"Since the start of our [diversi-
fication] program, we have had
more than 28 new businesses
start and 18 existing businesses
add products and services."
They are all part of the Vernon G. James Research and Extension Center, on the grounds of the Tidewater Research Station, where the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences works in concert with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to address key agricultural, environmental and educational issues affecting the remote northeastern North Carolina region.
Over the past half century, the region, known for its rich black soils, has rapidly emerged as a key area for production of grains, pigs, cotton, potatoes and other crops. At the same time, agriculture has become an increasingly competitive industry, with many major commodities bringing little more than break-even prices.
At the Tidewater Station, scientists focus on ways to solve production problems that cut into yield and profit, and they also work to develop high-value alternative crops and enterprises.
And, by reaching out to
the community, the center’s faculty members strive to make the region
a better place to live. Here’s a look at just a few of their programs:
Through his efforts to build a better Beauregard especially suited for local conditions, Dr. Craig Yencho hopes to help North Carolina retain its position as the nation’s leading sweetpotato-producing state.
Although his sweetpotato-breeding program is based in Raleigh, Yencho, a member of the Department of Horticultural Science, is housed at the James Research Center. He also has trials at the Kinston’s Cunningham Research Station, Clinton’s Horticultural Crops Research Station and Clayton’s Central Crops Research Station.
He says that the research-station work puts him “closer to the clientele.” And, in the five years he’s been on the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty, Yencho has come to believe that grower participation will be key to his ultimate success.
When he arrived, he found that sweetpotato growers were anxious for a new variety. Fellow researcher and sweetpotato breeder Ken Pecota and extension educator Bill Jester urged him to get those producers involved.
What resulted from their early talks is a breeding program that depends heavily on grower involvement. Each year, three growers, selected by their North Carolina Cooperative Extension agents, plant two acres with 5,000 to 7,000 sweet- potato hills, each hill with a genetically distinct seedling. Each seedling has the potential to become a new variety.
In early fall, Yencho and his colleagues harvest the hills, walking the fields with producers and other industry representatives at their sides, listening to them as they give their uncensored opinions about what they find in each and every hill.
“While we are walking, we are talking, and that feedback helps us to know what’s important and relevant for them,” says Yencho. “It’s also allowed me to learn a lot about the sweetpotato industry in a short period of time.”
The grower feedback helps researchers determine which sweet- potatoes ought to be culled from the breeding program and which might bring them another step closer to a better variety. “Those we like, we keep, and, out of 5,000, if we take 100, we take a lot,” Yencho says. “This is our fourth or fifth season, and we can already see results in the quality of the material we are selecting.
“With sweetpotatoes, the
breeding process can take eight to 10 to 12 years — six if you are lucky.
We hope we will be lucky.”
In front of the James Center is a half-acre field where Fernandez is testing chemical and non-chemical soil treatments. She’s also trying them on larger-scale, on-farm trials that will give her, and growers, a better idea of how well these alternatives control weeds, diseases and insects under real-world conditions.
“I think there will not be one single option but instead a number of options that growers can choose from, based on their needs,” says Fernandez, of the Horticultural Science Department. “They will need to take into account their soil type, the costs of the treatment, its effectiveness and its potential health effects.”
Among the most promising
treatments she’s seen so far is a compost that John Vollmer is trying
on his Franklin County farm. Not every grower will want to invest the
amount of time that it takes to make the compost, but Fernandez thinks
that there could be enough demand, especially among organic growers,
that one or more growers could develop viable commercial composting
Fernandez and Yencho are among those on the front lines of the College’s efforts.
With the N.C. Specialty Crops Program, Yencho is working to produce a drier, white-fleshed boniato-type sweetpotato variety appealing to the Hispanic and Oriental markets. And, with his colleagues at N.C. State’s Genomic Research Laboratory, he is considering ways to combine traditional breeding with genetic engineering to develop sweetpotatoes specifically suited for industrial uses — drier, higher-yielding varieties suitable for ethanol production, for example, or purple-fleshed varieties that can be a source for food coloring.
