North Carolina farmers are getting the latest in tricks of the trade and technological advances through research being conducted at horticulture sites statewide, including a more than 100-acre combined research station in Castle Hayne.
The Horticulture Crops Research Station, established in Castle Hayne in 1947, got its roots from the bulb-growing business, according to John Garner, research operations manager for the Horticulture Crops Research Station in Castle Hayne.
“Castle Hayne was a large bulb-growing, flower-producing area, and this research station was started to help support that industry,” Garner said.
The site in Castle Hayne includes a 60-acre tract with several small facilities off Castle Hayne Road and an additional 50-acre site off Holly Shelter Road. The Holly Shelter Road acreage is solely used for blueberry farming, Garner said.
Over the decades the Castle Hayne facility has changed crops and research focuses, but the mission there to help farmers produce environmentally sustainable, economically viable crops has remained consistent, Garner said.
Today, it’s part of a network of 18 similar facilities that run in partnership with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at N.C. State University, according to Garner, who also manages a facility in Duplin County.
Research stations give scientists a living lab to breed, investigate, study and test a wide range of agricultural markets from vegetables, livestock and poultry to aquaculture and forestry. The knowledge gained from studies are shared throughout the state.
The research is important as land continues to be a dwindling resource.
“We have to keep producing more and more food from less and less land. Because every day we are losing agricultural land to solar farms, housing developments, highways. And the number of farms is shrinking,” Garner said.
“But yet the population of the world is continuing to grow. So how do we feed all those people? The answer to that is, we’ve got to make every acre of land produce more and more. Yields have got to keep going up,” he added.
Much of the research at the Castle Hayne site and others statewide is geared to answer that question and more.
The Castle Hayne facility includes labs, offices, workshops, modern greenhouses, cold storage and other tools to help N.C. State researchers.
Currently, the research in Castle Hayne is conducted on small fruit and vegetable crops and holds the bulk of the state’s research and breeding program for muscadine grapes and blueberry crops, Garner said. It also fields research in strawberries, watermelons and ornamental crops used for landscaping.
Horticulture studies take a look at a wide range of issues farmers might be facing, Garner said, everything from disease and pests to crop yield.
The blueberry and muscadine grapes research is focused on breeding in an effort to find varieties of a plant that are the most disease- and climate-resistant, and varieties that grow the quickest to maturity, producing a better crop, Garner said.
In the muscadine grape farming industry, researchers are looking at finding the best varieties for winemaking as well as consumption.
The station is touted as one of the world’s top public blueberry breeding programs.
Specifically for blueberries, several studies are ongoing, including an effort by N.C. State to map the blueberry genome in DNA research, which the site aids in its fields. The search is also ongoing to find the best-tasting blueberry variety that can be machine harvested.
The facility holds commercially produced machinery at its Holly Shelter site to simulate what blueberry growers today would use.
The industry in North Carolina for fresh blueberries had a net value, or farm gate, of $60 million last year and that figure for processed blueberries was nearly $7 million in 2016, according to Bill Cline, researcher and extension specialist in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at N.C. State.
Researchers at the site are constantly trying to develop new blueberry types.
Castle Hayne has been a field test site for thousands of blueberry seedlings, Cline said. But only a few make it out for production.
“We plant all the different varieties that we can find,” Cline said of the blueberry research. “But there is a short list of ones that I would actually tell someone that you could make a living off of ... that to me is really just one of the coolest things that we do is just figure out what works and then carry that out to the people that need the information.”
North Carolina’s market window for blueberries is mid-May to June and growers make most of their money for the year in about four weeks.
The horticulture effort also takes part in the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, which offers assistance and events for farmers in every county in the state, according to Garner.
Cline is an N.C. State researcher, but is also a specialist in its extension service who works in cooperation and communication with counties across the state to field questions for both the local backyard growers and commercial farmers.
“Some research stations don’t have extension people on the farm, but I really like being an extension person on a research farm because the things that happen here, I can immediately turn, go out to the farms and tell the growers.
“We absolutely love what we do. And it’s a great experience. And a great place to work and a great opportunity to work with farmers,” Cline said. “I just really feel privileged to get to work with these folks and get to work with the land. And to help people with their livelihood.”