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Hemp, Hops & Truffles: WNC Crop Study

Hemp, Hops and Truffles – sounds like an ingredient list for a new craft beer  All three are being studied as potential alternative cash crops here in Western North Carolina.  BPR's Helen Chickering takes us on a field trip to the  Mountain Research Station in Waynesville. 

On a cloudy, rainy morning in August, a small crowd is gathered on a farm in Waynesville, there are gardeners, farmers and the curious.  They are here to take a tour of the Mountain Research Station, one of 18 test farms in North Carolina, run by the state department of agriculture.  

“It’s kind of a hidden treasure here, this is where we do research on a wide variety of crops, organic agriculture, and  beef cattle,  at one of the prettiest research stations in our system.”

That’s Jeanine Davis, an extension specialist in the Department of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University.  She oversees the   NC Alternative Crops and Organics Program , which is what today farm field trip, is all about.                                                                                                             

Credit NCSU Mountain Research Station
Jeanine Davis is an associate professor and extension specialist in the Department of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University.

  “This gives them a chance to see what we’re doing in action”   says Davis.   And soon, we were in action, loading onto trams pulled by tractors and heading out to the fields.  This 400 acre farm has a long history of testing growing methods and giving new crops go crops like truffles.  Yep, there’s a truffle orchard here.

HC:  “I would never think of North Carolina as a truffle state, “

“No, but makes a lot of sense, we have lot of vegetation, lot of trees, “  says master gardener,  Donna Sapp from Fletcher, “Because if they can get it to produce, that’s a great big, money boon for the state.”

The highly prized, edible fungus sprouts from colonies laced about the roots of certain trees, in this case hazelnut. The test orchard here has produced, but not reliably.

HC: Does it look like a viable crop for this area?

“Well, we do know some people succeed.  It is not easy, which is why the truffles are so valuable, so we’re trying to figure that out, hopefully we can raise the success rate a little bit,” says Davis.

Next stop on the test farm tour, another challenging crop, hops.  The plant grows best in northern latitudes, where summer days are longer, work is underway to find just the right variety that will thrive here

“We’re lucky to come here,” says Johnathan Chase, a student at the University of Tennessee, and a future farmer with an eye on hops, the research station has been an invaluable resource

“We’ve talked to Jeanine Davis many times; we always try to get in touch with her to hash out ideas with her.” 

And that’s what this test farm is all about, figuring it out for the growers.

“What we like to do, with our agricultural research, is let us take the risks, let us do that first first, and I work closely with our growers to identify the issues they need looked at,” says Davis.

And the crop that was getting a lot of looks on this tour, industrial hemp.

“So we have just legalized industrialized the production of industrial hemp in North Carolina. This is the first year anybody could get a license to grow it, so everyone wants to be a hemp grower, but we know next to nothing about what it takes to grow industrial hemp for North Carolina.” 

Which makes it the perfect project for the Mountain Research Station, Test plots were planted in June, and researchers harvested seed in August.  Davis says, so far it’s looking good.  From the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville, I’m Helen Chickening, BPR news.

So what crop will the Mountain Research Station test next?  Jeanine Davis says she's been getting a lot of questions about bamboo.  Stay tuned!

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.