North Carolina's Northeast Leads in Biotechnology
The fusion of agriculture and biotechnology is creating an innovative and fertile landscape for North Carolina’s 16-county Northeast Region.
Many of the nation’s first farmers came from this scenic and bountiful part of the state, and centuries later, those who power the region’s $74 billion (and growing) agricultural industry are among the most sophisticated crop growers in the country.
“What this means for North Carolina is jobs and prosperity, while preserving a landscape that for generations has put food on the table,” says Norris Tolson, president of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. “It’s fusing our old economy with our new economy to increase our quality of life here and also around the globe.”
North Carolina’s biotechnology focus led to the state's initial success in the pharmaceutical industry; today, agriculture in North Carolina's Northeast Region is a major player in that field, plowing new ground in biofuels, medicines, nutraceuticals, pesticides and higher-yield crops designed to meet an ever-increasing world food demand.
Farmers, Pharma Companies Partner
With more than 3,000 farms and 1 million acres of farmland, the Northeast region’s farmers are partnering with greenhouses and university and private research labs to produce patented plant specialties for commercialization, thus growing its reputation as a global leader in agricultural biotechnology. At least 90 percent of row crops grown in the region are of biotech varieties.
Cherry Farms Seed Company Inc., a 22-year seed germination company in Columbia, is expanding its focus from a traditional commodity seed business to one that is involved in germinating and testing new seed varieties geared to specific customer needs, with a new seed-cleaning and storage facility.
“We’re like a manufacturing business in agriculture,” explains Brian Ashford, manager and part-owner of the company. “We take what comes from the research and create a seed that is going to plant for commercial purposes.”
That might include developing a seed for specialty oil that offers different fatty acid content for a cookie maker, Ashford says, or it might mean seeds that are heat-, drought- and salt-tolerant, or are more geared toward biofuel or pharmaceutical usage.
Tools and Skills Yield New Opportunities
Local farmers are embracing tools such as GPS-guided precision farming to increase yield. The region’s globally known network of university and field research scientists at entities such as Plymouth’s Vernon James Research and Extension Center perform applied research in crop science and agriculture, while biotechnology programs at local community colleges supply the region with students experienced at working in labs and processing facilities.
The region’s highly skilled workforce and university partnerships helped lure California-based Ventria Biosciences, which grows and processes rice containing a protein that reduces infant deaths from diarrhea. Avoca Inc. in Merry Hill has been working for decades with local farmers as the world’s largest supplier of clary sage, an extract used in the perfume industry.
“The marketplace is segmenting, as opposed to one big commodity where one size fits all,” Ashford says. “North Carolina’s Northeast Region is fortunate in that we’ve had financing and leadership to grab the opportunities. This is an exciting time for agriculture in our region, and the future keeps getting brighter.”
Farmers Fresh Market
The desire for locally grown food is growing in North Carolina, and to satisfy that craving, the Farmers Fresh Market program was created to help farmers in the region connect virtually with local restaurants and food buyers shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables. Sponsored by Foothills Connect, a local small business and entrepreneurship group, the program is set to take off in Martin County, where restaurants in the Outer Banks and Greenville areas are looking for everything from fresh collards, herbs and peppers to strawberries and tomatoes off the vine. The Internet-based food exchange program has an online ordering system that makes it easy for farmers sell and deliver produce directly to restaurants in Charlotte and other urban areas. For more details, visit www.farmersfreshmarket.org.