Fredrick Davis is a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning. He is currently working with North Carolina’s Northeast Commission in Edenton as part of the Carolina Economic Revitalization Corps program.
As I drive up and down U.S. Highway 17 and N.C. Highway 32 this summer, I can’t help but notice the abundance of pristine farmland land that surrounds me. I have always known North Carolina for its hard-working people, great food (like barbeque), furniture and textiles, beautiful mountains and beaches and – of course – basketball. But by working with the NC Northeast Commission, I have learned how the agricultural areas of rural North Carolina can be harnessed for innovative technology strategies and economic development. Years of job loss in the manufacturing and farming sectors have resulted in higher unemployment rates in this region than the state average. With the emergence of the plant biotechnology and biofuels industries, the Northeast region has positioned itself as a potential leader in the biotechnology sector.
Of the seven economic-development regions of the state, the Northeastern region has been documented for having the most promise for the biotechnology and biofuels industries. This 16-county region of Northeastern NC is made up of primarily farmland where the yields of several crops surpass that of any other region in NC. Agriculture plays a key role in this region’s economy with primary crops in cotton, tobacco, peanuts, corn and soybeans. A study by RTI International found the region’s large agricultural presence likely will be coupled with the smallest population growth of any region in the state over the next 20 years. That means this region could likely be the state’s key producer of crops for biofuels. Meanwhile, the development of a biofuels industry has the potential to affect each of the 16 counties in the region. Since processing plants need to be close to where crops are grown, these facilities would supply much-needed jobs to people in these counties throughout the Northeast.
With 33 agricultural biotechnology companies or organizations currently located in North Carolina, research in the state is a key component of the biotechnology industry, as it has the ability to attract companies to the area. With a partnership between the Vernon G. James Research and Extension Center (VGJREC), located near Plymouth, NC, and scientists from Elizabeth City State University (ECSU), East Carolina University (ECU) and NC State University (NCSU), this committee will focus on developing research related to plant biotechnology. The VGJREC is a research facility that can be used as a key component in marketing the region to plant biotechnology companies that may be interested in locating to Northeastern North Carolina.
Currently the NC Northeast Commission is in the process of gathering funding for a Pilot Extraction Facility to be built near Bertie County. This roughly 110,000 total square-foot facility will house administration, lab, processing functions, and solvent extractions. This state of the art facility is needed for processing small-scale, research-oriented botanical extractions for advances in the plant biotechnology sector and used for consumer test markets.
The project goals and objectives are to:
- Promote rural economic development in Northeastern NC.
- Bring additional jobs and investment to the region.
- Create a new economic niche that will serve as a world-class partner with research and agri-development for cutting-edge, plant-made biotechnology.
By uniting agriculture and biotechnology, the NC Northeast Commission hopes this and other facilities will create new business opportunities in the region. The production, processing, and marketing of plant biotechnology and biofuels have the potential to create a new industry similar to the furniture and textile industries. As I continue to drive up and down this region, I now see more than farmland and crops. I see the potential for this agricultural area to stimulate the biotechnology sector, an industry vital to this state and country.