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Five members of a Carthage-based engineering firm, Innovative Agricultural Technologies, LLC, will be traveling to Austin, Texas between January 16 and January 20 to compete in the Farm Bureau Ag Innovation Challenge, a “Shark Tank”-style entrepreneurship competition for ag-related startups. 

The founding members of Innovative Agricultural Technologies invented, designed, and built the “Pine Bine,” the first machine to efficiently remove sticks and pine cones from longleaf pine straw.  The “cleanliness” of pine straw, which refers to the lack of sticks, pine cones, and other trash in the straw, is one of the most important factors in determining the value of pine straw for landscaping use.  Without the Pine Bine, cleaning pine straw by hand is the most labor-intensive step in pine straw production.

The Innovative Agricultural Technologies team are finalists in the Farm Bureau Ag Innovation Challenge, a national entrepreneurship competition for U.S. food and agriculture startups.  The American Farm Bureau Federation, in partnership with Farm Credit, awards $145,000 in startup funds to entrepreneurs who compete throughout the year, culminating at a live pitch competition at the AFBF Annual Convention.

The live pitch competition will be judged by professionals across the agricultural industry, including professors from both Cornell University and Texas A&M.  Startup funds for the Ag Innovation Challenge are provided by sponsors such as Bayer Crop Science, Country Financial, Farm Bureau Bank, Farm Bureau Financial Services, Farm Credit, and John Deere.

In addition to the live pitch portion of the competition, Innovative Agricultural Technologies will also compete for the People’s Choice Award.  To vote for Innovative Agricultural Technologies for the People’s Choice Award, download the “Farm Bureau Events” app from the appstore and place your vote between 8 am on Saturday, January 18th and 8 pm on Sunday, January 19.  For more information, follow Innovative Agricultural Technologies’ Facebook page and visit their website at www.PineBine.com.

The first prototype of the Pine Bine is ready for a day of work in a pine plantation.

Tapping into Pine Straw

Baling pine straw for landscaping use is at least a $250 million industry across the southeast, and it has traditionally relied entirely on hand labor.  Matthew Parker, Ben Cauthen, Alex Greeson, Ben Cranfill, and Will Marsh designed the Pine Bine to address labor problems plaguing the historically under-mechanized pine straw industry during a capstone senior design project at NC State University in 2018. 

By graduation, the team had developed a patent-pending machine.  Parker predicts that, once it is widely adopted in the industry, the Pine Bine could cut the labor costs associated with pine straw production by up to 80% and increase the number of harvestable acres of longleaf pine straw, not just in North Carolina, but also across the entire southeastern United States.

In 2018, the Innovative Agricultural Technologies team won first place in the AGCO student design competition at the American Society of Biological and Agricultural Engineers (ASABE) Annual International Meeting in Detroit, establishing the Pine Bine as the best agriculture-related senior design project in the United States.

 While deciding on a project for their senior design course, the team saw a need and an opportunity in the pine straw industry.  Pine straw, a big part of the landscaping industry, is hindered by an insufficient labor force.

“One big problem in that industry is that labor is hard to come by,” explains Parker, who is currently a second-year law student at Campbell University’s Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law in Raleigh. “It’s hard to find people who want to go into the woods and separate pine straw from sticks and pine cones to get the best quality pine straw.”  Parker continues, “Pine straw producers are barred by law from hiring H-2A workers and therefore may only hire H-2B workers, which limits the labor pool significantly.”

Alex Greeson elaborates. “Pine straw is important for landscaping because it shields the soil surrounding plants and their root systems from the sun, and it holds moisture to promote plant growth. It also lasts a long time, is more cost-effective than hardwood mulch alternatives, and provides a natural appearance to any garden. Pine straw is really nature’s mulch, but nobody wants their gardens, yards, and golf courses littered with sticks and pine cones.”

Then came the Pine Bine.

“The Pine Bine is the first ever machine to actually be successful at removing sticks and pine cones from pine straw,” Parker continues.  “And we designed and built it as senior engineering students at NC State in Raleigh, with a lot of advice and financial support from the North Carolina Pine Needle Producers Association.”

Shortly after graduation, the team formed Innovative Agricultural Technologies, LLC and partnered with a small-scale rural equipment manufacturer in North Carolina.  The team plans to release the Pine Bine to the general public in the next several months.  Parker explained that Innovative Agricultural Technologies’ goal is that the Pine Bine will “revolutionize the pine straw industry and make raising longleaf pine trees profitable again.”

Importantly, the Pine Bine also has the potential to yield environmental benefits in addition to increased profits for pine straw producers and landowners. 

Parker explains that “because of their unique growth habit, longleaf pine trees create an ecosystem found nowhere else on earth.”  However, loblolly pines, which do not produce the same ecological benefits as longleaf pines, have largely overtaken the lumber market throughout the southeast because loblolly pines grow at twice the rate of longleaf pines. 

Parker explains, “If successful, the Pine Bine is positioned to help reverse this centuries-old trend of declining longleaf pine acreage throughout the southeast simply by doing its part to harness market forces rather than resorting to cumbersome state regulation.  People will naturally want to protect longleaf pine ecosystems once it becomes more profitable to do so.”

Pointing out that the longleaf pine is intimately connected with the history of North Carolina, Parker explains, “The North Carolina State Toast proudly declares, ‘Here’s to the land of the longleaf pine; the summer land where the sun doth shine; where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great; here’s to down home, the Old North State!’  For our part, Innovative Agricultural Technologies wants to keep the significance of the longleaf pine alive in North Carolina and throughout the southeast.”

For more information about Innovative Agricultural Technologies, LLC or to ask about purchasing a Pine Bine, contact Matthew Parker at (910) 639-8115 or Customer-Support@pinebine.com.

Feature photo: The Innovative Agricultural Technologies team discusses the pine straw industry.  Left to Right: Justin Macialek, Matthew Parker, Ben Cranfill, Alex Greeson, Ben Cauthen, Will Marsh, and Terry Bryant.

 

Courtesy photos/Contributed

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