WINGATE – Wingate University is surrounded by some of the most fertile land in North Carolina.
In fact, Union County is one of the top agricultural producers in the state, ranking fourth overall in the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture. In tandem with that, nearly 10% of Union County, and almost 17% of nearby Anson County, is described as “food insecure.”
It makes sense, then, that Wingate is starting an agriculture and food systems concentration within the biology major.
“We produce so much food here in Union County, but we still have a high amount of food insecurity,” said Dr. Erika Niland, chair of the university’s biology department. “It’s just the right time. Sort of the perfect storm of everything is here to go ahead and do it.”
The university will admit 10 students each fall into the program, which will consist of a combination of biology, chemistry, agriculture and business courses, in addition to the standard general education requirements. A coordinator will be hired to oversee the concentration, which will feature a course in agroecology, an internship and a capstone course, in addition to biology and chemistry classes. On the business side, students will take courses in economics, marketing, entrepreneurship, law and other topics.
The new concentration will appeal to a variety of students: those who want to study biology but have decided not to pursue health sciences, children of local farmers who need business education, students interested in working for nonprofits associated with food insecurity, students who are eyeing a career in agriculture but don’t want to attend a large land-grant institution, and others.
The program will emphasize experiential learning, especially when students do their internships and capstone projects. Since Wingate doesn’t have a working farm to serve as a lab, the University is forging partnerships with farms, nonprofits and other businesses and organizations in the community.
“It’s going to be more of a high-impact program, so there’s going to be a lot of experiential components to it,” Niland said. “That’s where the community comes in. Internships and that senior project would essentially allow the student to give back to the community to some degree, but also then walk away with some experience on their resume.”
“To me, it’s the manifestation of everything we talk about in terms of serving our neighbors,” said Vint Tilson, vice president for strategic partnerships, who has been meeting with local farmers and other organizations to form the necessary connections.
One likely partner is Monroe-Union County Economic Development, which is in the process of establishing a cluster of food-related companies in eastern Union County. In the county right now, lots of food is produced and sold, but very little of the processing and packaging is handled here. The food cluster is designed to enable Union County to claim a slice of that sizable portion of the industry.
The cluster will include an industrial park anchored by the BARN (Building Agricultural Resources and Nutrition), a food kitchen and resource facility that will enable small and medium-sized farming operations to do some light processing in order to sell their products locally.
“If you examine the revenue generated in a food system, a small portion is generated by the producers and growers while another small portion is generated by the retailers,” said Chris Platé, executive director of Monroe-Union County Economic Development. “The significant amount of revenue is generated from the actual processing of the food product. Having the processing closer to the producers allows them to lessen transportation costs and earn higher prices by having a more direct selling opportunity, therefore keeping farming as a viable business now and in the future.”
If the cluster develops as planned, it will provide ample internship opportunities for students in Wingate’s agriculture and food systems concentration.
“Our goal is to utilize the synergy created by the proximity of our agricultural network and the University’s food systems and other programs that will build the next generation of agribusiness,” Platé said.
One big selling point of the concentration is the flexibility it affords students. Students might want to work in agricultural marketing, in regulatory compliance or for a nonprofit specializing in feeding the hungry. All of these potential roles could be served by the new concentration.
Such a diverse program is in keeping with Wingate’s liberal-arts roots.
“It really allows the student to pick which part of the food systems they’re interested in,” Niland said. “We’re hoping that by offering this concentration, it’s going to pull students into an otherwise not-thought-of potential career. That’s, I think, what we’re trying to accomplish. And also trying to help the community around us, since our county has been historically agricultural.
“One of the goals of a university is to support the community, and I think this was kind of a missing piece for us.”