Solid investment

Plant sciences and Connect NC represent a chance to turn global challenges into local opportunities.

State voters heading to the polls on March 15 will have a chance to help connect North Carolina farmers with next-generation agricultural and biological sciences.

Connect NC, the popular name for the North Carolina Public Investment Bond Referendum, gives voters the say in whether the state will borrow $2 billion to invest in rural and urban infrastructure across the state. The funds would mainly be used for higher education, but there are also projects proposed for parks and recreation, water and sewer, public safety, and, importantly, agriculture and agribusiness, the state’s $76-billion-a-year economic engine.

Two proposed facilities are significant for agriculture: the Plant Sciences Research Complex at NC State University and a laboratory complex for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

As State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler has pointed out, the two buildings will help create a bright future for North Carolina and its agricultural sector. “We’re going to drive North Carolina forward,” he said. “We’re going to continue to lead the world in agriculture.”

Plant Sciences Research Complex
The Plant Sciences Research Complex would be designed to spur collaboration among scientists and students.

Concentrated world-class research

NC State has a long history of creating world-leading scientific solutions to pressing agricultural and life sciences challenges. The plant sciences complex would be designed to stimulate the types of interdisciplinary interaction needed to continue to solve complex problems today and into the future.

The $160 million building – $85 million of which would come from the bond package – is part of a larger initiative that’s focused on helping North Carolina first while creating worldwide excellence, said CALS Dean Richard Linton.

The North Carolina Plant Sciences Initiative is aimed at making North Carolina’s Research Triangle the top global hub for plant sciences, with the building bringing together university, corporate and government scientists on NC State’s Centennial Campus. “The initiative will also place our students in an innovative, collaborative and interdisciplinary learning environment, making them much better prepared for the job market upon graduation,” Linton said.

Those who’ve been involved with planning for the building say that it will spur the type of innovation local farmers need to increase productivity and profitability while protecting the environment. It will help ensure a safe, healthy and affordable food supply for a rapidly growing world. And it will create what CALS Associate Dean for Research Dr. Steve Lommel called “an entrepreneurial ecosystem” driving the development of new companies and new jobs.

As NC State’s chancellor Dr. Randy Woodson put it, “The Plant Sciences Building is our first step in our interdisciplinary approach of bringing together North Carolina’s agriculture community with the great biotech industry we have here in the Triangle and across the state.”

Supporting the state’s farmers and biosciences industries

Agricultural and biosciences industries have shown strong support for the plant sciences building and the initiative it’s part of: Commodity groups and other organizations have donated $9 million to complement what the North Carolina General Assembly had designated for planning the project.

For Dan Weathington, executive director of one of the committed commodity groups, the North Carolina Small Grain Growers Association, supporting the project is a matter of supporting the state’s farmers.

“The science and innovation that will come from this investment can dramatically improve crop yields across all our commodities – helping boost productivity for our farmers and improve their profitability,” he said.

“This innovation will allow North Carolina farmers to better feed a growing population, having a global impact while driving local economies.”

Dan Gerlach, president of the grant-making Golden LEAF Foundation, concurred.

“It’s crucial for all of us to support because the demand for food and other agricultural products that all of us want and need is growing,” he said. “North Carolina has a big role and opportunity to play in meeting that demand.”

As the initiative drives innovation to meet the agricultural demand, it will also strengthen NC State’s basic and discovery plant sciences in a way that could spawn new products and solutions with applications in industry, medicine and more.

North Carolina already has achieved significant momentum in the life sciences and biotechnology development, and the initiative will reinforce that, creating a discovery pipeline with endless possibilities, Lommel said.

Preparing highly skilled graduates

The plant sciences building would not only benefit those involved in commercial agriculture and biosciences; it would also benefit students.

Lommel said the state-of-the-art building would give students the chance to develop a deep knowledge of their particular plant sciences discipline while learning how to interact effectively with scientists and engineers whose expertise in other disciplines complement theirs.

The building wouldn’t house departments but rather teams of scientists from multiple departments and disciplines who can work together to tackle big challenges.

“The aspiration of this entire project is to do innovative plant sciences research and provide a new kind of student – an interdisciplinary kind of student that’s very marketable, that’s very skilled and that has a deep understanding of a particular discipline but can speak the language in other interdisciplinary areas,” Lommel said.

The building would have state-of-the-art labs, collaborative spaces and greenhouses, as well as spaces for seminars and classes. Right now, there’s a stark gap in plant sciences infrastructure at NC State. A new plant sciences facility hasn’t been built since the 1950s.

Modernizing state agricultural laboratories

Passage of Connect NC would help close that gap. It would help advance NCDA&CS’s work, as well.

The $94 million NCDA&CS laboratory facility proposed in the bond package would replace five labs that are an average of more than 40 years old. According to department communication director Brian Long, the facilities “struggle with inadequate ventilation, climate control, the capacity to expand within limited space and the ability to utilize advance testing equipment.”

The new lab, to be located on Reedy Creek Road in Raleigh, would include a Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory providing tests required for international and domestic shipment of poultry and livestock and serving as the state’s first line of defense for identifying a foreign animal disease or bioterrorism agent.

A Food and Drug Protection Laboratory would also be part of the complex. The state’s sole food safety and defense testing lab, it will be one of only five labs in the nation internationally accredited for chemical and biological testing. “This benefits our residents, because it allows federal partners like the FDA and USDA to accept our data, which can speed up decisions pertaining to the safety of food and animal feed,” Long said.

Other components of the proposed laboratory would handle pesticide tests, motor fuels analysis and precision testing of devices used in commerce. 

Toward statewide prosperity

Tim Moore, Dan Forest, Randy Woodson and Pat McCrory
Sharing an optimistic handshake on what the North Carolina Public Investment Bond — also known as Connect NC — can mean to the state are Chancellor Randy Woodson (center, right) and Gov. Pat McCrory (right). Also shown are N.C. Rep. Tim Moore (left) and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.

Creating modern infrastructure to support a thriving global economic workforce and a rapidly growing population is Connect NC’s goal. And it’s a goal that can be achieved without raising taxes, according to Gov. Pat McCrory’s office.

About 66 percent of the proposed bond funding is for higher education, with upgrades proposed for community colleges, as well as for the University of North Carolina system. For NC State, in addition to the plant sciences building, the bond package includes partial funding for a new engineering building on Centennial Campus.

An additional 5 percent would go to improve state parks and the N.C. Zoo; 4 percent would go for National Guard regional readiness centers and other public safety projects; and 16 percent would go toward improving water and sewer infrastructure and local parks.

That leaves 9 percent for the two agricultural projects that North Carolina Farm Bureau’s president Larry Wooten has said are vital for farming and for the state’s rural communities.

As he wrote in the November issue of The Leader, “While bonds build brick-and-mortar buildings, the resulting research and regulatory advantages the facilities provide will help North Carolina farmers weather the bad times and provide them with the tools to be more prosperous during the good ones. As a result, rural communities will also prosper.”

And, Lommel said, those benefits will extend to the rest of the state as well, as the plant science initiative generates new companies, jobs, products and solutions.

—Dee Shore