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Innovations and education are setting up a striking future for North Carolina agriculture and agribusiness.
Butler Farms raises hogs. They help with the bottom line in the traditional ways, but the animals have taken on a new role, though passive in nature. They provide the farm and surrounding neighborhood with electricity, even if others nearby are in the dark.
The Harnett County farm captures methane released from its hogs’ waste, burning it in a power plant to generate electricity. It makes more power with a solar-panel farm, which is complemented with battery storage. That keeps power flowing at night and on overcast days. Both feed into the farm’s award-winning microgrid, which was developed in partnership with the local electric cooperative — South River EMC — and North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives in 2017. The microgrid supplements and diversifies South River’s traditional power distribution system and ensures the farm and several surrounding homes have power during outages.
Agriculture, including food, fiber, and forestry, is North Carolina’s largest industry, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. It contributes $95.9 billion to the state’s economy each year and employs nearly 1 in 5 of its workers. Getting it to that point took a lot of hard work. Moving it forward will require innovation, including the energy used in agriculture and the education that will help create it.
New sources of energy, and the technology to create, deliver and use them, are increasing efficiency at agricultural operations statewide, says Jim Musilek, vice president of innovation and business development for North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives. “Cooperatives are working with our agricultural members to help identify new ways to reduce farms’ carbon footprints, lower operating costs and provide added resiliency, productivity and convenience,” he says. “Examples of these efforts include ground-breaking energy projects, the electrification of farm equipment and processes, and efforts to reduce farm-energy costs.”
Microgrids, electric equipment, such as irrigation pumps, forklifts and tractors and indoor agriculture are just a few ways that electric cooperatives are helping boost their agricultural customers’ operations. In the process, customers are moving away from fossil fuels, lowering costs and creating economic opportunities.
White Rock Farms in Anson County, for example, has hog facilities, chicken houses and a Jersey dairy. Through a partnership with Pee Dee Electric and North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives, it received a $25,000 grant from Beneficial Electrification League, an innovation-focused national collaborative. The farm is converting an animal waste lagoon pumping system to a large single-phase electric motor from a diesel engine. The new motor is a more affordable alternative to the three-phase power that typically is used to manage livestock waste.
“Using a large horsepower single-phase electric motor is a game changer, and in this case it’s a winner for everyone involved,” Musilek says. “White Rock Farms will save on diesel fuel, have less downtime and more productivity. It stands as a model for other farmers looking to integrate similar technology.”
As North Carolina welcomes more food manufacturing, demand for transport refrigeration units — TRUs — is growing in step. They’re needed to move the sector’s perishable products. The cooling units on traditional TRUs use diesel fuel, which brings a host of environmental concerns. So, eTRUs — electric and hybrid powered TRUs — are rolling out in response. Musilek says electric cooperatives and utilities are building infrastructure to support eTRUs.
“These systems aren’t new, but they are becoming more environ-mentally friendly and efficient as they make the switch from gas to hybrid engines,” he says. “Food processors, the cut-flower industry, even computers and other items that require climate-controlled transport, can benefit from these trucks.”
Electrification in all its forms is a component of N.C. Electric Cooperatives’ BEST Solutions initiative, which provides customized tools and technologies to help agricultural, commercial and industrial co-op members save money, improve efficiency and reach sustainability goals. “Electricity prices are fairly stable — more so than diesel fuel and propane — so to the extent farm owners can mitigate their fuel cost risk by using electricity, that’s something they are interested in,” Musilek says.
North Carolina’s agriculture industry receives support beyond technology. Educational institutions are training a new generation of workers, who have the skills to create and implement innovations.
Kenrett Jefferson-Moore is a professor and Department of Agribusiness, Applied Economics and Agriscience Education chairwoman at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro. She is convinced that the agriculture industry’s continued prosperity is tied to innovation. “Thanks to continued improvements in technology, precision agriculture and the use of drones, I believe we’re moving in the right direction, and the sky’s the limit,” she says.
N.C. A&T’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences offers 21 undergraduate majors and five master’s degrees. It added a Ph.D. program in November, enrolling its first five students for the spring 2022 semester. Students specialize in one of five concentrations: food science, human nutrition and health; sustainable agriculture and environmental sciences; agribusiness and applied economics; agricultural and extension education; or sustainable animal production and health. From research to teaching, public policy to marketing, life sciences to biotechnology, its graduates choose from a wealth of professional pathways, Jefferson-Moore says. Some may go on to careers supporting farms, where technology is thriving.
