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John Garner earned a BS and MS in Mechanical Engineering from NCSU, with a focus on alternative energy - biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol production. After graduation he taught high school math and later was employed at ECU in the newly formed engineering program. He came back to NCSU in 2008 as the superintendent of the Williamsdale Biofuels Field Lab in Wallace NC and in 2012 also assumed responsibility for the Horticultural Crops Research Station in Castle Hayne NC. John lives in Wilmington NC with his wife and their three children. 

Interviewing John today is Maggie Kane, founder of A Place at the Table, the first pay-what-you-can cafe in downtown Raleigh. Through her work with people on the streets, she realized the power of community and the beauty in bringing people together over incredible food.  A Place at the Table serves only fresh, chef prepared foods, and partners with local farms and local vendors to provide the freshest ingredients because she believes everyone should have access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. 

John, I really appreciate the opportunity to interview you today.  You may not already know, our café only serves the freshest foods and much of what we get comes from local farmers and growers.  We certainly appreciate all that you and the managers of the other 17 research stations do to help keep farming more efficient, productive and profitable, while providing consumers with safe and affordable products.


We will be talking about the entire research station system first and later about your Castle Hayne station in more detail, but to start with, can you tell us anything about the beginnings of our North Carolina research stations?


Thank you Maggie.

From what I understand, this all began back in 1877 when a board of agriculture was established in North Carolina.  This was in response to our farmers’ desire for an independent agriculture department.

At the same time, the legislation of NC provided for the establishment of “Experiment Stations” as a division of the department. After that, the creation of our research station system started and had evolved into the 18 state-wide locations we have today. 

John, that is good to know.  And what about our having 18 different research stations?  What is the reason for this?

Our state is so geographically diverse, from the mountains to the seas, and everything in-between. Different soils, rocks, climate, and rainfall, even pests and predators!  The idea was to see what grows best where, and how to make things better and more productive! 

So the NCDA and NC State established a system of agricultural experiment stations or "test farms," in various locations statewide. The purpose was to experiment with different crop-fertilizer-soil combinations to find the most suitable for certain areas.

Each facility has unique climate and soil conditions, giving researchers a living laboratory in which to investigate a variety of regional crops, forestry concerns, livestock, poultry, and aquaculture.


Anything more you want to add before we move on?

I just want to emphasize that our coastal plains, tidewater, piedmont, sandhills, and mountains all have different soils and climates, and each has unique animal and cropping systems. Crops can range from  Christmas trees that are grown in a very localized region, all the way to row crops like corn that are grown across the state. Animals range from beef cattle grown across the state to hybrid striped bass farmed near the coast.

I think our readers would like to also like to know about your Weather Reporting systems. 

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Yes, I agree.

Each research station has an ECONet tower
that collects weather data and transmits it to
the State Climate Office on the NCSU campus
in Raleigh for its state-wide use.

More locally, each research station uses this same
data to make management decisions and better
understand the effect that weather and
has on our research projects.

What about reporting this data to the National Weather Service?  I would think this type of information would be valuable to them as well.

The ECONet station data is also transmitted to the National Weather Service.  But many research stations also report manual observations to the National Weather Service as well.

For example, at Castle Hayne, we report the daily high and low temperature along with daily rainfall amounts.   These real world observations help them with both short term (weather) predictions and long term (climate) modeling.


Can you give us one example in more detail?

Doppler radars use several different models to predict rainfall amounts. The real world observations we provide allows meteorologists to pinpoint which model is most accurate in a given area for a given storm.  This in turn may give them the confidence to better predict downstream flooding potential and issue any warnings or watches. 

You may also want to know that in Castle Hayne, we use our ECONet station in the late winter/early spring to predict freeze/frost events so we can be prepared to take action to protect our blueberries and strawberries from cold damage.

Anything else before we move on?


Maggie, for those that may be interested in seeing more, I want to tell you that the data collected from ECONet towers is available to the public on the web.


You can go here to see examples of the kind of data we collect at the Castle Hayne research station.

What kinds of ongoing programs and educational events do you have and who can go to them?  How does one find out about these?

NC State and NCDA hosts field days across the state each year.  Some focus on a specific crop while others are more generalized to the region.  These are typically geared toward farmers and producers to convey the best available research data to help them be more sustainable and profitable.