Meanwhile, Fernandez is helping growers refine methods of growing strawberries that yield fruit in the winter, when it can bring a premium price. The promising work was begun by the late Eric Bish, also of the Department of Horticultural Science, and at least one North Carolina farmer, in the state’s southern-most tip, has had success in producing winter-fruiting strawberries.
Farther north, strawberries may need more protection from the cold, so Fernandez is exploring ways to construct plastic tunnels to shelter the plants.
Meanwhile, she’s also set up trellis demonstrations aimed at helping North Carolina blackberry growers get around prickly thorns and other production challenges so that they can help fill a seemingly unlimited demand for the berries. And she’s conducting research aimed at finding a way to produce North Carolina-grown blueberries that will be ready to pick in March and April, before the traditional summer harvest.
She’s particularly interested in finding ways that the blueberries can be grown in the sheltered environment of tobacco transplant greenhouses. Such greenhouses represent substantial investments, and, Fernandez says, farmers who are being forced out of the tobacco industry want to find ways they can avoid losing those investments.
Other researchers are considering whether tobacco greenhouses can be used to provide a warm, sheltered environment for growing Southern flounder. With a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation, Drs. Harry Daniels and Tom Losordo of the Zoology Department are building a tobacco-style greenhouse on the College’s Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory in Raleigh. Their goal: to figure out, and then demonstrate to potential growers, the best ways to grow the fish from fingerling size to market weight.
The work is an extension of Daniels’ work at a Tidewater station hatchery, where he has gotten the finicky flounder to thrive and reproduce in captivity.
“They seem so laid back, but these are really high-strung fish,” Daniels said. “Southern flounder have been difficult to work with because they just sit there on the bottom. There are so few behavioral cues that it took some time for us to figure out what they need.”
To get consistent and reliable results, he found that he had to give the flounder plenty of peace and quiet: dim lighting, quiet pumps and no splashing water.
Though it’s been — in his words — “seven long years” since he began the research, Daniels remains optimistic that Southern flounder aqua-culture will become a reality for eastern North Carolina producers.
Because of its historical seafood industry and an aquaculture industry that’s grown by 20 percent annually for the past 10 years, North Carolina has large, well-established marketing channels that could get farm-raised flounder to worldwide markets. There, it could fetch between $5 and $10 per pound. That’s more than double the $2.40 per pound paid for hybrid striped bass.
“I’ve gotten lots of interest
from all over the world,” Daniels says, “so I’m convinced that the market
For Smith, the experience was enlightening. “From school, I knew the scientific method. Here, I got to put it to work,” he says. “And it wasn’t always what I expected.”
That’s the kind of response Cubeta had in mind when he, Daniels and soil scientist Carl Crozier began working with local high school teachers to develop a mentoring program for 10th graders. Through the program, students get the chance to work one-on-one with their mentors for four to six months, conducting experiments directly related to the scientists’ programs.
Smith’s science teacher, Alma Phifer, says that the experience offers bright, hard-working students the chance to learn more than they could in her classroom. “In school, they can’t focus on replication because we simply don’t have the time,” she says. “So they learn the importance of repeating experiments. And they also get to see how scientists really work.”
Student Sarah Owens agrees. “I realized that science isn’t quick. You have to do test after test after test to make sure you are doing things right.”
And student Marika Boerema says she was surprised to find out how many questions James Center scientists ask each other.
“They are constantly asking questions,” says Boerema, who worked with Cubeta on a project related to Rhizoctonia, a fungus that afflicts some crops. “I thought, they have Ph.D.s, so they must know everything. But they don’t. And once I saw them asking questions, I realized that it was OK for me to ask questions, too.”
Not only do the students learn about the way scientists go about their work, they also gain an appreciation for the scientific aspects of agriculture, Daniels says.
“These kids get to see that there is hard science in agriculture. Marc, he has them out there one day digging up potatoes and then the next day looking at the basic genetics of Rhizoctonia, then the next day they are out there again digging up potatoes,” he says. “I think it really opens their eyes.”
The students, who don’t earn money or school credit, say they do it to gain experience working with some of the state’s best scientists. And the scientist-mentors find it equally rewarding.
“It gets me very excited,” says Cubeta, “because I like working with and learning from the students.”
