(The Center Square) – New resources for aspiring food entrepreneurs are coming to North Carolina A&T, with construction of a new facility starting this week.
School officials on Thursday will break ground on a new Urban and Community Food Complex at the university’s 492-acre farm in East Greensboro that’s intended to serve as a business incubator for farmers, rural businesses and urban entrepreneurs to develop “value-added,” locally grown products.
The nearly 15,000-square-foot facility will house a sensory lab for consumer research; a post-harvest physiology lab for analyzing harvests products; and processing and safety labs, as well as a commercial kitchen.
Mohamed Ahmedna, dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, said the aim is to help East Greensboro’s economic revival through food and agribusiness entrepreneurship, while providing the college with a facility to train small-scale producers on product development, food safety and business practices.
“There needs to be a driver for promoting access to nutritious, fresh food (to) the East Greensboro area,” he said in a statement, noting the university farm is located in a food desert. “As the largest college of agriculture among all HBCUs, we have a responsibility to be that driver.”
The university will be setting an example with a creamery at the site that will produce Aggie Ice Cream for the first time since the 1960s, when the University Farm produced food served on campus. The business will use milk from “A2A2” Jersey cows that is more tolerable for those sensitive to dairy, allowing the school to bring together multiple existing programs.
“Dairy products like ice cream are consumer favorites that also allow our faculty and students to cover dairy production along its entire continuum, from animal health, nutrition, reproduction and milk production, to consumption – value-added products, quality, safety, consumer research,” Ahmedna said. “That allows us to integrate our food and nutritional science program with our animal science program.”
Hao Feng, director of the complex, said a computerized consumer research unit and office meeting space for faculty and entrepreneurs will provide an ideal setting for training in business, management, marketing, product development and quality control. Officials hope to have the program running by 2025.
“By facilitating food processing, preservation, innovation, sustainability and training, the Urban and Community Food Complex will become a hub for local farmers, small growers, and residents of local communities to use to turn their ideas into reality,” he said in a statement. “The final goal is to improve the well-being of all involved.”
The new facility follows other recent investments at the University Farm, including the state’s first Automated Milking System, as well as significant federal funding to the school for agriculture initiatives.
In June, the college received an $18.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lead part of its NEXTGEN program, which is designed to encourage students to pursue a career in agriculture.
That funding, along with other work with the American Heart Association, increased research funding at the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences to a record $39.5 million this year, up $5 million from 2021-22 and nearly a third of the university’s overall $147 million research portfolio.