Test farm helps WNC growers stay ‘ahead of the game’Written by Scott McLeod
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You’d be hard pressed to name a state-run entity more closely aligned with the region it serves than the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville. The work going on there is important for the agriculture economy and critical for the emerging crop of growers trying to specialize in exotic and specialty varieties. And researchers at the farm continue to provide direct help to farmers growing crops and livestock that have for years been the traditional mainstays of mountain agriculture.
Perhaps just as important, the Mountain Research Station promotes the lifestyle that will continue to make this region unique. More and more residents place a high value on rural areas and green space, and farms are just as much a part of this movement as wilderness areas. This means doing what we can to help small and large growers remain profitable.
The products from those growers are often going straight into homes. Many who live here are more than willing to pay a little extra for high-quality and tasty foods that come local farms, and many groups and organizations are promoting this lifestyle. As the grow-local, buy-local philosophy gains steam, it builds and strengthens the micro-economies in our rural communities.
It was just a few years ago (2008) that state lawmakers suggested closing the 410-acre research station. Regional supporters fought back hard. Joe Sam Queen, at that time a state senator and now running to return to Raleigh as a state representative, was among those who rallied for the research station.
“We have a diversified agricultural sector with small producers,” he said. The research station provides vital help to these growers, he argued. However, the much-larger farms in the eastern part of the state often carry more political clout.
The Mountain Research Station survived. Bill Skelton, director of the Haywood County Cooperative Extension Office, says the test farm does important work and does it well. He cited its work to improve the cattle herd in the region, while also touting its crop research.
“They put those questions in the ground and see if they can find answers,” said Skelton.
Current work “in the ground” —35 separate research projects — includes tests on what could be new crops in this region like broccoli, truffles and canola (for alternative fuels); continued work with Fraser firs (the first experimental Frasers in North Carolina were grown at the Waynesville farm in the 1970s) and heirloom tomatoes; a project to improve weed control for organic farmers; and continued research to help cattle producers.
“We are becoming more diverse. It’s important that we remain cutting edge. We need to be ahead of the game,” said Mountain Research Station Director Kaleb Rathbone.
The test farm is succeeding at doing just that — staying “ahead of the game.” Let’s hope this economic engine for WNC is here for another 100 years.