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North Carolina: A key swing state battered by climate change

North Carolina, a key swing state in this year's presidential election, has been hit by three major hurricanes in the last several years. Hari Sreenivasan reports on the race for Agriculture Commissioner, where a Democrat is making climate change a key issue as she challenges a four-term Republican incumbent. This segment is part of our ongoing series, “Peril and Promise: the Challenge of Climate Change.”

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Earlier this fall we asked you, what issues we should be focusing on this election season? The answer, overwhelmingly, was that you wanted more coverage of climate change.

    So on this weekend before Election Day, we are reporting from North Carolina, a swing state with consequential races up and down the ballot. But also a state that, having been battered by multiple hurricanes in the last five years, has been at the forefront of experiencing the changing climate.

    This story is part of our ongoing series, "Peril and Promise: the Challenge of Climate Change."

    When Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wilmington in September of 2018, it was only a category one storm. But what Florence lacked in sustained wind speeds, it made up for in rain.

  • Gina Marasco:

    It just rained and it rained and it blew and it rained. But all that while, you have to try to make sure your animals are safe.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Gina Marasco is the owner of Humphrey Farms, a 500-acre farm about 30 miles from the coast in Pender County. After an estimated three feet of rain over three days, she and her husband, Robert, needed a canoe to check on their low-lying hog houses.

  • Gina Marasco:

    Florence, you stink!

    We went by the houses so we could see the animals and we could see that they were alive, which was a beautiful thing. But we couldn't even turn off the power. So we're just like, 'please let everything be okay,' because there was nothing we could do.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In 2018, Humphrey Farms had about 7,500 hogs. While Marasco says their welfare was important, she was also worried about the farm's eight-acre hog lagoon. That's where waste from the pigs is stored. Runoff from the lagoon, which has high levels of ammonia and nitrates, can harm aquatic life.

  • Gina Marasco:

    36 inches of rain brought us over the top. Thankfully, though, the amount of water was so great that the dilution was enough to keep it from being a toxic situation.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The high waters from Florence damaged or overtopped nearly 50 hog lagoons, a relatively small fraction of the state's 3,000. But the massive amount of rain-affected huge swaths of North Carolina.

  • Kathie Dello:

    My number one concern is flooding across the entire state.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Kathie Dello is the state climatologist for North Carolina. She's also one of the authors of the state's Climate Science Report, an independent scientific assessment released this year on past climate trends, and how climate change will affect the state as humans continue to emit greenhouse gasses.

    The report finds that North Carolina has already warmed one degree Fahrenheit over the last 120 years, and that heavy rains from hurricanes and other weather systems will become more frequent and intense. That's already being felt here by North Carolinians.

  • Kathie Dello:

    Folks experience three big hurricanes in four years and truly said, 'something's going on here. This isn't the North Carolina that I grew up in. We don't see hurricanes like this with that much rain. We don't see flooding like this.' People have lived experiences with the climate and they're now saying, OK, climate change is here and it's real.

  • Steve Troxler:

    I can truthfully say in my lifetime, I've never seen anything like the devastation that Florence caused. It was a catastrophic event, there's no question.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Republican Steve Troxler is North Carolina's Agriculture Commissioner, and he's running for his fifth consecutive four-year-term, overseeing the state's $92 billion agriculture industry.

    After Florence, his office helped distribute more than $230 million in aid to farmers. He says compared to Hurricane Floyd which hit North Carolina in 1999, the state's agriculture industry was better prepared.

  • Steve Troxler:

    During Hurricane Floyd, we lost 28,000 hogs in North Carolina to drowning. During Hurricane Florence, which was, you know, much, much worse than that. We lost about 5000.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Since 1999, the Agriculture Department has also run a voluntary buyout program for hog farms located in 100-year floodplains. The state selects the most at-risk farms for a one-time payment that cannot exceed the value of the operation. In exchange, the farmer agrees to end concentrated animal feeding operations.

    Forty three hog farmers have participated. And after Florence in 2018, the Agriculture Department opened up the program again for applications. But since the program started over 20 years ago, more than 100 farms that have wanted to participate, have been turned away.

