Perspectives on line
NC State University Home Features Steps Toward Recovery Now and the Future Helping Farmers Survive The Future of Farming Noteworthy News Awards Alumni Giving From the Dean College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Future of Farming
Dr. Jeanine Davis

arming has always been among the most capricious of endeavors. The invariable yet always maddeningly variable element with which farmers must deal is, of course, the weather. Conditions seem rarely to be optimal. If it's not too hot, it's too cold. If not too dry, then too wet. Yet if a farmer could survive the weather, a living could usually be made from the land.

That may no longer be the case. Producing a crop has become only part of the battle. Farmers must now contend with an economy that is global in nature. Growing and other conditions halfway around the world might well affect the price a farmer in North Carolina is able to command for a crop. Markets the buyers of the products produced on farms can affect the fate of farmers nearly as much as weather. And farmers typically have about as much control over markets as they do over the weather. Indeed, the difficulty of dealing with fluctuating markets has never been more evident than in recent months, when prices for most major agricultural commodities produced in North Carolina have been the lowest in years.

Diversification: the future of farming

Yet there is a way perhaps not to beat the markets but for farmers to at least hedge their bets. By diversifying, producing a number of different products, farmers can better survive those times when the price of a particular commodity drops through the floor. While there may be little or no profit in a particular crop in a particular year, other crops will be profitable and could pay the mortgage.

Moreover, diversification may be the future of farming, at least in states like North Carolina. The days when a farmer could rely on one crop to make a living might be coming to a close, says Dr. Jeanine Davis, associate professor in the department of horticultural science. Davis is also interim director of the Specialty Crops Program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

"Farmers need to realize that [today] it's unlikely they'll be able to make a living on one crop," says Davis. "They need to be open to new crops and need to be willing to grow several crops." But, she adds, different crops have different needs and require different approaches. Growing multiple crops makes farming more complicated.

Plants to promote health

Stationed at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Fletcher in western North Carolina, Davis has focused her efforts on developing as crops herbs and other plants that contain what have come to be known as nutraceuticals. Nutraceuticals are chemical compounds found in various plants that have been shown to promote good health, prevent disease or have medicinal properties.

Davis has experimental plots of various plants at three research stations. She hopes to learn from these experiments how best to grow the plants on a large scale. Davis is working with plants such as goldenseal, ginseng, black cohosh, Echinacea, St. John's wort, valerian, burdock, dandelion, feverfew, skullcap, stinging nettle, vervain, milk thistle, wild quinine, basil and elephant garlic.

Some of the plants normally are considered weeds, so there is considerable irony in the discovery by Davis that weed control can be a problem. "You have to control the weeds in your weeds," she says.

Diseases can also be a problem when a plant like goldenseal, which typically is found in wooded areas in small numbers, is grown on a larger scale. Yet there appears to be considerable potential for such plants to be grown as crops, particularly if interest in nutraceuticals continues to grow.

Aquaculture: a success story

o better understand the potential of diversification in North Carolina, one need only look at what is arguably the College's most successful effort at helping farmers diversify: aquaculture. A decade or so ago, the extent of aquaculture in North Carolina was an established trout industry in the mountains and few hundred acres of ponds in which catfish were grown across the rest of the state.

Now, says Dr. Tom Losordo, professor and North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service aquaculture specialist in the department of zoology, there are 1,500 to 1,600 acres of ponds devoted to catfish and perhaps 600 acres of ponds in which hybrid striped bass are grown. The farm gate value of aquaculture in North Carolina is $25 million annually, Losordo estimates. Yet when economic multipliers are considered, the industry has an impact of perhaps $100 million annually to the state.

The College's program is responsible for much of the growth of the industry, particularly where hybrid striped bass are concerned. Dr. Ron Hodson, director of the Sea Grant Program, played an integral role in developing methods of spawning and growing hybrid striped bass, as did Dr. Craig Sullivan, professor of zoology.

Aquaculture has proved perfect for diversification, Losordo points out. Most farmers already have much of what they need to get into aquaculture on a relatively small scale, things like a well, land for ponds, a computer, tractors and other equipment. Farmers can put in 24 to 48 acres of ponds for a relatively modest investment. That acreage probably isn't enough to provide the sole income for a family, but a relatively small operation isn't a full-time job either, Losordo says.

"I don't think there's a land-grant program as strong as N.C. State's in assisting people with diversifying into aquaculture," he says.

In the mountains, Extension specialists and area specialized agents are working to sustain a mature trout-growing industry. There are few sites in Western North Carolina suitable for new trout farms, but there is technology that will allow the intensification of existing operations. Dr. Jeff Hinshaw, associate professor and Extension aquaculture specialist stationed at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center, and Skip Thompson and Molly Sandfoss, both Extension area specialized agents, are working with growers to incorporate this technology, which captures wastes and recycles some water.

In the Piedmont, where water is not as abundant, Losordo has developed a fish barn prototype which uses water recycling technology. Based on the technology Losordo has refined, the first private fish barns have already been established in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain.

At the Tidewater Research Station near Plymouth, Dr. Harry Daniels, Extension aquaculture specialist, is working to develop aquaculture of southern flounder. Daniels has done groundbreaking research on the nutritional needs of flounder, while on campus Sullivan is working on reproduction and domestication. Two Extension area specialized agents, Steve Gabel and Mike Frinkso, are also stationed in Eastern North Carolina. And Daniels and Losordo have developed a partnership with researchers at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington to demonstrate how to raise southern flounder in barns using water-recirculating technology.

