The state fairgrounds is the place for Steve Troxler. But it’s not about the fried Oreos or funnel cake. It’s about the intersection. 

For Troxler—the state’s agriculture commissioner—it’s where the hidden world of food production and the people who grow it hits the average North Carolinian. It is a collision of the state’s rural backbone with its urban purchasers.

So it’s telling that one of his first orders on the job was to bring a new crop to the state fair. He was only a few days on the job back in 2004 when he turned to his newly hired agriculture programs specialist and now chief of staff Zane Hedgecock with an idea.

“I want to cure a barn of tobacco at the fair,” Troxler said. “You make that happen.”

Hedgecock knew how to cure tobacco, but not at the state fairgrounds. 

“Where am I going to cure tobacco?”

“There’s an old tobacco barn there,” Troxler said. “We’re gonna cure it the old way with wood.”

“We’ll tell the public what this is about,” he continued. “It’s the heritage of North Carolina.”

Troxler’s impact on daily life in North Carolina is sprawling. He oversees everything from the gas pump to the produce section. Agribusiness makes up 17 percent of the state workforce, and over his 16 years on the job, Troxler has presided over a doubling of the state’s agricultural revenue. 

Yet among those who don’t work in agriculture, his profile is minimal. North Carolina Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to defeat Troxler—the agriculture commissioner is an elected statewide position with a salary of $125,676 - for nearly two decades. As he approaches 70, the farmer turned politician has fended off every attack, and made a few attacks of his own. 

During Troxler’s time in office, the industry he’s overseen has changed from being predominantly about tobacco and hogs to including hydroponics, urban farms, and regenerative farming. He also had to navigate the havoc wrought by President Trump’s trade war with China on North Carolina farmers, a serious problem caused by a president of his own party. And in all this change, the question facing Troxler is whether he has changed enough to keep up with it.

***

Before Troxler left Browns Summit, he didn’t own but two suits: one for weddings and one for funerals. 

He rarely crossed the railroad tracks near his tobacco farm. The minutes of his day were never accounted for, and as a working farmer, his day started when the sun came up.

Today, Troxler is a man with a chief of staff and a schedule. A man who needs to make speeches to trade associations. Craft policy. Negotiate with Chinese trade representatives about market access. But he looks back on those early years as fundamental. 

“I can’t see how anyone can hold this position and not have crops damaged by wind, flood, or drought,” he says. “Unless you can feel it, I don’t think you can do it.” 

Troxler wanted to be a farmer his whole life. He would flee Raleigh as a college student at North Carolina State in the early 1970s to get back to Browns Summit to work his leased farmland. It wasn’t until he graduated with a degree in conservation that he finally bought his own farm.

“I’m a country boy,” he says. And while he bought his farm himself, his family’s presence in Browns Summit dates back to the 1800s. Troxler’s white farmhouse with a large porch sits on a small hill, flanked by a workshop and a pair of log cabins. One cabin is a massive event hall with a long porch, and the other houses a kitchen prep area. Troxler built the log cabins by hand-notching the logs, a skill he learned when he decided to construct the buildings.

“If I can’t do it, I’m going to learn to do it,” he says.

I heard my share of Troxler’s stories during our rambling interview. He comes off as a folksy, gregarious raconteur who can weave a story around everything from the 1958 MGA Roadster he’s refurbishing by hand in the workshop to his collection of restored farm equipment lined up in front of the event hall. His favorite piece is a green-and-gold 1943 John Deere war tractor. Next to his modern tractor, which is parked in a barn 50 yards away, it looks like a kid’s toy.

“You left a mule and went to this,” Troxler says as he walks between the barn and the event hall. “And it’s just a little better than a mule.”

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Troxler's 1943 John Deere tractor on his farm in Browns Summit // Photo by Joseph Bradley

But that folksy storyteller image hides a pragmatic politician who knows North Carolina agribusiness inside and out and spends his days preaching its gospel. He can quote economic statistics from memory, and understands the importance of making friends across political lines to ensure farmers get the aid they need to survive.

At the height of his farm’s activity, Troxler was growing between 130 and 135 acres of tobacco. He doesn’t plant as much now; his fields now yield organic wheat and some produce that he grows and sells with his brother. But he still sees himself as a tobacco farmer.

 “It’s the only crop you can grow with any confidence level to make a profit,” he says, paraphrasing a saying: “The only thing more lucrative than an acre of tobacco is another acre of tobacco.”