N.C. A&T opened its $6 million Extension and Research Farm Pavilion for agriculture research and education on its 492-acre research farm in Greensboro in September. Its 17,000 square feet includes a 500-seat auditorium, classrooms, labs, conference room and kitchen. It will be used to conduct research and deliver educational programming to students, farmers and the community. Additional projects planned for the space include an amphitheater; a community and urban food complex with a dairy, research labs, classrooms; and a small-business incubator.
The pavilion was built with funds from the U.S. Department of Agri-culture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
“Many of our students want to be part of an industry where they can contribute to society through their profession, and we must have food to sustain ourselves,” Jefferson-Moore says. “We also have a growing population, and in the years ahead we will have to feed so many more people. It’s important for students to earn different ways of improving our efficiency and production as well
as making sure food is accessible
to everyone.” ■
— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer from Raleigh.
Brad West is a fifth-generation farmer in the Wayne County community of Fremont. He and his family work about 6,000 acres. They grow a variety of crops, including cotton, sweet potatoes, corn and soybeans, and have a small community strawberry patch. They raise turkeys and pigs, too. “This was my great-great grandfather’s farm,” he says. “I come from several generations of farmers, so I guess when I grew up, it was kind of a no brainer that I would get into the family business. I didn’t know anything else.”
West and his family have been growing peanuts on 1,200 acres since 2007. He describes his 2021 crop as “above average.” He isn’t alone. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that 2021 was a near-record year for peanuts. North Carolina farmers, for example, harvested 114,000 acres, 9,000 acres more than the year prior. The yield per acre of 4,350 pounds exceeded the 2020 estimate by 450 pounds and the state’s 10-year average by almost 350 pounds. And, at 496 million pounds, the state’s peanut production increased 21% from the year prior.
March is National Peanut Month, and North Carolina peanut growers and lovers have much to celebrate. “North Carolina ranks fifth in the nation in peanut production,” says Ashley Collins, CEO of the North Carolina Peanut Growers Association. “We grow a variety of peanut here called the Virginia type, which is used primarily in gourmet nuts, such as the peanuts you find in stores and specialty food markets.”
Collins says about 500 North Carolina farmers plant peanuts in April and harvest them in October and November. It wasn’t long ago when there was only a few. West, a member of the North Carolina Peanut Growers Association Board, remembers when a quota system, which lasted 60 years, discouraged peanut farming. “In Wayne County, there was one farmer who had about 2 acres worth of quota, and that was it,” he says. “After the quota system ended [with the passage of the 2002 U.S. Farm Bill], we waited a few years and then started, and we’ve been raising peanuts about 15 years.”
The decision to grow peanuts is paying off for West and his family. They have a history of growing cotton, but when cotton prices plummeted almost 20 years ago, they paused planting it for a few years and looked for a different crop that would thrive in Wayne County’s acidic, leached soil. “We felt peanuts were more profitable than soybeans or corn, so we got into peanut production,” he says. A contract with Virginia-based shelling company Birdsong Peanuts helped their operation take off.
West and other peanut farmers are reaping the rewards of a booming consumer market that loves peanuts and products made from them. National Peanut Board statistics show peanut consumption per capita was up 3% in 2021 over the previous year, a record for the industry. “That comes down to about every American consuming about 7.9 pounds of peanuts [over the course of year],” Collins says. The National Peanut Board says peanut butter accounts for 56% of all peanuts consumed in 2021. Snacks used 19% of the crop, and 17% went into candies. Only 5% was sold as in-shell peanuts.
Peanuts are a commodity. Farmers sign contracts with shellers, who buy a predetermined amount of peanuts at a certain price, based on the peanut variety. But before harvested peanuts are sent to the sheller, they are graded. “Peanuts have to get graded at least twice if they’re marketed for human consumption in the United States,” says Gregory Hoggard, grading administrator with the N.C. Department of Agriculture Cooperative Grading Service. “We inspect them at the farmer stop level, when they’re coming out of the field, and when they get to the peanut mills. Then if we inspect them again for the outgoing quality, that’s when they’re sized and some of them are in their shells. Some of them are extra-large, medium, No. 1s, No. 2s. There are different size variations on those peanuts.”
