ELLERBE — A throng of plaid- and polo-shirted farmers gathered at the new Sandhills AGInnovation Center on Thursday, to sneak a peek at a future they hope will improve agricultural methods while keeping them on the land they love.
The cavernous center now holds little more than the hope that local produce soon will have pride of place on the shelves of grocery stores and the plates of restaurants throughout North Carolina. The machinery that will make that happen is not yet installed. (A cooler held a PowerPoint presentation and a shelf in a hallway, boxes of paper booties and lab coats.)
But on the day of the center’s ribbon-cutting, hope seemed to be more than enough.
“It’s amazing,” exulted Erin Sullivan White of Community Food Lab, which helped representatives of county government and the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service plan the 3,000-square-foot center a handful of years ago. “What is most exciting is that there’s still a strong community of support” after four years of planning.
Among the more than 100 supporters Thursday were:
• Ellerbe Mayor Lee Berry, who expressed hope that the center would breathe life into “a dying breed.”
• Berry’s son Coleman, 17, who will study agriculture at N.C. State University this fall and may come home to farm.
• And 63-year-old Tim Walton of the Beaver Dam community, who hopes to restore the farm his grandparents left him by raising collards to corn.
Even livestock farmer Heywood Grant of Ellerbe said he saw potential for the center beyond processing vegetables for wholesale marketing.
“I’d like to see it get big enough so they could sell beef,” he said, envisioning sales of his chickens and cattle.
It’s a reach, but that might be possible.
“Over time, the community here will learn how to best use the building,” said White. The center is “meant to be flexible.”
Susan Kelly, director of the Richmond County Extension, first floated the idea of a center to county officials in 2013. It would be a place, she said, where local farmers could sell their products wholesale and where those with a love for fresh produce could learn how to farm.
Richmond County chipped in $150,000, which makes it the center’s owner.
In a sign of cooperation, Moore County paid for a feasibility study.
In 2015, Richmond County representatives applied for a $475,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation of Rocky Mount, which finances the growing of crops other than tobacco. Its stated aim is to “grow new markets (and) keep people on the land.”
And they landed the grant, partly on the strength of multi-county cooperation and partly because Moore County resorts will pay a premium for fresh, locally grown produce.
President Dan Gerlach, who brokered produce when he was in college, said the foundation had given grants to 85 counties, but “in no other place did two counties come together” as Richmond and Moore had.
Richmond County has 277 farms, according to the latest figures from the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. That includes 17 fruit, nut and berry farms, and 19 melon, vegetable and potato farms. The center also will aid farmers in seven other counties in the Sandhills region.
Many farmers sell direct to consumers, on the roadside or at farmers markets. But they can make better money selling wholesale — something that can be beyond a smaller farmer, who may not have access to capital to advertise his produce or the equipment to keep it cool and fresh until it is sold.
The AGInnovation Center will provide farmers with education and equipment to boost production. And it will help connect farmers with larger buyers, such as grocery chains and restaurants.
Converting an old produce packing shed into the agricultural center cost more than anticipated, so the center will not immediately begin processing food. That entails such things as bagging, shredding and triple washing — preparations to make produce easier to use after purchase. This fall, the center will emphasize the growing of strawberries, greens and lettuce.
Manager Davon Goodwin, 28 and a board member of the National Young Farmers Association, is center director.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673.