It was also that crop that pushed him out of the Democratic Party and into the GOP. Troxler felt like the Democrats demonized tobacco in the late 1990s, of which he saw evidence at a Guilford County Democratic Party meeting that he attended before he left the party. At that meeting there was a motion to protect and support tobacco farmers that to Troxler’s ears passed a voice vote—but the chairman said the nays had it.

“They wanted to tax us out of the tobacco business,” Troxler says.

And indeed, the 1990s represented the twilight of the tobacco business. In 1997, 12,000 farmers in North Carolina were growing tobacco with earnings at more than $1.2 billion. But in 1998, 46 states and the four largest tobacco companies agreed to the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which required Big Tobacco to pay billions to compensate for tobacco-related illnesses and medical costs. Six years later, the federal government ended the Depression-era tobacco quota program and established the $9.6 billion Tobacco Transition Payment Program, or “Tobacco Buyout.” These annual transitional payments are meant to compensate for loss of revenue and ease the transition to a free market. But the market for tobacco has picked up in recent years, thanks in large part to international demand, especially in China.

Troxler had worked on the settlement, and had been active in many of the state’s farm commodity groups. In the eyes of Jerry Blackwelder, a Republican political and PR consultant from Greensboro, that made Troxler a particularly attractive candidate. He called Troxler in and asked him to lunch. Troxler agreed, arranging for Blackwelder to meet him at his normal dinner spot, George’s House, a diner on Route 29 between Browns Summit and Greensboro. 

Blackwelder arrived looking like a political consultant. “I’m probably the only person to walk into George’s House with a sportcoat on,” he recalled. But he and Troxler hit it off immediately, and they launched a partnership over lunch. 

Troxler’s political aspirations stumbled out of the blocks when he lost his 2000 bid to Meg Scott Phipps by fewer than 32,000 votes. However, financial corruption charges cut her tenure short, and she left office in 2003.

He did better the next time. Troxler ran against Britt Cobb, who was appointed by Gov. Mike Easley to replace Phipps. The hard-fought race ended in controversy. Troxler led by 2,287 votes and was declared the winner after his campaign produced affidavits from voters whose ballots were lost in Carteret County.

Soon after, he was sworn in and arrived for his first day of work, as promised, on a tractor.

***

When Troxler took over, agriculture and agribusiness accounted for just under $58 billion in economic impact. In his 16 years at the helm, the state’s agricultural sector has grown to represent just over $92 billion, putting North Carolina in the top 10 agriculture states—and the only one in the Southeast. (Troxler often speaks of his goal to hit the $100 billion mark.) Agriculture employs 17 percent of the North Carolina workforce, with crops and livestock raised in all 100 counties. 

“North Carolina’s kind of special,” said Dr. Blake Brown, the Hugh C. Kiger Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University and a former economist in the Trump administration. “We have a lot of specialty agriculture, and then we have a heavy livestock and poultry industry.”

Tobacco is the state's leading field crop, followed by cotton, soybeans, and corn for grain. North Carolina is a grain-deficit state, meaning that the state’s livestock consume more grain than farmers can grow locally, which is good news for corn and soybean farmers, but bad news for hog and poultry farmers who have to import grain and pay higher prices. 

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Troxler's farm in Browns Summit // Photo by Joseph Bradley

Troxler travels the world lobbying for North Carolina’s farmers, especially in Asian markets. He has led several trade delegations to China—starting in 2009—to promote tobacco, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and peanut exports. China is North Carolina’s largest agricultural export market, purchasing hundreds of millions of dollars in goods.

That’s particularly important for tobacco farmers. 

“He’s worked very, very hard to get that market open to China Tobacco, which is the largest tobacco company in the world,” Brown said. “But he’s also been really proactive in trying to make sure we had access to other markets in China. He has a very active international trade program.”

North Carolina is the nation’s largest producer of tobacco, with three quarters of it going overseas. Over the last decade, the state’s agricultural exports have doubled, now topping out at $4.2 billion. But that growth stopped in 2018 when North Carolina became a key battleground in then-President Trump’s trade war with China.

Trump raised tariffs 25 percent on Chinese imports, which triggered retaliatory 25 percent tariffs on American goods, decimating the export market for some of the state’s staples, like pork and tobacco. Soybean, corn, and wheat markets were also crushed.

Publicly, Troxler was vocal about the impact of the tariffs on the industry he led.

"It looks like every trade war that we’ve ever been involved in,” Troxler told WRAL. “Agriculture in the United States becomes a target, I guess, because it’s so big. Everybody eats, so if you want to hit somebody in the belly, so to speak, go for agriculture."

