ECU’s Economic Growth Collaboratory launches with focus on agriculture

Published 12:35 pm Friday, May 3, 2019

By Matt Smith

East Carolina University Communications


Farmers, farm advocates and experts at East Carolina University are working to fuel economic growth through agriculture as part of its new Economic Growth Collaboratory.

The groups met April 23 for the launch of the university’s latest economic development program.

With a focus on agriculture and aquaculture in eastern North Carolina, ECU’s data scientists — in association with N.C. State University and SAS — began an ongoing dialogue with farmers, agriculture representatives and community stakeholders about the stressors affecting the state’s farming industry.

The Collaboratory is interested in forming partnerships with agricultural leaders and university scientists to use big data and analytic tools to find new ways to alleviate issues faced by the region’s farming community.

The first step of that plan? Work with farmers to identify issues holding back farming productivity, profitability and regional economic growth.

“Agriculture is our state’s economic backbone,” said Debbie Hamrick, director of specialty crops with the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation. “Farmers are facing many problems outside of their control like weather, government regulations, connectivity problems and shifting demographics. These challenges require a knowledge of farming history, industry expertise and specialized tools to develop solutions. The Collaboratory brings together stakeholders from all of these groups, and it hopefully will result in good things for our state’s farmers and agribusinesses.”

Based on the latest national statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2017, North Carolina ranks first in tobacco and sweet potato and places in the top five in poultry and eggs, hogs and pigs, solid trout, turkey, cucumbers, strawberries, bell peppers, peanuts and catfish production.

However, economic development leaders in eastern North Carolina have been looking for ways to attract new industries to the region and find untapped economic opportunities for farmers.

“ECU wants to help eastern North Carolina create new rural jobs, build an unrivaled workforce and develop thriving communities,” said Jay Golden, ECU vice chancellor for research, economic development and engagement. “Part of that means using big data, analytics and visualization tools to identify ways to add value to farm production. That may mean providing farmers with better research of the markets they serve, finding opportunities to turn farm waste into bioproducts, or looking at ways to better connect them to broadband services.

“The Collaboratory is not looking to come in and rewrite the book on farming,” Golden said. “We want to work together and truly build a partnership by pairing the expertise of our state’s farmers with the tools and specialized skills of our researchers at ECU, N.C. State and SAS.”

Using specialized data visualization tools provided by SAS, researchers can examine trends in population, education and workforce development, among others, to see where resources are strong in North Carolina and where they could be mobilized to have a greater effect.

Data gathered from farmers, national agencies and outside sources helps scientists and farmers find additional profitability sources in production, storage and distribution stages.

At the launch, farmers discussed current challenges including livestock lawsuits, the uncertain future of crop production, waste management opportunities and water quality and quantity concerns for aquaculture.

Jessica Seymour, a farmer with Lazy Gators Hemp Farm in Kinston, said she’s interested in partnering with the Collaboratory to find new potential markets to sell Lazy Gators’ products. Lazy Gators was formed in 2017 as part of the state’s industrial hemp pilot program. The industry has seen a rise in interest after the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill which made it legal to grow hemp nationally.

“North Carolina is in perfect shape to take the infrastructure we already have for other crops and adjust the equipment and facilities to produce hemp,” Seymour said. “What we really need is a place to sell those products — an end market that allows customers to purchase what we make.

“Everyone is learning as we go,” she said. “We don’t have all of the answers. ECU doesn’t have all of the answers. But we’re working together to try to figure out what we can.”

For more information on the Collaboratory or to explore potential partnership opportunities, contact ECU Executive Director of National Security and Industry Initiatives Keith Wheeler at or 252-737-5569.