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During the agency’s annual report to Wilson County commissioners, Wilson County Cooperative Extension director Norman Harrell highlighted the breadth and scope of assistance local extension agents offer to agriculture and agribusiness interests.
The Cooperative Extension’s 12 staff members work in three main program areas — agriculture, 4-H and family consumer sciences.
Harrell began his report with a frank assessment of the challenges faced by the agricultural and agribusiness community in the past couple of years.
$30 MILLION DECLINE
To show the value that agriculture has in Wilson County, the office calculates estimates of farm income in Wilson County. In 2018, sales from farm products was $114,276,457.
“In looking from 2017 to 2018, there is a $30 million decline in gross farm revenue, and that’s primarily due to Hurricane Florence and Tropical Storm/Hurricane Michael but also this weird weather we are having,” Harrell said.
Wilson County had one of the driest summers ever combined with the wettest fall, Harrell said.
“That just created a lot of problems in agricultural areas. Tobacco was off $25 million this past year, and that took a hit,” Harrell said.
Other crops kind of “bounced up and bounced down” depending upon the year and how the acreages changed, he said.
Harrell said the closure of Gardens Alive in the Rock Ridge community was a loss for Wilson County.
“They were at one time the largest container nursery in North Carolina, and they went through some transitions and had some difficulties and that farm is now closed,” Harrell said. “We are certainly going to feel the agricultural impact of that in our economic numbers in the county.”
Harrell said the local N.C. Cooperative Extension office assisted Wilson County growers with disaster assistance valued at more than $2.4 million from the $240 million state lawmakers appropriated to help growers in 2018.
“All that happened very quickly, and farmers were required to do an online registration process,” Harrell said. “Some of our farmers are a little more internet-savvy than others, and we wanted to make sure everybody had their paperwork completed, so we set aside several staff members that learned this program and how to enter the information that was needed. We set a spot in the office where farmers could call in and make appointments, and we helped them navigate through that application process.
“All in all, we helped 51 growers complete a little over 80 applications, and that will bring some financial help,” he said. “Those checks have started coming in early February for our farmers, and that is going to help them with their cash flow to get through this situation of 2018. That is something that I was really proud of our office for pitching in a helping those growers.”
The average application’s assistance value was $30,418.
Harrell pointed out other highlights, saying the office website had nearly 20,000 hits, the office held 107 meetings, had 4,002 formal education meeting participants, served 32,606 people including 27,570 non face-to-face customers and utilized help from 754 extension volunteers.
Furthermore, Wilson County 4-H had an enrollment of 3,147 participants in 15 4-H clubs and 287 4-H club members.
The Wilson office handed out seven endowed scholarships with an endowment value of $247,466 that generates $8,315 annually.
Funding for the Cooperative Extension in Wilson County is a partnership of federal, state, county, private donations and other sources. In 2018, Wilson County support was $498,000 with $365,000 in state and federal support, $234,000 in specialist support, $398,000 in grants and donations and $151,000 in value of volunteer contributed time to local projects.
Wilson County Cooperative Extension staff includes Harrell, Jessica Anderson, Tommy Batts, Cyndi Lauderdale, Danny Lauderdale, Roberto Rosales, Cassidy Hall, Kenyatta Dixon, Jessica Manning, Joy Harrell, Pam Beaman and Michell Daughtridge.
Monday night’s meal was prepared by Deans Farm Market.
James Sharp said Wilson County extension agents helped him obtain grants when a commercial kitchen was installed to allow the market to prepare food with farm ingredients and provide a platform to sell those seasonal crops year-round.
“These changes were not easy but a necessary step to keep our farm viable for the future,” Sharp said. “Our extension service was very helpful in getting us in touch with the right people.”
“Tonight is a Cajun-based meal,” Sharp said. “The pork chops were raised in Sims, North Carolina, by Sharp Farms. The sweet potatoes were raised in Wilson County. The sweet corn was grown on our farm right here on Highway 42. The Atkins Meal cornbread actually has some of our corn from this summer mixed in with it as well. The strawberry key lime pie has our pureed strawberries in it.”
Attendees heard details about the Wilson Winter Lights program from agent Cyndi Lauderdale and heard about the farmworker health and safety program from agent Roberto Rosales.
Wilson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Rob Boyette thanked the staff for its report.
“You represent the best in Wilson County in agriculture and helping people every day be the best in agriculture that they can be,” Boyette said. “Every year we have an opportunity to see from two or three different areas from Cooperative Extension and what they are doing to make Wilson County the best that it can be.”
Boyette said Rosales’ program is an entirely new idea that he hopes is going to be successful.
“It helps us to realize just who is involved in our county and how much they help us and what they do for agriculture within our county,” Boyette said.
Keith Walters, Southeast District extension director, thanked the Wilson County partners.
“In Wilson County, agriculture and agribusiness is a $2.5 million industry, so we need some technical experts because that is economic development,” he said. “That’s real numbers coming here to Wilson that keeps the economy alive and well.”