That mutual benefit is inherent in much of the work that takes place at the Tidewater Research Station. Local people benefit from having scientists who address agricultural and environmental challenges with solutions that take into consideration the local conditions, whether it be the weather, the soil type, the transportation systems or the culture. And the scientists don’t have to go far to see their efforts making a difference in the lives of local growers, students and others in the community.
“It’s part of extension, and the larger land-grant college, to be part of the community, whether you are doing science that solves a problem or helping explain that science to others so they can put it to work,” Daniels says. “And, at the research stations, you really see that.”
And for Kim Powell, landscape architect and Extension Landscape specialist in the College, the HFL is where he offers training and education for the landscape industry and Extension agents. Most notably, it’s the site of the national Certified Landscape Technician (CLT) exam. It is also a study resource for those nursery/garden professionals preparing to become Certified Plant Professionals (CPP).
These activities take place on about a two-acre site at the HFL, which includes more than 275 plants — trees, shrubs, perennials, vines and ground cover. “The collection was begun in 1995 as seedlings and small plants,” says Powell. “It was then just a row of plants A to Z in soil that needed extensive renovation and irrigation.”
The creation of the site turned into an immediate teaching tool, Powell says, when Ag Institute students helped him install the irrigation system.
Their efforts were beautifully rewarded. Now thriving along the rows are pecan trees, dogwoods, crape myrtles, Norway spruce, Bradford pear, weeping cherry, oakleaf hydrangea, white pine, English laurel — all the 275 listed plants a CPP would need to be able to identify and that a CLT would need to know and/or make use of in a landscape.
“We also have students involved in certification from N.C. State and from community colleges,” Powell says.
Powell’s clientele includes landscape architects, contractors, nurserymen and growers — also called the “green industry.” The N.C. Association of Nurserymen sponsors the Certified Plant Professional program, and the N.C. Landscape Association sponsors the Certified Landscape Technician program, he explains.
The purpose of the CPP program is to improve the competency of people working in garden centers, says Powell. “It’s a tough test, but once they pass it they should be able to answer any question a home gardener would typically ask about a plant.”
Questions like, “Can you recommend a fast-growing shade tree?” Answer: Try red maple, sugar maple, willow oak. Need a plant for a damp area in the back yard? Look to trees such as bald cypress or river birch, or to shrubs like a wax myrtle. But steer clear of azaleas, boxwoods or dogwoods, none of which like wet feet.
“Someone who has passed the CPP will know the answers; it’s directed to the person working with plants,” Powell says. “So would the CLT know the answers, but ideally what you do with that certification is practice the safe and correct way of using landscape equipment, tree planting, grading and drainage.”
The latest CLT exam took place at the site November 8-9. There, those seeking certification as landscape technicians were tested on knowledge and skills including plant identification and layout (following landscape designer/engineer’s plans); proper use of chain saws, tillers, mowers, edgers and pruners; and their ability to hook up a 16-foot trailer to a truck and then back it up.
“We’ll till up bed spaces so they can demonstrate tree planting, staking and sod installation,” Powell says. “It’s a very physical, intense test.”
The CLTs also must prove they can safely guide a skid-steer tractor into position for lifting and dumping mulch over a rod set at a height to simulate the loading position on a truck. “A mess-up here or in pesticide usage — any improper safety procedures — can result in automatic failure,” says Powell. “Safety is mandatory on everything.”
The test is overseen and the site is inspected by a representative of the Association of Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA), which owns the copyright on the CLT exam. “It’s a national certification — the same as given in other states; therefore, when a person passes in North Carolina, he’s certified in other states as well,” Powell says.
“We’re literally one of the first in the country to have this as a training facility for the industry as part of a research station on university property. We’re also the first state to certify our county agents as CLT instructors.”
Twenty-one county agents have passed the exam, as have six community college instructors, he adds, noting the work of outreach and extension programs to address the concerns of the landscape and nursery industry across the state. “County agents offer training throughout the state. This past fall, three regional classes were going on in Wake, Orange and Chatham counties; in Sampson, Cumberland and Bladen counties; and in New Hanover County.”
In the spring, training will continue in the western counties, with testing to be held in that part of the state.