Troxler was careful about attributing blame to anyone for that, but acknowledged the significant impact the fight had. “When the two big bulls get bumping horns, it all stopped,” he told me.

The tariffs cost North Carolina farmers a quarter of a billion dollars, with the federal government subsidizing the sector. Troxler said he reached out to other commissioners and secretaries of agriculture across the country who had contacts with Washington, trade officials, and the Chinese to make sure tobacco was included on the list for trade with China. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also paid $100 million to tobacco farmers for coronavirus relief and gave $14 billion in assistance for farmers overall.

“He was really proactive in trying to make sure that North Carolina was included in any of the trade mitigation, and also the COVID litigation last year,” Brown said. “He was trying to make sure that nobody was left out in North Carolina just because we didn’t look like Iowa farms.”

Things have since thawed, and China is opening up its markets again. During his State of Ag speech in February, Troxler said the farm economy is starting to heat up. Poultry exports to China were up 20 percent in 2020, and tobacco exports will return to over 300 million pounds.

“I believe we will soon reach $100 billion in economic impact, thanks to the continued investment in agricultural research, coupled with innovation in food production and manufacturing,” Troxler said in the speech.

*** 

The lodestar of that innovation and research is a shining new space-age building on the corner of Reedy Creek and Edwards Mill Roads in Raleigh.

“This is my baby,” says Troxler, beaming as he walks in. 

The Steve Troxler Agricultural Sciences Center is a $94 million state-of-the art laboratory and office complex. The name was approved by the General Assembly and signed into law by Cooper in April. The three-story, 225,000-square-foot building will house 170 employees from four labs for the department’s Food and Drug Protection, Standards, Structural Pest Control and Pesticides, and Veterinary divisions, along with administrative offices, a conference room, and a cafeteria.

The building, now four years in the making, looks like it should house a leading tech company at Research Triangle Park, not government agriculture labs. The center will fully open in late summer, but Troxler is there to figure out why they can’t get one of the calibration labs set up. He is met at the door by Brenda Jackson, the center’s complex manager, who is overseeing the final phase before move-in.

“I want to go see the parts that aren’t working,” Troxler says.

He exits the elevator and follows Brenda for a few twists and turns before getting to the lab used for weights and measures calibration. But the weights and measures are off, and it’s clear Troxler is not happy with the delays.

“I really can’t understand why they can’t get that right,” Troxler tells Hedgecock, adding that he’d had a similar problem with a lab on his farm that was finally remedied when they adjusted the air temperature.

After the inspection, Troxler tours the necropsy and pathogen labs used to isolate and study infectious diseases. The center’s labs can test fuel quality and antifreeze, conduct animal disease diagnostic testing, and perform necropsy services for livestock. The center will also serve as the state’s primary lab for testing food products for pathogens. Each lab is equipped with an airlock, and the necropsy lab, where autopsies will be performed on animals, has a massive stainless-steel table on a hydraulic lift, allowing veterinarians to maneuver larger animals like cows and pigs.

But the building is more than a cutting-edge research and testing complex. From the minute Troxler arrives and pauses to take in the façade, it’s clear that the building is also his legacy. He won’t always be the agriculture commissioner, but for decades to come the agriculture department will be doing work for the state’s farmers in the house that Troxler built.

***

Agriculture commissioners have historically won with big margins. Democrat Jim Graham, who retired in 2000, routinely won by 60 percent or more. Those kinds of margins are harder to get today, in an age of deep political polarization. 

But in 2020, Troxler won with the largest margin of victory in any statewide or federal race, and won more votes than any other candidate.

Troxler doesn’t talk about abortion, critical race theory, or QAnon. He voted for Trump and maintained close relationships with members of Trump’s administration. But today he praises Michael Regan, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s previous Department of Environmental Quality secretary, who is now administrator of the EPA. 

“He brings that farmer mentality that I need to fix it, I need to make it better, I need to make it easier, I need to make it fairer,” said Hedgecock, Troxler’s chief of staff. “I’m a farmer, and I understand it.”

Democratic political consultant Thomas Mills, who doesn’t hold back his at-times scathing critiques of Republicans on his political blog PoliticsNC, describes Troxler as a guy who just wants to do his job as agriculture commissioner. 

“Troxler’s main ideology is making sure agriculture works in North Carolina, and I think it crosses ideological—or partisan—party lines a little bit,” Mills said. “He didn’t come out of the legislature, and he’s not a guy who’s been heavily involved in the divisive politics that we’ve seen in the last 10 years.” 

