18 NC STATEEditor’s note: This story is a departure for High School Highlights. We normally write about local high school athletic stars, but this is about a project that involves a former local athlete who has distinguished himself in the field of invention. Will Marsh was a starter on the Cape Fear High School baseball team during his days there. He’s moved on to North Carolina State University, where he was one of the team members involved in the invention of a new device that will make the baling of pine straw a lot easier. Thanks to Rebecca Nagy, science writer for the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at North Carolina State, for this story.

Baling pine straw for landscaping use is a $250 million industry across the southeast, relying almost entirely on hand labor. Five alumni from the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering designed and built the first production-ready machine to remove sticks and pine cones from pine straw and cut labor costs by up to 80%.

Starting as a senior design project in BAE, alumni Matthew Parker, Ben Cauthen, Alex Greeson, Ben Cranfill and Will Marsh created the Pine Bine to address labor problems plaguing the underdeveloped pine straw industry during a capstone senior design project in 2017. By graduation in 2018, they had developed a patent-pending machine capable of reducing industry labor requirements. The Innovative Agricultural Technologies, LLC “Pine Bine,” or pine straw combine, streamlines the pine straw harvesting process to make the industry more efficient and profitable.

In 2018, the five alumni won first place in the AGCO student design competition at the American Society of Biological and Agricultural Engineers Annual International Meeting in Detroit, Michigan.

Now the founders of Innovative Agricultural Technologies, LLC they were recently finalists in The Farm Bureau Ag Innovation Challenge, a national business competition for U.S. food and agriculture startups. In addition to the judging portion of the competition, there was also a People’s Choice Award. Voting for that award ended last weekend.

“Without the fantastic education we received at NC State and the support given to us by the BAE department both before and after graduation, we could never have developed our ideas to this level,” Parker notes. “N.C. State has truly given us the opportunity to pursue our dreams.”

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. Startup funds for The Challenge are provided by sponsors Bayer Crop Science, Country Financial, Farm Bureau Bank, Farm Bureau Financial Services, Farm Credit and John Deere.

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 in the southeast, is hindered by an insufficient labor force.
“One big problem in that industry is that labor is hard to come by,” explained Parker, who is currently a graduate student at Campbell University’s Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law in Raleigh. “It’s hard to find people that want to go into the woods and separate pine straw from sticks and pine cones to get the best quality pine straw.”

“Landscaping pine straw shields soil surrounding plants and their root systems from the sun, and holds moisture to promote plant growth, explains Greeson. “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 littered with sticks and pine cones.”

Then came the Pine Bine.

“Our machine is the first ever machine to actually be successful at removing sticks and pine cones from pine straw,” Parker continues.  “And we designed it and built it right here as senior engineering students at NC State.”
Shortly after graduation, the team formed Innovative Agricultural Technologies, LLC, and partnered with a small-scale rural equipment manufacturer in North Carolina and plans to release the Pine Bine in the general market in the next several months. 

Parker expressed Innovative Agricultural Technologies’ goal that the Pine Bine will “revolutionize the pine straw industry and make raising longleaf pine trees profitable again.”

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.

“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,” notes Parker. “People will naturally want to protect longleaf pine ecosystems once it becomes more profitable to do so through the mechanization of the pine straw industry.”

Parker noted the longleaf pine’s intimate connection with the history of North Carolina.

“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!’” he said. “For our part, Innovative Agricultural Technologies wants to keep the significance of the longleaf pine alive in North Carolina and throughout the Southeast.”

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