and tourism opportunities to teach young folks about the possibilities inherent in non-traditional modern agriculture. I would also really love to go do some more international humanitarian work.

Know a Freshfruit of the Week, send us your nominations and reasons why they should be selected to contact [at] freshfruitinc [dot] com with “FFOW Nominee” in the subject line.

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