ECU researchers will help build resiliency among small and underserved farms

East Carolina University is extending the reach of its impact through a multi-institutional project funded by the National Science Foundation’s Regional Innovation Engines program. The $1 million grant-funded project, called Climate-Responsive Opportunities in Plant Science (CROPS), aims to build resiliency among underserved and small farms across eastern and central North Carolina through educational programming, translation and innovation, and research and workforce development activities.

Led by North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T), CROPS brings together researchers from ECU, Duke University, North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wake Forest University, along with business and research partners like the N.C. Biotechnology Center, N.C. Cooperative Extension, Research Triangle International and the N.C. Community College System. The team will collaborate with growers, small businesses, learners and entrepreneurs across a 42-county corridor.

As the institution located in the region that is home to many of the state’s largest farms, ECU will bring a focus to agricultural workforce development and innovation in underserved counties through new and established engaged partnerships.

“Genuine and trusted relationships matter in eastern North Carolina,” said Dr. Angela Lamson, interim assistant vice chancellor for economic and community engagement and the ECU lead for CROPS. “ECU aims to ensure that the voices and needs of our rural growers, farm workers, small businesses and underrepresented communities are included in our discussions as we strengthen pathways toward prosperity in eastern North Carolina.”

“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. 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,” said Dr. Gregory Goins, associate dean for research at N.C. A&T’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.

To share information and technology faster and more broadly across the state, the team plans to build an “agricultural tech corridor” across central and eastern North Carolina. Project partners are dedicated to educational programs that deliver up-to-date information on such topics as farming technologies, agricultural business management, natural resource conservation and climate responsive research and innovations that can help transform eastern N.C. and beyond.

The project also proposes ways to strengthen entrepreneurship and help small producers identify new crop enterprises that have the potential to increase farm income and help develop community-based food systems. The program will stress climate-smart techniques and ways to create climate resilience and provide information about technologies to help agricultural operations thrive, Goins said.

ECU’s acting chief research and engagement officer, Dr. Sharon Paynter, said, “ECU is committed to improving outcomes for rural communities, and that means finding innovative ways to reinforce and build upon the industries and opportunities within them. This project will support the agricultural industry in new ways with the goal of advancing their sustainability and thus the economies of the surrounding areas.”

“I am excited to serve as a collaborator on this multi-partner initiative that furthers ECU’s mission and promotes pathways for prosperity in eastern North Carolina. We aim to be an engine that connects access and advancement with learners, entrepreneurs, researchers and communities through workforce development, research and activities that accelerate innovation,” said Lamson.

The purpose of the NSF Engines program is to help spur economic growth in rural and underserved regions. Since January, the foundation has awarded 10 projects in 18 states. North Carolina is part of three Regional Innovation Engines awards.


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