Agribusiness is an economic powerhouse for North Carolina, contributing more than $80 billion annually to its economy. Yet despite the state’s thriving agricultural industry, currently between 80 and 90 percent of the value involved in transforming North Carolina farmers’ products into retail goods happen outside of the state.
In order to capture more of the business involved in processing agricultural products and to further grow the state’s agricultural economy, North Carolina elected leaders, agricultural leaders and industry partners, including the Golden LEAF Foundation, helped create a new pilot plant facility at the NC Research Campus in Kannapolis.
The pilot plant, known as the NC Food Innovation Lab, is a state-of-the-art facility that will assist food companies, farmers and entrepreneurs to create new plant-based foods, and take advantage of consumer interest in those items. The facility is intended to keep more of North Carolina’s agricultural products in the state throughout processing – transforming North Carolina’s agricultural industry along with it.
On November 14, 2019, Golden LEAF President Scott T. Hamilton joined several partners and state leaders in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Food Innovation Lab.
“The NC Food Innovation Lab is a facility that focuses on plant-based foods for new product innovation preferably using crops from our state,” said Bill Aimutis, Executive Director, NC Food Innovation Lab. “There is a gap between customers using commissary kitchens and when they have enough volume to work with co-manufacturers. We fill that gap with the ability to process the equivalency of 1,000 pounds per day of fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Golden LEAF awarded a $2.2 million grant to purchase equipment for the pilot food manufacturing facility.
“This state-of-the-art facility will be a valuable asset to our state’s farmers, the agriculture industry, and food manufacturers,” said Scott T. Hamilton, Golden LEAF President. “We look forward to seeing the food manufacturing industry grow and generate new jobs for our workers. We also want to see our farmers and rural communities thrive as this facility helps create new markets for their products.”
Research suggests food manufacturing has the potential to contribute an additional 38,000 jobs and $10.3 billion to North Carolina’s income annually. The technological innovation of the pilot plant will support entrepreneurial endeavors to transform the state’s agricultural diversity.
The goal state leaders and partners have for the NC Food Innovation Lab is for it to serve as a leader for economic enhancement through food technology – working with entrepreneurs and multinational food companies to help the industry grow in North Carolina and also to hire state residents, according to Aimutis.
State Senator Paul Newton agrees that food processing will boost the state’s agriculture industry and rural areas.
“We haven’t even scratched the surface in terms of the economic development around food processing,” said N.C. Senator Paul Newton. “What we’re doing here at the North Carolina Research Campus can absolutely take our largest industry in North Carolina to a whole new level – and that is going to directly help rural North Carolina because that’s where we grow the food.”
N.C. State University, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the N.C. Department of Commerce, the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, and the North Carolina Research Campus are partners in this collaborative effort focused on researching and developing safer, more nutritious crops, healthier foods and precision nutrition.
N.C. Representative Linda Johnson said she looks forward to the NC Food Innovation Lab benefiting the whole state, especially if it leads to more local foods being processed in North Carolina.
“Our farmers only make 10 percent of a food item by the time it’s in the market – the other part is all processing,” said Rep. Johnson. “This commitment by the state shows that we are confident we can reclaim some of the other 90 percent of the process to keep at home – creating jobs here in North Carolina instead of shipping them out of state.”
The North Carolina Food Innovation Lab will work with plant-based materials including whole plants, vegetables, fruits, grains, and beans given the ample supply chain of these products in the state.
“Knowing that we already produce the majority of fruits and vegetables on the East Coast here in North Carolina, and we’re the third most diversified state when it comes to growing crops, and also knowing that we ship out over 80 percent somewhere else to be processed, this is a win-win situation,” said N.C. Senator Brent Jackson. “This facility is going to create jobs which is going to create revenue not only for the state, but for the municipalities and counties in which these plants are located.”