Then there's Brunswick Community College, where College aquaculture specialists and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services helped Dr. Douglas Holland develop a grant application to create an aquaculture center. The application was successful, and Brunswick Community College received $2 million it used to build an aquaculture lab and 24 ponds. Extension and the community college then joined forces to fund a position that will serve as an aquaculture instructor half time and an area aquaculture agent half time. It is the only such position in the state.

"The potential for aquaculture in this state is there," says Losordo. "It's a matter of financing and research, finance and market development."

From production to marketing

arketing seems to pop up in any discussion of alternative crops. It is one thing to be able to produce a crop, whether it be fish or herbs. It is quite another to be able to sell it. That is why when growers suggested several years ago that the College develop a Specialty Crops Program, a marketing component was built into the program.

The Specialty Crops Program is a partnership with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The College brings to the table the expertise necessary to identify specialty crops that will grow well in North Carolina and to determine how best to grow these crops. The NCDA&CS provides marketing savvy.

The program is headquartered at the College's Raymond P. Cunningham Research Station in Kinston, which is within the state's Global TransPark Zone, so eventually it may be possible to market North Carolina crops well beyond the state's borders. Davis directs the program from Fletcher, visiting the Cunningham Station once or twice a month. Bill Jester, an Extension area specialized agent, and Don Thompson, an NCDA&CS marketing specialist, handle day-to-day operations.

During the summer of 1999, only the program's second full summer, Jester worked with 28 growers in 10 counties producing seedless watermelons, specialty melons, specialty tomatoes and peppers. Various specialty melons are being evaluated through the program. Off-season production of crops such as lettuce, asparagus and blueberries also is being explored. The Cunningham Station is equipped with state-of-the-art irrigation equipment, while a new greenhouse became operational this fall. Jester said carrots, savory peppers, cluster and grape tomatoes, kabocha and calabasa pumpkins, blackberries, Echinacea and other herbs are in the program's future.

Jester and Thompson also were instrumental in establishing the Southeast Growers Association, a cooperative marketing association that has been active for two years, working to give growers access to markets, particularly large grocery store chains.

Along with Jester and Thompson, Dr. Barclay Poling, professor of horticultural science, was instrumental in establishing the Specialty Crops Program. He left the program earlier this year to concentrate on another program designed to help farmers diversify.

Poling now directs the Small Fruits Center. The center is a partnership with Clemson University and the University of Georgia. It is a virtual center in that it exists primarily on the Internet in the form of a World Wide Web site. The site provides a variety of information on growing and selling strawberries, blueberries, wine grapes (including muscadine), blackberries and raspberries and became operational in early September.

New products from traditional crops

Nutraceuticals, herbs, fruits, vegetables and fish are all crops that are available now to North Carolina farmers. Yet the future of farming in North Carolina and elsewhere may include another as yet poorly defined element. It appears likely that at some point in the not-too-distant future farmers will grow traditional crops that have been transformed genetically to contain compounds that may be used in making drugs, cosmetics and other industrial products.

In fact, the future is already here in some ways. The Avoca Division of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. has for some time contracted with North Carolina farmers to grow sage, says Dr. Ray Long, a professor in the department of crop science. Avoca processes the sage to isolate and collect a chemical compound used in making perfume. The sage is not genetically transformed, but it is grown not for the plant but for one of its constituents.

Long has spent much of his career looking at methods of producing tobacco for the extraction of protein and of extracting the protein itself. He is involved now in a project to genetically engineer tobacco plants to produce a type of protein that can be used to make a vaccine to prevent the development of cervical cancer (see the Spring 1999 issue of Perspectives).

While Long sees potential in North Carolina for the production of genetically altered crops, he says farmers may have to go about their business differently than they do today. To begin with, it is likely that growing crops for the compounds they contain will be done on a contract basis. The company with which a farmer contracts will probably provide seed and tell the farmer when to plant and how to grow the crop. The company might also harvest the crop.

Crops will probably be genetically engineered to contain compounds with pharmaceutical and industrial uses. Compounds with pharmaceutical and cosmetic uses are likely to have a higher value, but there will probably be greater demand for compounds with industrial uses.

Tobacco would seem to be a candidate for genetic transformation into a leafy chemical factory. Tobacco, along with petunias and tomatoes, is among the easiest plants into which to insert genes. Yet Long says there appears to be more interest in genetic transformation of crops such as corn and soybeans even though both are considered genetically recalcitrant. One reason for the interest may be that both corn and soybeans are nonperishable; they may be stored after harvest.

While the acreage devoted to crops that have been genetically altered for agronomic purposes - to increase pest resistance, for example ­ is growing rapidly, Long does not foresee a large amount of acreage devoted to crops altered genetically to produce compounds with pharmaceutical or industrial uses.

"I'd be surprised if 1 percent of acreage nationally is devoted to this," he says. "But in local areas the acreage could be substantial."

So North Carolina could turn out to be a center of transgenic farming. After all, as Long points out, "From a soils and climatic standpoint, we can grow virtually anything here in North Carolina."