Three thousand square feet of concrete and roofing near Ellerbe may just hold the future of Richmond County farming.
Scheduled to open in September, the Sandhills AGInnovation Center — a team effort between Richmond and Moore counties and the N.C. Cooperative Extension — will offer opportunities for local farmers to sell their products wholesale. It also will encourage those with a love for fresh produce to take up farming.
County Commissioner Don Bryant will serve on the center’s governing board. A former agriculture instructor, Bryant took up beekeeping to preserve the endangered insects and hopes the AGInnovation Center will do something similar for local farmers — preserving and protecting them. And maybe growing some new ones.
“There’s nothing worse than having 10 acres of bell peppers and not having any market for them,” Bryant said Wednesday. But, “if we could produce a way for a farmer to make money …
“We’ve got to make it profitable for our farmers to survive.”
The center will aid farmers in Richmond, Moore and six other counties considered part of the Sandhills region of central North Carolina.
Richmond County has 277 farms, according to the latest figures from the N.C. Extension. That includes 17 fruit, nut and berry farms, and 19 melon, vegetable and potato farms.
Some area farmers sell direct to consumers, on the roadside or at farmers’ markets.
But better money can be made in selling wholesale — something that can be beyond a smaller farmer, who may not have access to capital to advertise or the equipment to keep produce cooled and fresh until it is sold.
That’s where the AGInnovation Center is intended to come in, said Susan Kelly, Richmond County extension director. It will not broker arrangements between farmers and buyers, as so-called food hubs do. That is, it won’t buy and then resell food.
Rather, the center will help farmers “be smart about what they grow” by providing education and equipment to boost production.
Then, the center will help connect farmers with larger buyers, such as grocery chains and restaurants.
“The idea is to get enough produce from small- to medium-sized farmers” to make it profitable for big buyers to come pick it up, Kelly said. “This is connecting them to bigger markets all over.”
Richmond County chipped in $150,000 for the project, which makes it the center’s owner. Moore County paid for a feasibility study. And the Golden LEAF Foundation of Rocky Mount contributed a $475,000 grant.
Golden LEAF finances grants to promote the growing of crops other than tobacco by attempting to “grow new markets (and) keep people on the land.”
When the foundation saw that Richmond and Moore counties had worked together to seek grant money — and learned that visitors to Moore County resorts would pay a premium for fresh, locally grown produce — it decided to back the project.
“Agriculture and health care are fundamental” to rural areas, said foundation president Dan Gerlach, who brokered produce when he was in college and would again “if (he) won the lottery.”
Those fundamentals come together in the AGInnovation Center by educating farmers in ways to extend growing seasons, leasing them expensive equipment they might not otherwise be able to afford and finding them markets for their produce.
The center also will have large refrigerators to guarantee freshness and food safety — again, something farmers might not be able to afford themselves.
Because at $260,000, converting an old produce packing shed into the agriculture center has cost more than anticipated — “coolers are amazingly expensive,” Kelly said — the center will have to wait awhile to get into food processing. That entails such things as bagging, shredding and triple washing — preparations to make produce easier to use after purchase.
This fall, the fledgling center will emphasize the growing of strawberries, greens and lettuce, she said.
Work already has begun at the center.
Manager Davon Goodwin, 28, and a board member of the National Young Farmers Association, got his new job in May. In June, he began welcoming groups of growers to the center.
But the official ribbon-cutting and open house won’t be until 10:30 a.m. Sept. 7, in Ellerbe. By then, Kelly said, the pricey coolers will be in, and farmers and other interested visitors will be able to get a good idea of what the center can do.
It already has helped lure back one farmer and her husband.
Elaine and Patrick Oxendine have been preparing to move to Richmond County from the Wilmington area, where they own a nursery and sell home-grown produce. Elaine Oxendine grew up on a farm near Ellerbe.
The Oxendines have 100 acres, 50 of which will be turned back to pine growth. They want to live and farm on the remaining 50 acres, raising livestock and produce.
“It will be a great help for us,” Elaine Oxendine said of the center. As a farmer, “you have to find target markets.”
She thinks the center will help the couple grow “on a larger scale” than they do now and sell more produce.
“It’s going to be a big thing for Richmond County,” she said, hopefully. “It’s my home. It’s where I grew up. It’s where I love.”
Those who want more information on the AGInnovation Center may call Susan Kelly, 910-997-8255, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673.