Another agriculture center proposal coming to Randolph

ASHEBORO — County leaders will again be considering an agriculture center proposal which could bring development to a county-owned parcel on East Dixie Drive in Asheboro. The county bought land in 2016 with a potential agriculture center in mind. Plans for that facility were presented and considered after the land was acquired with costs estimates at $58 million. That earlier proposal would have resulted in tax increases to fund both the construction and operation of the facility.

The county commissioners passed a resolution in 2019 asking the state for up to $10 million in funding to support a “first phase” of an agriculture center. This year’s state budget included $16 million in funding for a Randolph County Farm, Food, and Family Education Center.

Kenneth Sherin, the director of the county’s cooperative extension, says an ag center would have far-reaching impact. The current proposal comes with a potential $25 million development price tag, though $18 million of that funding has been secured. The state budget did not include recurring funds to cover operating the facility.

“This looks like our next big project,” said Darrell Frye, chairman of the county commissioners. “… I think this is something you can put on the top burner.”

“It’s something that Randolph County has been needing and wanting for a long time,” Sherin said.

Sherin said the proposed facility would have various components. “We’ll be able to develop farmers and growers, gardeners and consumers,” he said.

He said it could also boost to farm education. Sherin said the region’s school systems have strong agriculture programs, and this will provide more support for those. “We want to be able to help them do things they aren’t able to do,” said Sherin.

There will also be a space for youth to show livestock.

There’s an economic development component because with aging farmers it’s imperative that a foundation is set for “where are those young farmers going to come from?” Sherin said.

The proposed center would have a commercial kitchen, programs to help farmers market their products, provide instruction in food safety and training, provide a background for nutritional wellness, set aside a maker’s space as “a place to experiment) and house a digital skills lab that could be critical for rural communities to adopt to the ways business is conducted around the world.

Local House members, particularly Rep. Allen McNeill (R-Randolph), helped create an avenue to $16 million, while another $2 million could be in place through a loan stemming from Randolph Electric. Sen. David Craven (R-Randolph), said he was happy to advocate for the state funding in the recent budget. “I hope the state funding will help the county get this project going,” said Craven. “I’ve requested that the county commissioners figure out how to operate the facility without increasing taxes on Randolph County’s citizens.”

That leaves $7 million “for what I think it would take to get where we want to go,” Sherin said. “We’re hoping to find ways to fill that gap and go forward with this proposal.”

Sherin said the next steps would be forming a committee to develop designs and details.

“I’m excited to see where we go from here,” commissioner Kenny Kidd said.

Randolph County’s role is large on a state level in terms of agriculture.

According to data provided by Sherin, the county’s impact ranks No. 1 statewide in beef cattle, No. 2 in dairy cows (behind Iredell County), No. 2 in goats, No. 6 in hay production and No. 7 in poultry.

“We are a top go-to county for direct sales to consumers for foods,” he said. “This ag center will enhance that ability.”

Sherin listed more than a dozen groups or organizations that would be anticipated users of a new facility.

The proposed center will provide more space and amenities to assist farmers, something commissioners have had an eye on for years.

“Farming is still king in Randolph County,” Frye said.

By Bob Sutton

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