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North Carolina emerging as world-class research hub

May 13, 2013

The Produce News

by: Chip Carter


Agriculture continues to grow and is an ever-increasing part of North Carolina’s economy, a new study shows. Meanwhile, South Carolina peach producers are preparing for a bountiful and perfectly timed summer crop that should hit its peak in July, along with domestic top 10 production of greens, tomatoes and watermelon.

A new study out of North Carolina State University shows that almost one in five dollars of the state gross product are directly related to the food, fiber and forest industries, with food contributing the lion’s share of that total. Of the $440 billion gross state product, $77 billion came from some form of agriculture with food production accounting for $67.4 billion of that.

According to the study’s author, Mike Walden, William Neal Reynolds professor and North Carolina Cooperative Extension economist in the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, almost one in five North Carolinians earns their living from agriculture, which represents 642,000 of the state’s 3.8 million workers.

South Carolina is traditionally the nation’s second-largest producer of peaches, trailing only California and ironically ranked just ahead of Georgia, the Peach State. The fresh fruit and vegetable industry provides an annual economic boost to state revenues of more than $150 million.

Peach production began in mid- to late May across South Carolina, but cooler weather this spring means early supplies are light and peak season will arrive just in time for Fourth of July promotions.

“Chill hours were adequate and the rain has been very good,” said Michael Blume, peach commodity manager for Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc. in Greencastle, PA, which partners with South Carolina grower Watson & Sons.

That cool spring weather and adequate rainfall should make this year’s crop especially sweet, with excellent sizing and heavy volume through mid-August.

Meanwhile, North Carolina is emerging as a world-class research hub, driven in large part by the North Carolina Research Campus NCRC in Kannapolis, founded by Dole Food Co. Inc. Chairman and Castle & Cooke Inc. President David H. Murdock.

In early May, Mr. Murdock announced another donation of $50 million to support the David H. Murdock Research Institute, which is the scientific core of the NCRC and partners with colleges, universities and research centers throughout the state.

“I am committed to doing all I can to advance scientific research that will vastly improve the quality of life for mankind. My gift of $50 million to support day-to-day operations over the next eight years will maintain the DHMRI as a critical engine for science, and that science will improve health in North Carolina and globally,” Mr. Murdock said in making the presentation.

“This endowment will position the DHMRI to build a new collaborative model of science focused on nutrition and health, therapeutics and diagnostics and food and agriculture,” said Thomas W. Ross, president of the University of North Carolina System.

Since 2007, Mr. Murdock has invested over $131 million in the DHMRI and another $600 million in the development of the NCRC.

Researchers and Cooperative Extension faculty with NC State’s Plants for Human Health Institute, based at the NCRC, are using the organization’s support to bolster long-term sustainability and growth for the state’s agriculture industry. Currently, PHHI is working to breed better varieties of crops like broccoli and strawberries that are suited for North Carolina, discover health-promoting plant compounds and their functions, enhance postharvest practices, and promote North Carolina agriculture across the state and throughout the world.

A current $2 million study is a joint effort between North Carolina State and the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture that aims to enhance organic produce safety via natural means. Simple chlorinated water washes fall short of organic standards; the joint research team is looking into alternatives that may include natural oils from substances like cinnamon or thyme.

Davidson College and Lenoir-Rhyne University are involved in a cooperative NCRC-based project with North Carolina State to sequence the blueberry genome and identify specific genes that can be used to produce plants with desired characteristics.

PHHI’s Allan Brown is leading the sequencing efforts and said, “The beauty of this project is that it incorporates genomic research directly into the classroom and provides students the opportunity to participate in ongoing research.”

Another NCRC project is looking to breed better broccoli. Again led by Dr. Brown, the project looks to boost lutein and beta-carotene levels to provide better protection against eye-related vision loss as well as increase the plant’s well-known cancer and heart disease fighting agents.

“We believe we have the potential to increase lutein levels in commercial broccoli twofold,” Dr. Brown said. “As part of our work we expect to identify molecular markers that will significantly reduce the time and resources required to produce an enhanced broccoli.”

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