However, each research station may host its own events that are geared toward non-farmers. 


Can you give us just one example of a research station event?

Yes, at my farm in Castle Hayne, we host tours of our blueberry research facility every year in conjunction with the NC Blueberry Festival in Burgaw. This tour is geared more toward the backyard blueberry grower.

How can we find out more?

This website is a great resource to find these events. For those that want to learn more about what happens at a research station near them, I would encourage them to contact the station directly. At Castle Hayne we have given tours to school groups, 4H Clubs, Boy and Girl Scouts, and Master Gardener clubs to name a few.

The research station website also mentions Engineering.  John, is there anything you want to mention here?

Staff and researchers depend on the design and construction of safe and efficient equipment sheds, maintenance shops, livestock housing, office buildings, and even irrigation ponds.

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I will just mention that there is a new facility being constructed at the Upper Mountain Research Station  in Laurel Springs to support the Christmas tree breeding program. 


Once  completed and operational, this center will conduct the research needed to produce the “most genetically superior” Fraser fir Christmas trees. The research center will include a seed bank for certified Fraser fir seeds which will be available to Christmas tree growers to find the seeds that will most fit the type of tree they want to grow.

While there are 18 research stations, it is time to talk about yours.  Is there anything you want to mention before we move on?

Maggie, the NCDA also has a New and Emerging Crops Program  to identify potential new crops, value added products and agricultural enterprises and this program also provides the agricultural research, marketing support, and education necessary to make these crops commercially viable and profitable for North Carolina’s growers and agribusinesses.

This is one example of what the Department, and NC State in partnership, tries to do for our growers and agribusinesses.

And finally we come to the Horticultural Crops Research Station in Castle Hayne.  A lot to cover here, where would you like to start?

Well we do cover a lot of ground here, but let’s start with our main focus which is on  small fruit and vegetables at   Castle Hayne.  A big part of our research is on blueberries and strawberries, and also muscadine grapes.

By far, our biggest commodity in both acreage and time commitment is blueberries.  Blueberries require a very specific soil type that many of the other research stations just don’t possess, so the bulk of our state-wide blueberry research occurs here.

They grow best in sandy soil with high organic matter content.  Decaying organic matter causes the PH in the soil to be low (acidic) which is just the right condition for blueberries.  Most of the commercial production of our blueberries is centered around the White Lake area. 


Maggie, would you like me to mention the history of how blueberry research started here?  The readers might also find this interesting and informative.

Yes, please go ahead with this.


Blueberries have not aways been our main focus here. The Castle Hayne station was established in 1947 and was intended to provide support for the local flower bulb industry.  Many Dutch immigrants had settled in the area and brought bulb farming with them from Europe. Over the years, the bulb farms have slowly dwindled, and now there is only one flower farm left in the area.


As is typical with any of our research stations, as the trends in local agriculture change, so does the focus of the stations. As one might imagine Castle Hayne’s progression from flower bulbs to blueberries didn’t occur overnight.

This is interesting, what more can you tell us?

Well, as blueberries acreage in the state began to expand, we wanted to increase our research to help those growers. But we found there wasn’t any traditional acidic blueberry soil available at our Castle Hayne location, so an additional 50-acre tract on nearby Holly Shelter Road was purchased for the sole purpose of supporting blueberry research.

These 2 combined facilities include plant pathology, tissue culture, and fruit quality laboratories, offices, workshops, computerized greenhouses, multiple cold storage facilities, outdoor lath and shade houses,


We also have a state of the art chemical storage and mixing room, and a blueberry pack shed with sorting machines and two mechanical harvesters to support blueberries for pest, breeding, food safety, and agronomy research.

Anything more recent?

Investments have been made to install a fiber optic network inside of the boundaries of the main station to allow researchers to connect sensors, cameras, or any other digital devices.  The data generated from these devices can be sent directly to NCSU’s Plant Sciences Building.

John, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and information about blueberry research.  I cant help but wonder where blueberry production in our state might be today without the work that you and your associates do.

Castle Hayne Horticultural Crops Research Station

3800 Castle Hayne Road

Castle Hayne, NC 28429-6519

Phone: (910) 675-2314

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