Farming has changed considerably over the last several decades. More and more, farmers are looking to non-traditional crops to increase profit margins.

In Robeson County, many farmers are transitioning from traditional crops to solar farms. 

Thanks to the local community college, the county’s reputation for agriculture and renewable energy just got a boost.

On November 9, Lumberton’s Robeson Community College launched the “GreenZone,” a hands-on learning lab where students will learn the importance of sustainability in agriculture and energy.

The GreenZone is an initiative of the BioNetwork, an education and workforce development program launched by the North Carolina Community Colleges system. Robeson Community College was selected as the leading institution for the program’s agricultural biotechnology component, the BioAg Center.

The GreenZone will be a “showcase of sustainability,” said Ed Hunt, coordinator of the BioNetwork BioAg Center. The project will give students and farmers “opportunities to thrive” while preserving North Carolina’s rich agricultural heritage.

The GreenZone project includes a student-run greenhouse, raised planting beds and solar panels. The facility will allow students to learn about some technologies relevant to current and future industries, such as winemaking and sustainable energy.

“A lot of this operation is run by our students,” said Charles Chrestman, president of the Robeson Community College. Students have helped build the project and will play a major role in the crops grown on site.

The GreenZone represents an important project for the school, community and the state, said Senator Michael Walters. According to Walters, the project represents “how we’re moving forward” with green energy and sustainable crops.

“Robeson County is becoming known as the solar farm county in the state,” said Walters. Connecting the region’s strong tradition of agriculture with the technologies of the future will bring the project “full circle as we go forward,” he said.

Lack of education is holding back solar power and other renewable technologies, said Scott Cole, of Simmons Electronics, a partner in the project. The GreenZone will help clarify some of the misinformation that hinders these technologies, he said.

According to Cole, North Carolina has a head start in growing these industries. “One of the ways we’re able to do that is through initiatives brought by the legislature,” he said. The state offers a 35% renewable energy tax credit, one of the best rates in the country, said Cole.

Ryan Nance, coordinator with the Lumber River Workforce Development Board, explained that collaboration is a key component of workforce development. Nance said that political leaders, the community college and private businesses all had a hand in launching the GreenZone, what Nance called a “multi-faceted training center.”

According to Nance, expansion of the solar industry in Robeson County created more than 150 new jobs in the last two years. With the GreenZone, Robeson Community College now provides “customized training” for growing industries. The project will allow students at the school to “utilize these assets that a lot of community colleges don’t have,” said Nance.

The GreenZone will be used as a “demonstration system” to show how agriculture can benefit the state economically and environmentally. Future projects will include the installation of a geothermal system to heat the greenhouse and experimenting with wind energy systems.

(C) NC Biotech Center