GREENSBORO — Gov. Roy Cooper drew a round of applause from farm families Monday when he said one of his top goals was to improve internet access for the state's rural communities.
Cooper told his audience at the North Carolina Farm Bureau's 84th annual convention that he hoped to "get high-speed, broadband internet access to all of North Carolina" as soon as possible.
"That has to absolutely be our priority," Cooper said to several hundred farmers and other agribusiness leaders.
Lack of such secure online connections puts rural communities, their farms and other agribusinesses at a competitive disadvantage.
Cooper recently signed into law a bipartisan measure that earmarks millions of dollars each year to help fix the problem. It allots matching money to internet providers who invest in expanding their service in rural areas.
The Raleigh-based, statewide Farm Bureau has been hosting its annual meeting at the Koury Convention Center since Sunday. The gathering ends Tuesday afternoon.
North Carolina farmers have faced difficult challenges in recent years led by the nation's ongoing trade disputes with China and other countries.
They also are still recovering from damage inflicted by hurricanes during the last two years. And they have a need, as Cooper noted in his speech, to develop "new crops and new ways to farm."
Cooper also made the case Monday for expanding Medicaid coverage, a source of conflict with the North Carolina General Assembly. He said making more people eligible for Medicaid would help rural hospitals that have financial troubles because so many patients lack private health insurance and cannot pay for treatment.
Cooper, a Democrat, took the podium at the end of a procession of public officials that included several Republicans who also hold statewide office.
GOP attendees included U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and state Treasurer Dale Folwell.
Guilford County resident Troxler told the convention that agriculture remains the state's "leading industry at $91.8 billion," but that family farms in particular have weathered tough times that include "nuisance lawsuits, trade wars, tariffs and multiple destructive hurricanes."
"This year has been an opportunity for us to begin our rebound and recovery," Troxler said. "I am hopeful 2020 will be the year we turn the corner and return profitability to the farm."
Troxler also touted the recently opened North Carolina Food Innovation Lab in Kannapolis that he said "will lead to many new food manufacturing and processing jobs in our state."
This year's annual Farm Bureau meeting carried special significance as the group's president Larry Wooten is stepping down after 20 years on the job.
Cooper named a new award for rural leaders in Wooten's honor and inducted him into the Order of the Longleaf Pine that is reserved for those who have shown extraordinary service to the state.