  • Steve Troxler:

    There have not been the resources available, yet, you know, we're talking about millions and millions and millions of dollars to be able to do this, especially with the value of agricultural land and operations today.

  • Gina Marasco:

    It leveled this house pretty good, as you can see.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Gina Marasco applied for the buyout program, but her farm was not considered one of the most at-risk so North Carolina won't pay.

  • Gina Marasco:

    We're in Group B and they're looking for those that are in group A, which was very disheartening. But we don't have any control over it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But even without the buyout, Marasco decided to end the hog operation that her father started more than 50 years ago.

  • Gina Marasco:

    It was a decision made with a very heavy heart because, 'gosh, dad, we're gonna stop doing what you expected us all to do into perpetuity. I'm sorry, you know.' But at the same time, we can't afford to, just to be very honest with you, we just couldn't afford the rebuilding process. And it was sad, you know, because my dad was the hog man and I was the hog farmer's daughter.

  • Jenna Wadsworth:

    It's our children who have to live with the brunt of our inaction in addressing climate change, unless we begin to elect leaders who from day one are unapologetic in their commitment to addressing the climate crisis head on.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jenna Wadsworth is a Democrat running to be North Carolina's Commissioner of Agriculture.

  • Jenna Wadsworth:

    So I actually grew up on a family farm not far from here.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For the last ten years, Wadsworth has been on the Wake County Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors. And she's made climate change action front and center in her campaign

  • Jenna Wadsworth:

    I've looked around and I see that the root cause of so many of the issues that our farmers are facing deals with climate change or stems from climate change, be it changing harvest dates, changing yields, unpredictable yields, knowing that there are severe weather events. You know, storms are going to grow more intense and more frequent over the coming years.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Wadsworth has been endorsed by the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led climate change activist group. She has also signed onto a pledge not to take any money from the state's two electric utilities, Duke and Dominion, and to not support any new fossil fuel infrastructure.

  • Jenna Wadsworth:

    My opponent differs with, differs with me when it comes to understanding that climate change is real and it's an urgent priority that we have to address in order to ensure a long term future in agriculture

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Troxler acknowledges that the climate has changed, and says that farmers are already doing a lot.

  • Steve Troxler:

    you know, I would ask, what more can agriculture do right now than they're doing as far as climate change? We're the ones who plant the green crops that sequester carbon. We're the ones that plant trees, that sequester carbon. So we are going to look after the land and the environment because we farm outside and we depend on it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Troxler also warns that addressing climate change can't come at the expense of farms surviving.

  • Steve Troxler:

    Any time that we can do anything that's going to help long term, we're going to do it. But with the caveat that farmers have got to remain in business if we're going to eat.

  • Jenna Wadsworth:

    if we do not address climate change, there won't be a future in agriculture So we have to make meaningful action in addressing climate change, making sure that farmers have the tools necessary in order to move into sustainable regenerative and organic practices, practices that prioritize soil health and conservation and allow for them to be viable in the long term.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For Humphrey Farms, long-term viability means a big transition. The hog houses are empty now, and the eight acre waste lagoon is slowly being transitioned to a freshwater pond. After Florence, Aarasco had to sell off part of the farm's cattle herd, but she is now building it back up. 16 calves were born this season, including a few just this week..

  • Gina Marasco:

    The middle of the building is the only thing that was left intact.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Marasco is also banking on tourism. She's turning an almost 100-year-old tobacco barn to a year-round farmers market, art gallery, and local goods store.

  • Gina Marasco:

    We even have the old electrical box.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Marasco is a strong supporter of Steve Troxler for reelection as Agriculture Commissioner, and cites his efforts helping farms recover from Florence. But when it comes to climate change, she says it is a big factor in thinking about the long-term future of her farm and moving away from hogs.

  • Gina Marasco:

    We don't want to be that one that causes our water system to be compromised. And, you know, sometimes you just have to realize you just can't fight it. Your sail is not big enough to get through that storm. So we just felt like it was time to do something new.

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