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Innovative agriculture abounds in Nash County

Posted May 6, 2021 5:00 a.m. EDT

This article was written for our sponsor, Nash County Economic Development.

The words "technology and innovation" are often associated with large corporations, scientific discoveries, or the latest electronics. However, agriculture is a major industry where both technology and innovation abound.

While farming is far from fully automated, its advancements are undeniable. The cotton gin, sprinkler systems and drone technology have all played roles in revolutionizing day-to-day farming operations, while scientific discoveries like plant breeding have transformed agriculture. Farmers and agriculturists may be homegrown, but it doesn't mean they don't know a thing or two about innovation.

"Nash County is a perfect example of how farms, farming operations and agriculture-based manufacturing are becoming more diversified in their offerings. Many farms in Eastern North Carolina were essentially monoculture operations, everything revolved around tobacco," said Tim Ivey, an Agribusiness Developer for the North Carolina Dept of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "Now, they are becoming more diversified to mitigate risk in production and marketplace. Technology and innovation help to drive diversification and contribute to a more economically and environmentally sustainable operation."

In Nash County, Peyton McDaniel employs high-tech farming methods for sustainable agriculture on his farm Hickory Meadows Organics.

"Our family has been farming since 1756," said McDaniel. "We jumped on the organic bandwagon pretty early and started Hickory Meadows Organics in 2008. We started off growing organic tobacco, sweet potatoes and corn. We have about 700 acres of organic crops and still have the conventional family operation too."

For its conventional crops, McDaniel employs precision agricultural technology, which helps collect field and crop data so that farmers can optimize field productivity. Utilizing data allows for improved application rates and performance analysis of fields and products, the overall outcome being higher yields at lower costs.

"Our data sampling is done in the fall and early spring — we do it in zones so we know which areas may be weaker or better. We take all of this information and put it directly into our computer software applications which control fertilizers and sprayers," said McDaniel. "It's all variable — our inputs are variable rates. So for example, if part of a field doesn't call for fertilizer, we make sure that our applications don't put fertilizer in that area."

Another innovative tool McDaniel's family uses on the farm is a special Weed Zapper. Since organic farming does not involve the use of conventional herbicides, McDaniel said they were spending a lot of money on the labor costs of pulling weeds. The Weed Zapper combines traditional farming equipment with technological innovations, tying the two together to efficiently handle weeks in organic farming.

"The Weed Zapper runs off the power of the tractor and creates a couple hundred thousand volts that we run over the weeds," said McDaniel. "The 30-foot wide, energized copper bar destroys the cells in the weed plant — they essentially get frozen from the inside out."

Additionally, like many other 21st century farmers, McDaniel's use of drones has helped map his fields, track inputs and forecast costs.

"Our field mapping is done on a laptop or cell phone with the help of a drone. We use measuring apps that help us know how much land we have left, apps that help us with record keeping and drones that tell us where a weak part in the field might be. Some things you can't see just walking or driving through it. If you have a drone, you get an overhead picture — we're able to see what areas need attention."

Agricultural technology, however, is but one example of innovation in the industry. Will Kornegay and his sister Laura Hearn won a people's choice award from the American Farm Bureau for rural entrepreneurs for their development of Glean.

Glean, which sources locally from farms in Nash County, was created to deliver healthy and fresh foods made directly from fruits and vegetables into customer's hands.

Roughly 40 percent of crops grown in the United States never make it to market and Kornegay and Hearn wanted to create a way to preserve healthy foods that would otherwise be wasted. Its original product was a sweet potato flour and its latest is an assortment of fruit gummies rich in protein — a product with roots based on research from two North Carolina State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences scientists.

The height of COVID-19 last year inspired Kornegay to pivot the company's focus. He began working with farmers who were suffering losses due to the pandemic and Ripe Revival Market was born.

"Ripe Revival was originally founded as a company to work with farmers to take their extra fruit and vegetables and use technology to extract nutrients and antioxidants out of them for food products like gummies," said Kornegay, who was born and raised in Rocky Mount. "Laura and I have both worked agriculture careers and saw how much produce goes to waste. We made it a mission to help to revive crops, so to speak, for the better purpose by turning them into valuable products."

"During COVID-19, many farmers were struggling," continued Kornegay. "So we actually pivoted and launched Ripe Revival Market, which started with grocery and produce boxes."

Ripe Revival Market delivers fresh produce to your door for customers in the Triangle all the way to Wilmington. Customers can choose their box and order everything online. The produce comes from local and regional farmers and companies who don't have an outlet for their produce, in addition to meat and dairy.

"The boxes are full of North Carolina-made food products from companies like us who have been really crippled by COVID-19," said Kornegay. "We started consolidating and delivering those and in July we had the chance to take on a USDA Farmers to Families food box program contract, a program where the USDA funds the purchase of fruits and vegetables from farmers. Through this program, we've packed and distributed boxes to over 5,000 families a week in the Nash County area."

McDaniel, who is a friend of Kornegay's, was happy to help supply some of the produce for the boxes.

"A lot of our produce, especially in the spring when COVID hit, was perishable," said McDaniel. "We were able to work with Ripe Revival and get products to the consumer, especially during a time where a lot of people weren't eating out. It gave us an outlet to move a lot of our stuff and provide for the community simultaneously."

Kornegay said he plans to continue investing in the community by working with farmers to add value to crops that they may not have a home for. He will also help continue to feed people with an expansion of Ripe Revival Market in the works.

From technology advancements to science-backed, value-added food products, farmers like McDaniel and Kornegay are proof innovation abounds in agriculture, especially in Nash County.

"Nash County is very unique in a lot of ways from an agricultural standpoint," said Kornegay. "The land around here — the soil is perfect for growing a lot of different types of fruits and vegetables and the climate is great for a longer growing season."

"Nash County has some of the best farmland in the Southeast. We're also superbly located and have easy access to other markets," added McDaniel. "It's an area with a lot of diverse growers who are looking for new ways to do things. We've got a lot of young growers who aren't afraid to take chances."

This article was written for our sponsor, Nash County Economic Development.

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