Sherman, Cooperative Extension specialist in solid waste management in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, helps communities and individuals reduce the waste sent to landfills through reusing, recycling and reducing. She educates the public about recycling and vermicomposting through workshops, publications and responding to email inquiries.
She is also a partner in the Soil and Water Environmental Technology Center (SWETC), based at N.C. State’s Lake Wheeler Road field laboratory. Her compost training facility features several examples of bins used for backyard composting.
SWETC conducts research and education related to environmental protection in the areas of decentralized wastewater management, land application and crop management, sediment and erosion control, urban stormwater management, water table management, watershed management, stream restoration, and composting and recycling.
While there is great interest in all her educational efforts, she has noticed that the vermicomposting program really strikes a chord with all audiences. Her vermicomposting Web site, http://www.bae.ncsu.edu/people/faculty/sherman/vermiculture/worm-pub’s.htm, attracts hits and questions from around the world.
“Any population is very interested in vermicomposting. It really turns on a lightbulb,” Sherman said.
More and more people are requesting information on vermi-composting as a second source of income or to diversify a farming operation, she said. Vermicomposting can provide income in two ways: through sales of the worms themselves and through sales of worm droppings, known as castings.
In the gardening industry, pure worm castings are known as black gold. They are skimmed from the vermicompost and sold in bags to gardeners. The soil-like material can be mixed into garden soil, placed around trees and shrubs or mixed with potting soil for indoor plants. A “compost tea” created with two tablespoons vermicompost and a quart of water can be used to provide nutrients to plants.
Once or twice each week, Sherman collects vegetable waste from N.C. State’s dining halls. After allowing time for the food to cool, she feeds some to each worm bin. Sometimes the food disappears quickly, but worms can have peculiar appetites, she said.
If the worms are satisfied with their leftovers, they are content to burrow into the leaf mulch that provides their home in the worm bins. If they don’t like the offerings, Sherman may find them crawling around the lid and walls of the bin, as if searching for something different.
While vermicomposting can be done outside, worms usually prefer a more consistent indoor temperature, randing from 50 to 77 degrees F. Red wigglers are the preferred vermicomposting species because they don’t mind being contained, though dramatic temperature changes can send these worms scrambling from their bins.
In addition to small-scale vermi-composting, Sherman also works with municipalities and industries that use vermicomposting on a much grander scale to reduce their waste. She recently received funding to study the possibility of using vermiculture to convert waste from hog lagoons into a valuable product. She is investigating whether vermicomposting would be a low-cost alternative to hog lagoons.
One eastern North Carolina hog producer has been experimenting with the use of vermicomposting on hog farms for more than 20 years. Currently, a greenhouse, 200 feet by 36 feet, covers five worm beds that extend both above and below the ground on his hog farm. The design allows the worms to burrow deeper into the ground when the temperature exceeds a comfortable 75 degrees.
As the 273-acre research station along the banks of the French Broad River enters its 53rd year, it remains responsive to those changing needs.
For example, two of the station’s numerous research projects are aimed at helping producers who are turning to relatively new forms of agriculture-based income: farm-based tourism — “agritainment” — and our state’s burgeoning “green industry.”
Seeking income diversity, growers are promoting various types of entertainment to lure customers to their spreads, where visitors hopefully will buy an array of farm-based products. The lures include everything from novelties, such as cornfield mazes in patterns unique to each farm, to the more conventional nature trails, historic walks, craft shows, farm produce and music festivals. Many are ways to promote the farm’s food resources; all add value to crops already under cultivation.
The green industry — nursery and floriculture crops such as shrubs and flowers — expanded faster than any North Carolina crop in the past decade, making the state the nation’s fourth largest nursery/floriculture producer, behind California, Texas and Florida. State Agriculture and Consumer Services Department statistics indicate that “green” crops’ wholesale value topped $973 million in 1999, surpassing tobacco — at $784 million — as the state’s No. 1 commodity crop.
In the case of agritainment, researchers with N. C. Cooperative Extension, which is based at N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, help farmers find innovative ways to keep their agricultural efforts profitable.
Dr. Jeanine Davis, North Carolina Specialty Crops Program coordinator, and Lanny Hass, an Extension small business management specialist, are researching a variety of agritainment projects.
