ELLERBE — The Sandhills AGInnovation Center has won a $14,500 grant to help it grow new farmers in Richmond County.
The “new ideas” grant from N.C. A&T State University will finance staff, equipment and training to help farmers develop vegetable crops to increase and diversify offerings raised locally. The center promises such a program will provide fledgling farms with the knowledge and resources they need, and help established poultry farmers raise more than chickens.
“We (want) home gardeners, small farmers and those who are just thinking about farming and want to get their hands dirty” to use the coming 10-acre demonstration plot, said Davon Goodwin, who manages the center.
“We want anybody in the county that’s into agriculture,” he said Wednesday.
That includes people who don’t necessarily think big: “If you’re a home gardener, we can teach you different techniques,” Goodwin promised.
Goodwin said he also had heard from poultry farmers interested in diversifying, including some who once had farmed vegetables on a small scale but stopped doing so.
“Now, with the facility (to help them), they want to come back to it,” he said.
But first, Goodwin has to stake out the plot and prepare the soil. A greenhouse, raised beds and a tent to protect students from the elements also are in the plans.
Opened last September, the AGInnovation center was supposed to be running at full speed by this month — and in many ways, it is. But demand for its services has been both a blessing and a curse, forcing organizers to rework some of their original ideas.
Earlier this year, the center used $200,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy bigger equipment because planners underestimated how much produce would have to be washed, chopped and prepared for sale. One potential distributor, for example, unexpectedly asked the center to process enough carrots to sell to school systems across the state.
Two massive refrigerators at the building at at 1298 Crawford Road, Ellerbe, are up and running, and able to store produce. But a freezer for strawberries and peaches — which will be needed as early as May — also is in the works, to handle produce for sale outside North Carolina. Planners hadn’t counted on that, either.
When Susan Kelly Kelly, director of the Richmond County Cooperative Extension, first floated the idea of a center to county officials in 2013, she said it would be a place where local farmers could sell their products wholesale and where those with a love for fresh produce could learn how to farm. She envisioned it as a cross between the giant “food hubs” found in some areas, and the roadside stand many local farmers depend on for sales.
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 was to “grow new markets (and) keep people on the land.”
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.
And now the center leans more toward “food hub” and less toward the face-to-face sales of roadside stands.
The AGInnovation Center comprises 3,000 square feet of concrete and roofing, including 640 square feet of cooler space. It opened in September and is intended to promote farming 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. Cooperative Extension Service. Those include 17 fruit, nut and berry farms, and 19 melon, vegetable and potato farms.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]