Perspectives Online

College will have major role in Dole plan

An artist's rendering shows the planned "biopolis" research center in Kannapolis.
Courtesy Castle & Cooke

So you think you've seen a major shift in North Carolina agriculture with the decline of tobacco and the tobacco buyout. Well, you may not have seen anything yet.

David Murdock, a California billionaire who owns the Dole Food Co., Inc., the world's largest producer and marketer of fresh fruit, vegetables and fresh-cut flowers, has plans that could alter the face of North Carolina agriculture for years to come. And it appears the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will play a major role in those plans.

The public got its first glimpse of Murdock's vision for the role his company could play in North Carolina's future in an Aug. 5, 2005, memo from UNC President Molly Broad to the UNC Board of Governors.

"This letter is to inform you of a stunning new University-led initiative of major proportions that is now emerging," Broad wrote. "Several months ago, I was visited by David Murdock, a California-based businessman who owns Dole Foods, has other significant business interests, and at one time owned Kannapolis-based Cannon Mills before selling the company to Pillowtex Corp. He shared with me his strong desire to help reshape the Kannapolis region's economy and invited me to strategize with him about creating a 21st century city on the site of the old textile plant by developing a partnership between Dole Foods and the University of North Carolina."

Broad cannot be accused of overstatement in describing what Murdock proposed as "stunning."

Murdock proposed tearing down the shuttered Pillowtex textile mill and replacing it with what he calls a "biopolis," a research center in which scientists from N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill would staff, respectively, a Dole-N.C. State Institute for Advanced Fruit and Vegetable Science and a UNC Nutrition Institute.

The plan for Kannapolis also includes a Dole Analytical Laboratory, possibly a research center directed by Duke University, an incubator for start-up companies, a science high school for girls, retail and office space, residential areas and other lodging.

Last year, Murdock, who already owned other property in Kannapolis, repurchased the Pillowtex plant. He has a significant stake in the town.

But Murdock's plan does not end at the Kannapolis city limits. He also intends to build two packaging plants in North Carolina. Salad will be packaged at a plant in Gaston County, while Murdock plans a frozen fruit packaging plant somewhere in eastern North Carolina. The site has yet to be determined.

When Murdock is involved, the lines between proposal, planning and reality can quickly become blurred. He moves rapidly from vision to bricks and mortar.

Just ask Dr. Steve Leath, director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service. Leath is coordinating the College's involvement in the various Dole initiatives.

"It's surprising we're at this point," said Leath. "It's coming so quickly."

In mid-November, ground was broken for the Gaston County salad-packaging plant. That facility should eventually employ 900 people. Leath said ground breaking is tentatively scheduled for mid-December for the first laboratory building in Kannapolis. College faculty may be working in Kannapolis in 2007.

Leath said the College plans to locate 12 faculty members along with support staff in Kannapolis. Most will probably be horticulturalists, plant breeders or scientists with genomics expertise, as well as some food scientists. They'll work on producing nutritionally enhanced, high-quality fruits and vegetables.

Leath expects considerable synergy between College faculty and the scientists staffing the UNC Nutrition Center.

"If we breed a blueberry with higher antioxidant content, they may be asked to determine what effect it has on human health," Leath said. "We may be asked to develop foods with specific traits that our UNC colleagues determine to be beneficial to human health."

The initiative is moving so fast, it has gotten ahead of one important element - funding. The North Carolina General Assembly will be asked to provide around $20 million annually to operate the N.C. State and UNC facilities. That funding may be an investment in North Carolina's future.

"We think this initiative can do more to revitalize agriculture than anything we've seen in a long time," said Leath.

Murdock has indicated he would like to buy much of the produce that is to be processed in the two plants he plans to build from North Carolina growers. If that's the case, Leath said North Carolina agriculture will change considerably.

"There is the potential for lettuce production to increase 10-fold if North Carolina provides all the lettuce Dole needs," Leath said. "We could conceivably double our production of blueberries."

There may also be heavy demand from the Dole facilities for strawberries, blackberries and raspberries.

That's where North Carolina Cooperative Extension comes into the picture. Leath pointed out that growers will need help gearing up to take advantage of the anticipated Dole demand for produce.

-- Dave Caldwell