The contracts between peanut farmers and shelling companies don’t constitute a quota system. Farmers can plant peanuts on as many acres as they want. But there’s no guarantee that a shelling company will buy any peanut beyond what’s stipulated in the contract. “We graded 242,000 tons of peanuts in North Carolina [in 2021],” Hoggard says. “The most I know of on record was 246,000. And I think the second-largest graded crop on record was 243,000. We have the potential of having the second-largest crop on record.”
West says the popular, low-cost and nutritious peanut has a bright future. “I believe the future of agriculture is in edible crops,” he says. “And peanuts are very important from a nutrition standpoint and from a feed-the-world standpoint.”
West enjoys growing peanuts. “[They] are a fun crop to raise, and they are a pretty crop — the race, the bush, the vine and the way it looks in the field. I just enjoy it,” he says. Harvest is his favorite. Peanuts are legumes, like kidney beans and black-eyed peas, so they don’t grow on trees like pecans or almonds. The National Peanut Board says peanut plants, which top out at about 18 inches, flower then drop a “peg,” which grows into the soil. Peanuts form on each underground.
West says when harvesters turn over the soil, treasures that have been growing all summer are unearthed. “You know, when you ride by a cotton field, you can see bolls, and you can see what’s out there,” he says. “But with peanuts, you don’t know what’s out there other than vines, because it’s under the ground. And I like the surprise of seeing what we’ve got and how the peanuts look. I just think peanuts are an enjoyable crop, and I enjoy raising them more than anything else we raise.” ■
— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer from Raleigh.
Pick up a carton of eggs at your local grocery store, and chances are good that they were laid at Braswell Family Farms in Nash County. The nation’s second-largest Eggland franchise, which also sells eggs under its Natural Choice banner, has been in the egg business for nearly a half century. “We’re a fourth-generation family farm,” says Trey Braswell, company president. “Our business began in 1943, when my great-great-uncle J.M. Braswell and great-grandad E.G Braswell purchased Boddie Mill.”
Braswell’s father, Scott, launched the family farm’s egg operation in 1979. Today, Braswell Family Farms has a flock of about 1.7 million egg-laying hens, which produce about 1.4 million eggs each day. It has 225 employees and helps about 40 small family farms raise egg-laying chickens. “So, we not only have our own production facilities, we are able to help others thrive and provide for their families through our partnerships with other family farms,” Braswell says.
Farms run by families and individuals are an important part of North Carolina’s agriculture industry, which contributes $95.9 billion to the state’s economy, according to Michael Walden, the recently retired William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor and extension economist at N.C. State University. They represent about 85% of the 39,452 North Carolina farms counted in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, the most recent available. Corporate farms, on the other hand, made up about 7%.
Family farms will continue to contribute to agriculture’s economic impact, which N.C. Agriculture Secretary Steve Troxler believes will soon surpass $100 billion. “This is an industry with a bright future” he said in a January interview. “Food and fiber production will always be essential. And, as our population grows, so does the market for food, housing and other amenities.”
Before getting into the egg business, Braswell Family Farms was known for raising high-quality young hens — pullets — for the egg industry. That work is only a portion of what it does today. It also mills feed and markets its eggs to retail grocers such as Harris Teeter,
Publix and Lowes Foods. “Our company is certainly different now than it was back in the day, when the industry was more segmented,” Braswell says. “Some farmers produced feed, others would produce pullets, someone else would produce the eggs and someone else packed bags. But now we are vertically integrated.”
From ever-expanding operations like Braswell Family Farms to smaller growers, North Carolina agriculture and agribusiness are on the rise, says Walden, who has been studying and forecasting the economic impact of the state’s agriculture industry for more than 40 years. “North Carolina is very good at producing many agricultural products, but over the years, there has been a big shift from crop products like tobacco to more meat and other animal products,” he wrote in a 2021 report.
Braswell Family Farms hasn’t strayed from its founding principles. “Those who came before me put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get the company to where it is today,” Braswell says. “I hope to continue building on that strong foundation. We want to grow our people, our products and our partnerships. While I am getting ready to dip my toes into beef, I think eggs will always be our focus. And we’ll continue to look for opportunities to complement that, and we’ll always look for ways of diversifying our operation.” ■
— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer from Raleigh.