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NC State a Partner on NSF-Funded ‘Ag Tech Corridor’ Project

The CROPS project will build an ag tech corridor to speed the sharing of research-based techniques and new technologies with farmers, particularly underserved farmers, new farmers and those with small acreage.

a woman and a man stand in a field of green crops
NC State Extension Specialist Rachel Vann, left, is among seven NC State faculty members playing a lead role in the project.

A $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation is kickstarting an effort to create an agricultural technology corridor from central to eastern North Carolina. 

The project brings together researchers from six North Carolina universities and county agents and specialists with N.C. Cooperative Extension with representatives of the N.C. Biotechnology Center, RTI International and the N.C. Community College System.

North Carolina State University is among the partners on the NSF-funded Regional Innovation Engines project led by N.C. A&T State University. Other partner universities are East Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest, as well as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The project – called Climate-Responsive Opportunities in Plant Science, or CROPS – aims to expand efforts to share research-based techniques and new technologies, particularly those that can help lower barriers to market entry for limited-resource farmers so that they can succeed in the face of climate change and develop entrepreneurially.

This spring, the partners will begin working together to create a plan to develop a 42-county Agricultural Tech Innovation Corridor that will enable improvements in agriculture to reach underserved areas of the state faster.

a map of north carolina highlighting the 42 county agricultural tech innovation corridor

N.C. PSI to lead NC State’s contributions

The N.C. Plant Sciences Initiative will lead NC State’s contributions to the project. The university’s principal investigator for the project is Ross Sozzani, professor of plant and microbial biology and N.C. PSI plant improvement platform leader. The university’s proposal development unit also plays a key role.

Other NC State faculty members co-leading different aspects of the project or serving on the governance board are:

  • Adrian Percy, N.C. PSI director 
  • Rachel Vann, extension specialist and assistant professor of crop and soil sciences and N.C. PSI extension, outreach and engagement platform director
  • Anders Huseth, extension specialist and associate professor of entomology and plant pathology
  • Terri Long, professor of plant and microbial biology and N.C. PSI education and workforce development platform director
  • Cranos Williams, professor of electrical and computer engineering and plant and microbial biology and N.C. PSI data-driven plant sciences platform director
  • Chris Reberg-Horton, professor of crop and soil sciences and N.C. PSI resilient agricultural systems platform director

Aligning research with farmer-driven priorities

As Sozzani says, CROPS is one of the first state efforts to specifically align research pipelines with farmer-driven priorities to develop new and innovation solutions to revitalize small- and mid-sized farmers and increase overall profitability. The project will include a mix of educational programming, workforce development activities and startup grant funding. 

CROPS will also propose ways to help small producers identify profitable new crops and livestock enterprises and to develop community-based local food systems. And it will stress climate-smart techniques and ways to create climate resilience, while providing information about technologies to help agricultural operations thrive.

Outreach, workforce development are key

The program also has a strong workforce development component. As NC State’s Terri Long says, “Even though agriculture in agribusiness is the number one driver of North Carolina’s economy, a lot of people, especially young people, are not aware of the expanding depth and breadth of job opportunities that are available in these fields. 

“CROPS initiatives are geared toward bridging the gap between employers and jobseekers by expanding existing pathways and offering new pathways into these career opportunities.”

Outreach will also be central to the project, with a CROPS Extension Agent Network amplifying the project’s impact. 

The network will be modeled after the N.C. PSI’s Extension Agent Network that Vann leads. That network has engaged with end users in ways that have accelerated technology development, Sozzani says.

“By seamlessly integrating this framework into the groundbreaking CROPS initiative, Extension agents will drive technology development and adoption, ultimately having a wide-reaching impact on the economy in agricultural areas,” Sozzani says. 

“These Extension agents will be instrumental in bridging the gap between researchers and end-users of the research,” she adds. “This collaborative effort holds the promise of empowering farmers at the grassroots level, nurturing relationships and propelling technological innovation through leveraging the state’s robust Extension system to steer our agricultural sector toward a sustainable and resilient future.”

The program begins this spring with listening sessions across the state, and its programs are free to participants.