An agricultural harvest of a different sort has borne fruit in Ellerbe: In September, the Sandhills AGInnovation Center (SAIC) will begin operations.

More commonly described as a regional food hub, the center will function as an essential link in the logistical chain between local farmers and commercial buyers.

“The genesis of it — the whole idea — is because so many of our farmers have lost their tobacco subsidies, and they are faced with difficult choices. Do they continue farming or not? Do they lease their farms to solar farms or not? And what are the alternatives?” said Susan Kelly, Richmond County’s extension director. “The food hub will help them aggregate larger scale produce production and get it distributed. It eliminates one step in the process, and the bulk distribution means our farmers get to keep more money in their pockets.”

The objective of the AGInnovation Center is to help farms transition from growing tobacco to fruit and vegetable production, and distribute those crops to profitable local and statewide markets. It is primarily funded through a $500,000 Golden LEAF Foundation grant secured through a partnership among Moore County Partners in Progress, the Richmond and Moore County Centers of North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, and Richmond and Moore County governments.

The location of the center was carefully selected for efficiency. The SAIC is in Richmond County, at the intersection of N.C. 73 and N.C. 220, but close enough to Moore County’s western border and two major highways to make it easily accessible for truck traffic. The 16,000-square-foot building offers different spaces where local produce can be collected, stored, processed, distributed and then marketed. A secondary construction phase will add classrooms.

As a business enterprise, the SAIC and building are owned by Richmond County, but all profits will be kicked back into the program.

“The food hub is a tool for a multi-county approach to sustainable farm produce distribution,” said Pat Corso, executive director of Partners in Progress. “It is exciting. This is something that started four years ago, and it has come to fruition. Richmond County really stepped up on this and believed and committed to it, and Moore County was engaged and our farmers will engage on the whole.”

Across Moore County, agriculture makes up 20 percent of the local economy. The region’s climate and soils are well-suited for small, diverse operations, and the surge in demand over the last decade for locally produced foods has opened new doors. Farmers markets, roadside stands and subscription programs like Sandhills Farm to Table have grown along with the public’s interest; however, these stand-alone revenue sources can be labor-intensive and do not provide enough income to balance the books.

Catering to a regional market is more profitable, but cost becomes a major hurdle for small and mid-sized producers. As the size of farms decreases, the cost of cooling, packing and transporting the product increases.

Enter the Sandhills AGInnovation Center, which will serve as a central collector of local produce and processing facility for agricultural products.

“A lot of distributors want to buy from small- and medium-size farms, and this just makes it easy for them to come to one place. The quality will be good, and we can take on some of the processing that would be hard for farmers to do at their own farms,” Kelly said. “When you change the state of produce — even washing it — you have to be careful. There are rules on even how it is to be washed.”

The local extension offices in Richmond and Moore are tasked with making sure local growers are educated on food safety rules. Food distributors and large institutions require GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certifications, explained Kelly.

“Even for a farm that is small, the distributors will require those certifications from them, so that is a big effort at N.C. State and the extension office,” she said. “We thought we would attract smaller distributors, but what we’re seeing already is more distributors that work with large institutions.”

Approximately 3,000 square feet of the SAIC has been built-out thus far. Phase one includes packing, cooling, processing and office areas. The loading dock was rebuilt at the repurposed warehouse.

Importantly, the SAIC offers another sales venue that can bolster any existing marketing efforts local farmers may be engaged in.

“This opens a wholesale market they may not have had access to before. Farmers generally have more than one market for their produce, in direct sales, wholesale or retail. It is their decision of what works best for them. The decision to participate is very personal and up to each farmer,” said Kelly. “The food hub will have flexibility and can evolve in those areas most needed in our community. We are completely open to whatever support is needed for our farmers.”

In addition to serving as a collection hub, the SAIC is stocked with a variety of shared-use farming and processing equipment that will be available for lease by the day or hour.

“One thing we want to do is help get farmers started. Say they need a walk-behind tractor with attachments. This is the kind of equipment they may need, and leasing it makes it easy for someone with an acre or two to grow some produce without making a huge investment,” Kelly said.

The rental fees from shared-use farm equipment are also expected to play a key role in supporting the center’s day-to-day operational costs.

Oversight of the facility and all equipment has been put in the hands of Davon Goodwin, SAIC’s manager. A retired soldier, Goodwin said he got involved in farming after he was injured while serving in Afghanistan. With a degree in biology and botany, when the opportunity came up to manage the new food hub, he thought it would be a good fit.

“Our model for a food hub is very different than others. It is a new concept,” Goodwin said. “We don’t buy the product. We have to have a market for the product before it comes here: the relationship between the buyer and farmer is already established. We are a third party at the food hub to help foster those relationships.”

The advantage to farmers is they will have a single, locally convenient place to deliver their produce. Distributors are granted the same advantage, so if they are working with 50 local farmers who are growing sweet potatoes, the distributor can now come to one location to collect the harvest.

“This is a real asset for our farmers and can increase their marketing power. When you are busy in the field you are not busy marketing your produce. You are not on the phone, where we can be,” Goodwin said. “ Facilitating — that is what we are here to do.”

The expectation is the return on investment from the SAIC will increase employment, increase agricultural enterprises, and influence new markets with an influx of locally sourced food products. For commercial buyers — including distributors, restaurants and large institutions — that would like to “buy local,” the center can reduce transaction costs by providing a single point of purchase for consistent and reliable supplies.

“Agriculture in the Sandhills is in crisis. We are losing farmland that we will never get back. There are not enough young farmers to continue and, especially in Moore County, I see the price of land going up because of development pressure,” Goodwin said. “That is why this facility is so important. To stop bleeding the market and spur new famers. Our community needs to come to grips with what agriculture may look like in the future without support.”

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