As Michael Bitzer, a politics and history professor at Catawba College, put it: “If he is not making a whole lot of waves, what is the incentive to vote against him?”

That’s not to say that Troxler’s last race was conflict-free. Jenna Wadsworth, a relatively unknown Democrat out of Raleigh, challenged Troxler. She represented more than a million people in Wake County as vice chair of the Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors, a role to which she was first elected in 2010 when she was still a junior at NC State. Before moving to Raleigh, she grew up on a farm in Johnston County that produced livestock and crops like corn, tobacco, and soybeans.

Wadsworth’s campaign focused on expanding rural infrastructure like broadband and healthcare, legalizing cannabis, and supporting small and urban farms. But climate change was her top concern, as both an agriculture and mainstream issue.

“I know climate change is real,” she said. “The future of agriculture is under threat and endangered as long as we have someone sitting in this office who doesn’t recognize that climate change is real.”

Troxler doesn’t understand why anyone would question whether he or other farmers care about climate change.

“What farmer is not into the Earth?” he said. “We were the first environmentalists. We are dependent on natural resources to make a living.”

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Troxler's farm in Browns Summit // Photo by Joseph Bradley

But the farming community is more skeptical about climate change than the average North Carolinian. A North Carolina State University study from 2014 found that only about one in three believes in climate change. And the way Troxler talks about climate action reflects that attitude, leaning into resilience and adaptation and downplaying the unprecedented and manmade nature of the climate crisis. When asked about it, he pivoted to talk about policies he had enacted instead of what caused him to take action.

“The weather and climate conditions are constantly changing, as evidenced by the events that led to the elimination of the large animals from the Earth,” Troxler said. “We are doing our best to secure funding to plant more trees and to keep land in crop production to make sure North Carolina remains green and growing. These crops help sequester carbon, and they also certainly help mitigate storm water runoff better than the impervious surfaces associated with shopping centers and housing developments.”

Troxler worked with lawmakers to pass a $240 million disaster-relief bill in the wake of Hurricane Florence in 2018 and has preserved 20,000 acres of farm and forest land. Wadsworth said more needs to be done than writing a relief check.”

The campaign battle between Troxler and Wadsworth became personal. Troxler gets morose when he starts talking about the 2020 election because in his opinion the politics of agriculture in North Carolina, like the nation’s political discourse, turned from a policy debate to rancor. 

Troxler promised his mother he’d always run a clean campaign, but his race against Wadsworth devolved into partisan mudslinging. Wadsworth accused him of being a racist after he allowed the Sons of Confederate Veterans to have a booth at the North Carolina State Fair every fall and accepted a contribution from their political action committee, and Troxler’s campaign later publicized a video that led to his opponent getting death threats.

That video, an October TikTok video, showed Wadsworth appearing to celebrate Donald Trump’s contracting COVID-19 despite having downplayed the illness’s threat from the start. The video was widely circulated and Wadsworth took fire from both Democrats and Republicans, who called the video inappropriate. She also received death threats. Wadsworth deleted the video and issued a statement clarifying that “my commentary was on the irony of the President contracting the virus after not taking it seriously enough.” 

Troxler’s campaign responded with a hard statement that fueled the fire. 

“It’s unfortunate that my opponent has posted this deplorable video,” read the campaign’s statement. “This video shows my opponent’s youth and inexperience, and it also shows a character flaw. I do think it’s deplorable that somebody would do something like that. As a Christian, the hardest part of the Christian faith is to love thine enemy and that’s really hard. I do wish she would go to church and that God would change her heart.”

Troxler beat Wadsworth by 8 percentage points—54% to 46%—the largest margin of any statewide race. 

“That is a landslide for a Republican in North Carolina,” Blackwelder said. “It was obvious people were ticket-splitting. The people in the middle decide the election.”

 ***

Troxler won more votes than any other state or national politician in the state, but as Mills pointed out, historically down-ballot, less controversial races often get a lot of votes.

“I don’t think it’s an inherently Republican job,” Mills said. “I mean, I think it’s Troxler. When Troxler’s gone, Democrats have as good a chance of picking it up as Republicans.”

Mills added that the state is growing rapidly, mostly in the urban centers.

“The state has doubled its size in less than 50 years, and those people didn’t come because North Carolinians were having babies,” Mills said. “So over a 50-year period, a whole bunch of people who have no connection to rural North Carolina moved into urban areas. They didn’t move into rural areas. That’s why we have two metropolises now with populations over a million, and those people don’t have any connection to rural North Carolina.”