Since one of the most successful agritainment enterprises is cornfield mazes, in September they demonstrated a new twist to the concept at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center: sunflowers as a supplement for or an alternative to corn for constructing the increasingly popular mazes.
“An apple grower in Alexander County who’d considered building a cornfield maze wondered if he could build mazes out of other crops,” says Davis. “Since it would be the first of its type in the state, we had many questions about how to do it.”
So the research team planted more than 20 sunflower varieties at the research station.They also planted both confectionery and oil-yielding sunflowers and a replicated study, all at different planting densities and with and without a cover crop.
Such studies are valuable because researchers learn such things as how much seed to use (so maze tourists can’t cheat and peek through the plants), the best time to plant, the best varieties and how long the sunflowers will hold their peak beauty.
“Another thing we learned,” notes Hass, “is that the sunflowers attract bees. Instead of a maze per se, the sunflower fields might best be used as a visual attraction to draw tourists, who hopefully would stay and navigate the corn maze and buy other farm-based products.”
Growers are responding well to the challenges of diversification, Hass says.
“Since the start of our program about three years ago, we have had more than 28 new businesses start and 18 existing businesses add products and services after participating in some of our educational programs,” he says. “Also, we’ve seen eight farmers increase net profits by more than 50 percent since adding value to their farm products with agritourism.”
After the tour, the group met in the Research Center auditorium, where Hass and Davis led a lively discussion on the needs of those interested in getting into this kind of agricultural enterprise, including marketing issues, using global positioning systems to establish a maze and future research needs.
The N.C. Specialty Crops Program is a cooperative effort among the state Agriculture Department and units of N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, including Cooperative Extension and the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service.
At the same research station, Dr. Tom Ranney and colleagues are pathfinders on a major drive to help diversify our state’s agricultural base, in this case, through the green industry.
He’s looking at the mimosa, a fragile-appearing, popular ornamental tree of Asian origin, but one with as much invasive potential as another Asian import, kudzu.
Ranney and his team, including Dr. Mike Benson of the College’s Department of Plant Pathology, John Vining, Polk County Cooperative Extension director, and research specialist Tom Eaker continue to develop ornamentals, leading the way to new agriculture frontiers for the strongly competitive green industry, which enjoys a growth rate that has zipped right by that of the state’s other agricultural commodities.
“Mimosas, primarily Albizia julibrissin, have been a popular landscape plant in the United States for more than 100 years,” says Ranney. “Their delicate foliage, long blooming period and attractive white-to-pink flowers make a desirable landscape plant. And recent introductions from Japan, where it originated, include new cultivars with purple and variegated foliage and weeping forms. But despite their beauty, mimosas tend to spread rapidly, and their susceptibility to a severe wilt disease — Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. pernicosum — limits their use in landscapes. The wilt, discovered in North Carolina in the 1930s, rapidly spread over much of the United States.
“Our primary objective is to develop a sterile mimosa cultivar with Fusarium wilt resistance, which would be an extremely desirable and valuable nursery crop,” Ranney says. “And we need Fusarium-resistant clones to use as rootstock to graft to other desirable, but now-susceptible selections like ‘Summer Chocolate,’ a named clone from Japan.”
While several methods are useful for developing sterile plants, Ranney plans to use one of the most rapid and cost-effective, creating polyploids, which are plants with extra sets of chromosomes.
“We’re trying to develop triploids: plants with uneven chromosome numbers that keep them from being reproduced, essentially the same approach we use to develop seedless watermelons,” Ranney says.
Triploids have an additional reproductive barrier because their three sets of chromosomes can’t be divided evenly during meiosis, the point in the cellular reproduction process at which the number of chromosomes in a mature male or female germ cell reduces to half.
“We’re also attempting to create sterile clones by creating hybrids between different species of mimosa, similar to creating mules,” he says.
The researchers hit upon the idea of developing new flower colors after Vining discovered a yellow-flowered mimosa near Greenville, S.C.
Last September, Vining gathered seed from seven different wild mimosas: several unusually large specimen trees in Polk County and two with bright flower colors from nearby South Carolina. He also included seed from the yellow-flowered mimosa that inspired the project.
