lucia strader holding plants
Lucia Strader is part of a $1 million, 10-institution collaboration that aims at enabling improvements in agriculture to reach underserved areas of the state faster (Chris Hildreth/Duke Magazine)  

Lucia Strader Part of “Ag Tech Corridor” Project with $1M from National Science Foundation

As North Carolina’s top economic driver, agriculture is practiced in every corner of the state. But most of the research and technological innovation that could be available to the $103 billion industry comes from companies and universities in the comparatively small, urban areas of the Triad and Triangle.

That imbalance can leave farmers without exposure to research-based techniques and new technologies, particularly those that can help lower the barriers to market entry for limited-resource farmers, said Gregory Goins, Ph.D., associate dean for research in the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State UniversityCollege of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences (N.C. A&T).

Starting this spring, N.C. A&T will lead a project that aims to break that bottleneck. Funded by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Regional Innovation Engines, the project, called Climate-Responsive Opportunities in Plant Science (CROPS), brings together researchers from Duke, East Carolina University, North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University; specialists and county agents from N.C. Cooperative Extension; industry partner N.C. Biotechnology Center; and nonprofit research institute Research Triangle International with the N.C. Community College System. Together, they will create a plan to develop a 42-county Agricultural Tech Innovation Corridor to enable improvements in agriculture to reach underserved areas of the state faster. 

Through a mix of educational programming, workforce development activities and startup grant funding, the 10 institutions will provide educational programs that deliver up-to-date information on such topics as farming technologies, agricultural business management and natural resource conservation, Goins said.

“It takes the proverbial village to translate new technologies and knowledge into adoption,” said Sharlini Sankaran, Director of External Partnerships at Duke University. “We’re very proud to be a part of the CROPS coalition that will bring inclusive perspectives to achieve transformational and sustainable change for our ag community.”

The project also proposes ways to help small producers identify new crops and livestock enterprises that have the potential to increase farm income and assists them in developing community-based local food systems.

The program also has a strong work force development component to foster small-scale farmland economic performance as well to increase diversity in farming, Goins said. The program will stress climate-smart techniques and ways to create climate resilience, and provide information about technologies to help agricultural operations thrive. Programs are free to participants.

The "ag tech corridor" proposed by CROPS extends through 42 counties. (Lucia Strader/Duke University)

“The future of agriculture depends heavily on our ability to increase plants’ resilience to environmental and climate challenges.”  said Lucia Strader, professor of Biology at Duke University. “But scientists can’t work in a vacuum to achieve this transformation. We have to listen and be responsive to the needs and challenges of our farmers and growers, and CROPS will be pivotal in making those conversations happen.”

“New farmers, underserved farmers and those with small-scale acreage need information to develop farm management practices to implement methods that protect the environment, produce the highest quality food and provide a reliable family income,” Goins said. “Our team seeks to develop a plan to bring information from industry to farmer, particularly in underserved areas, to help them mitigate climate impacts, lower the barriers to market entry that they face, and boost the agricultural sector’s economic output.”

N.C. A&T is the first and only historically Black university to lead one of NSF’s “Engines,” grant-funded projects designed to promote science and technology as regional economic drivers. With a potential investment of $1.6 billion in the next decade, Engines is one of the largest investments in regionally-based research and development in U.S. history, according to the foundation. Since January, the foundation has awarded 10 projects in 18 states. North Carolina is the only state with three Engines awards.

The program will begin this spring with listening sessions across the state, said Biswanath Dari, assistant professor and natural resource specialist at N.C. A&T Cooperative Extension.

“We will make farmers the crucial role-players in this project by going to them and seeing what they need,” he said. “Then, we’ll address those needs with farmer-focused, participatory programs.”

“We have all the resources in higher education, and agriculture, right here in North Carolina, to make a difference to small growers,” said Mark Blevins, Ed.D., assistant administrator of N.C. A&T Cooperative Extension. “CROPS not only brings farmers, funders and researchers together, it brings universities and business agencies together to serve them in ways that haven’t been done before. Together, we can do more than any of us can do on our own.”

Content adapted with authorization from NC A&T