North Carolina’s rural communities make up 80 of the state’s 100 counties, according to the NC Rural Center. Rural North Carolina accounts for four million of the state’s 10 million residents, and skews older and whiter than its urban neighbors.

Mills said the problem is more cultural than economic, because the urban centers don’t understand what’s going on in rural North Carolina.

“And they don’t care,” he said. “They look at them as backwards, and the rural areas look at them as coming in, bringing a bunch of heathen values into the state. I don’t know how you fix that.”

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a farmer and state representative from Duplin County, pointed to the lack of summer employment. The agricultural sector has shifted from a labor-intensive industry to a capital-intensive industry. Farms now use bigger tractors and combines, meaning they need fewer hands—which means there are no summer jobs.

“For many years when I was growing up, a lot of the city boys—and I say that complimentary—they got agriculture jobs during the summertime to purchase their school clothes, their supplies, and other things,” Dixon said. “So 40 years ago, many of the urban kids were intimately involved in agriculture.”

“Now you have many, many, many people in urban North Carolina,” Dixon finished, “that probably couldn’t tell the difference between a pecan and an acorn.”

 ***

When Troxler arrives in the lobby of the Farm Bureau building on Glenwood Avenue to make a speech to the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina, he is buttoned up in a blue blazer, gray slacks, and a white NC Agriculture Department shirt—still a far cry from a tailored suit. 

His baritone echoes through the halls as he makes small talk with Farm Bureau staff while they usher him to an elevator. The meeting feels less pomp-and-circumstance and more back-slapping informality, just the way Troxler likes it.

The meeting has already started. The association’s officers are finishing up annual business as Troxler—with Hedgecock in tow—takes a seat in the first row. When the officers finish, Rep. David Rouzer, a Republican whose district encompasses both urban and rural areas in the eastern part of the state, takes the stage first. 

“The future is bright for tobacco,” Rouzer tells the farmers.

Troxler hits a similar note. Troxler tells the farmers a weaker dollar will help with international trade, as will the removal of EU tariffs and China’s resumption of major purchases.

“We’re still in the tobacco business in North Carolina,” Troxler says. “There is a lot of room for optimism.”

But that’s where the similarities stop. Rouzer’s speech was otherwise light on agriculture and heavy on politics. 

“If this country didn’t have the filibuster rule, this country would already be a socialist nation,” Rouzer said to the Tobacco Growers Association, adding that the founding fathers understood the tyranny of the majority.

Troxler, meanwhile, assures the farmers that he intends to work closely with the new administration and build strong relationships to protect the state’s farms. “We’ll build these new relationships to move North Carolina forward,” he said.

In February, Troxler shouted out a Biden administration nominee in his State of Ag speech, a Black Democrat from Virginia nominated to be a high-ranking U.S. Department of Agriculture official. It’s that deep pragmatism, dealing with the facts on the ground, that defines Troxler’s approach. It may not mean he’s proposing a 30-year climate-change policy, or pronouncing a grand strategy for transitioning tobacco farmers to new crops—but it does mean he’s focused on the nuts and bolts of day-to-day administration: building relationships, opening markets, and advancing research. 

He ended his speech to the association with a simple call to action: “Let’s get out there and make a good crop.”

***

Back at the farm, Troxler sits in a rocking chair with his wife, his two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels at his feet. He has five grandchildren and several projects on the farm that could eat up his retirement days, his friends and colleagues say. 

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Troxler on his farm in Browns Summit // Photo by Joseph Bradley

When asked himself, Troxler is undecided on his future. His wife, Sharon, answers for him: 

“He is just where God meant for him to be.”

Dixon, the Duplin County Republican representative and fellow farmer, says he has seen a lot of agricultural commissioners, but none as good as Troxler.

“Steve Troxler is without peer, as far as effectiveness, accomplishments, moving us forward with innovations,” Dixon said. “There is a common thread—we all require good, safe economical food—and that’s been the focus of Steve Troxler for his entire career.”

While Troxler won’t rule out much when it comes to his future, he’s quick to rule out a run for a higher office. There will be no Governor or Senator Troxler—and the reason he gives for that is characteristic of this lifelong farmer. 

“I would not want a position that doesn’t have a state fair,” he says.

***

Kevin Maurer is a former StarNews, Fayetteville Observer and AP reporter, and author of 12 books including the #1 New York Times bestseller No Easy Day on the Bin Laden raid.