These seeds and a wide variety of others from around the world supply researchers with a broader base from which to work. “We’re also after better ornamental characteristics,” says Ranney.
“We’re looking at new flower colors, such as red — a high priority for an ornamental — or purple leaves, such as found in ‘Summer Chocolate.’ And we’re bringing in new foliage forms, such as a weeping form that I’ve never seen in the United States.”
Scientists in the Specialty Crops Program in N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are experimenting with a kind of chrysanthemum called pyrethrum to see if the plants can be grown for profit in North Carolina, said Dr. Jeanine Davis, program coordinator. The Specialty Crops Program was created to develop and market high-value alternative crops for North Carolina farmers.
Pyrethrum flowers are processed to make a substance called pyrethrin, which is a widely used natural insecticide, Davis said. Pyrethrin is used extensively for insect control in the food service industry and in a wide variety of domestic and commercial animal husbandry applications. The newest pyrethrum product is a coil that is burned to repel mosquitoes.
The effort to determine whether pyrethrum might be an alternative crop for North Carolina farmers is in the early stages, Davis said, and it is not yet clear how much commercial potential the flowers might have. Indeed, if pyrethrum were to be a viable North Carolina crop, it would likely be necessary to locate a processing facility within the state. Such a facility does not now exist, although Davis said the state Department of Commerce has indicated an interest in pursuing a facility if her work indicates pyrethrum has potential.
Davis began experimenting with pyrethrum at the urging of an Avery County couple, Edward and Alvera Frauenheim Jr. Davis said Edward Frauenheim, an engineer, worked in Chile in the early 1990s to help develop a pyrethrum industry in that country and believes the crop has potential for North Carolina. Frauenheim designed a family of components, including a mechanical harvester, that can be used to pick pyrethrum flowers. At the same time, the Chilean effort focused on selectively breeding pyrethrum plants that grow to a uniform height and bloom at the same time, which makes them easier to harvest mechanically. Alvera Frauenheim, a leader in conserving wildflower habitats in North Carolina, has been involved in bringing seed of this type of pyrethrum to the state.
Davis said pyrethrum must be mechanically harvested to be economically feasible in North Carolina.
The Frauenheims contacted the Specialty Crops Program in 1997, and, in 1998, Davis first grew small amounts of pyrethrum at N.C. State’s Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station in Fletcher, where she’s stationed. With grant funding obtained by the Frauenheims, she expanded the project in 2000, growing larger amounts of pyrethrum at four locations across the state. In addition to Fletcher, pyrethrum was grown at research stations near Laurel Springs in the northern mountains, near Salisbury and in Kinston.
“We tested three seed sources, from Holland, Germany and Chile,” Davis said. “We grew 55,000 plants from seed.” The flowers were harvested for the first time in 2001. The plants grow 2 to 3 feet tall and have small yellow flowers that look like daisies.
“We had incredible flowers,” Davis said. A count of 100 flowers per plant is considered good, she added, and her plants, particularly those grown in Salisbury, were well over that.
If growing pyrethrum in North Carolina does prove feasible, it could provide an alternative crop for some tobacco farmers. Davis said much of the equipment used to grow tobacco — transplanters, cultivators, tractors, curing barns — could be used in growing pyrethrum and drying the flowers. Davis speculated that the industry might support “well over 100 growers.”
But the day when some North Carolina farmers plant fields of chrysanthemums is at least a few years away. Mechanical harvesting will be a key element, Davis said, and while Edward Frauenheim has plans for a harvester, the machine does not now exist. It must be built.
Davis said she learned in harvesting her 2001 experimental crop how important mechanical harvesting will be.
“We tried everything to harvest the flowers by hand, including popping them off with our fingers and using hedge trimmers and weed eaters,” she said. “It was obvious why you would need a mechanical harvester to grow this crop commercially.”
There’s still much to be learned about how best to grow the plants in North Carolina and dry the flowers. That will be the focus of the project as it continues in 2002.
on learning the best time to harvest the flowers and on flower-drying
techniques,” Davis said. “There’s a lot we still need to learn, and
the industry is very secretive. It’s hard to get information.”