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Wednesday, 06 June 2007 00:00

Haywood leaders voice support for test farm

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The region might be at risk of losing an important agricultural research station in Haywood County if a proposed state cost-cutting measure goes through.

The Mountain Research Station, known simply as the “test farm” to most, is home to important research that benefits farmers throughout Western North Carolina, from better ways to grow Christmas trees to marketable medicinal herbs. A Senate budget proposal calls for a study of whether some of the state’s 18 test farms should be closed. Which test farms would be on the chopping block has not been determined, but the mere suggestion of such a study had made some in Haywood County nervous.

“This is disturbing to me. This is not a good thing. We could lose our test farm,” said Commissioner Mary Ann Enloe. “The test farm has been out there as long as I can remember. We need to stop any sale or transfer of that.”

The county commissioners just learned of the potential threat and discussed ways to combat it at their meeting Monday (June 4).

“This is a serious concern,” said Larry Ammons, chairman of the county commissioners. “It is kind of ironic that we are trying to preserve farmland, while down in Raleigh they are trying to convert it to development by selling it off. Our goal here in Haywood County is to preserve our farmland.”

The test farm is not only a 400-acre farm in its own right, located on the outskirts of Waynesville, but keeps farmers on the cutting edge, helping them stay in business and making farming viable as a profession.

Experiments conducted at the test farm range from testing new varieties of blight-resistant tomatoes to finding better ways to raise bulls for breeding. Results from the research are disseminated among farmers throughout the region, who often adopt the new crop varieties or farming techniques to their advantage.

The test farm also looks for new ways to help farmers make a living. For example, researchers are piloting methods of cultivating medicinal herbs like ginseng and goldenseal that traditionally grow wild in the forests.

One of the current research projects involves lettuce and cabbage with an eye toward a new Dole plant opening in North Carolina, which could potentially provide a new market for farmers in bagged salad produce. Another current research project is a comparison between organically grown heirloom tomatoes and those grown with pesticides and chemicals. The test farm has 10 full-time employees and six part-time workers throughout the course of the year.

The test farm is one of 18 in the state run by the N.C. Department of Agriculture, some of those in conjunction with N.C. State University. The state secretary of agriculture, Steve Troxler, isn’t happy about the proposal to close some test farms.

“This has come as quite a shock to us,” Troxler said. “We weren’t consulted on this and neither were the farm groups across North Carolina. It seems like it would be hard to make an informed decision without the input of the people this is going to affect.”

The cost-cutting measure appeared in the Senate budget seemingly out of nowhere, Troxler said. It is not in the governor’s budget, nor the budget by the House of Representatives. The Senate, the House and the governor each develop their own state budgets, then reconcile the differences. Troxler hopes the provision to close test farms won’t make it to the final version.

Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said the people of the mountains can rest easy about the future of their test farms. Of the 18 test farms in the state, only three are located in the mountains: in Waynesville, Asheville and near Boone.

“We have a very distinctive need for the three we have,” Queen said. Queen could not say the same for all the research stations around the state, however.

“We believe there is some duplication, but it’s not in the west,” Queen said. Queen said this could actually be a way to get more resources for the work conducted at the test farms in the mountains.

“We want to enhance them, but the way to do that is by saving money on things that are being duplicated elsewhere,” Queen said. “Our intent is that this doesn’t close us down.”

Troxler doesn’t like the idea of any research stations closing, however. Troxler said agriculture is a $68 billion industry in the state.

“A lot of the innovations in efficiency and production and even profitability on farms come from research at these research stations. Things that look good on paper need to be tested before farmers put them into practice on the farm,” Troxler said.

While there is a research station in Buncombe County, it doesn’t suffice for the work going at the test farm in Waynesville, Troxler said.

“There are different types of research that go on at those two stations,” Troxler said.

Haywood County commissioners unanimously endorsed a resolution opposing the closure of the test farm by the state. County commissioners urged the public to contact their state legislators and lobby them to oppose any move to close the test farm in Waynesville.

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