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WNC Business

An agricultural research hub supports many regional farms

Aug 10, 2023 02:13PM ● By Randee Brown

The Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center, a facility housing a wide variety of crop research programs, is the largest hub of off-site faculty and staff of NC State University.

The MHCREC has been in Mills River since 1959 and comprises 397 acres. With 70 permanent researchers at the facility and more than 100 researchers during the high season, the faculty and staff represented 20 different countries in 2022.

According to Interim Director Jessica Edney, there are three main projects as well as a variety of smaller ongoing research projects. The main three include a hops breeding program, an industrial hemp study, and a Christmas Tree program that involves work with Christmas Tree farms in the region’s High Country.

Other projects involve herbs like goldenseal and ginseng, vegetables, bioenergy research with grasses and trees, and pollinator studies with the NC Department of Transportation to determine the best blends of pollinator-attracting flowers that are planted along roadsides across the state.

Researchers share their results on the facility’s website so local farmers can use the information to control pest populations and diseases like apple blights, and improve the effectiveness of growing methods.

“Researchers make recommendations, and we disseminate that information to local extension agents,” Edney said. “The research is interpreted and posted online, which can help farmers lower the numbers of pesticide applications, save money and labor, and minimize environmental impacts.”

Other major research crops involve apples, ornamental trees, and tomatoes. “Apple research is critical because Henderson County is the largest apple producer in the state,” Edney said. “There is also a tomato breeding program; about 75% of tomatoes along the entire East Coast have DNA roots from this facility.”

The facility’s ornamental tree program led by Dr. Tom Rainey develops new nursery plants. There are unique and new species introductions of varieties like dogwoods, hydrangeas, or maples that may be a new shade or produce a new color of blooms, according to Edney. Some may create a non-invasive variety, or research might encourage plants that originally grew better in other environments to grow well in the conditions here in WNC.

The MHCREC’s Walgenbach Entomology Lab has conducted pest management research since 1987, and the type of research depends on what problems the industry is experiencing at the time. 

“Right now there are concerns about stink bugs,” Edney said. “We also look at ambrosia beetles, predatory mites, or any pests causing major issues for farmers. We grow vegetables and apples here on the farm to study these pests, and research is sometimes also done at local farms.”


Breeding hops is also a trendy research topic, according to Edney. A number of local breweries want to find a variety that will grow well here, and finding a variety to handle the region’s conditions has been tricky.

A new aspect in their research of Southern Appalachian apples involves growing apples on a trellis system. Dr. Tom Kon is the leader of that research, and findings include better yields, easier management of pruning, picking, and pesticide applications, and an increase in safety for farm employees. 

A new produce training facility used primarily by Kon focused on various ways to be safe in handling produce.“There are lots of produce handling requirements within the USDA and the NCDA,” Edney said. “Regulations can be daunting for new farmers and their employees to keep up with. Here, the Extension Service helps put this into layman’s terms for farming businesses to understand.”

Not only does each project leader touch a variety of local farms with research findings, the MHCREC has also invited over 8,000 visitors to over 200 events, acting as a living and breathing teaching research facility providing invaluable information to farmers in the area, according to Edney. There are workshops, training, classes, and engagement with the extension service, and school groups are welcomed throughout the year. An annual public MHCREC Field Day event also allows members of the community to see firsthand what types of projects are currently underway.

“We are proud of the work and proud to showcase and advocate for the research being conducted here,” Edney said. “It’s a wonderful place to be."