Time out for an educational vacation

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After a week away from the daily rigors of the newspaper business, I came to work on Monday ready to tackle deadlines, stories, customers and all the daily trappings of the business.

And I came back a little more knowledgeable, too. I spent last week taking day trips to see friends and family members. On Friday I ventured to Charlotte, where my oldest daughter, Anna Kate, moved over the summer. To be certain, I was looking forward to spending time with her and letting her show me around the city.

But I was also looking forward to a visit with an old college friend. Nelson McCaskill was a graduate student at N.C. State University when I pledged his fraternity as a freshman.

Nelson is now the director of Cooperative Extension in Mecklenburg County. I couldn’t wait to find out about the agriculture scene in Mecklenburg County. As the state’s most metropolitan county, I would have thought there would have been virtually no active agriculture to speak of.

And, in truth, there are only 250 farms in Mecklenburg County. Many of those are cattle farms. Courageous landowners have been able to ward off the pressures of development to keep family land in family hands. But, Nelson said, most of those farms used to be dairies. Now they are beef cattle farmers. Only 5 percent of the land in the county is outside a city limit or a town’s planning territory.

To my surprise, he told me that, despite the relatively small farming community, Mecklenburg ranks among the top 15 counties in the state in agriculture revenue.

That’s because of a company called Metrolina Greenhouses.

Established in 1972 by immigrants from the Netherlands, Metrolina has grown from a single greenhouse to an operation with more than 150 acres under greenhouses.

The company grew by building relationships with grocery stores to provide those businesses with fresh flowers and plants. Over time they established a base of business with big box retailers. According to Nelson, the company, which is still largely in private hands, is among the top five commercial nurseries in the country.

I am no expert when it comes to Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Other than a meeting or two in that city, I’ve only passed through it on the interstate, despite living in North Carolina nearly all my life.

But among the things I’ve always heard is that Charlotte has its share of pride. That was on display on Saturday, when I walked through a small park in Uptown Charlotte with my daughter. There, we saw one of those hand-made directional signs. Each sign marker pointed to another city around the world that shares the Queen City’s name along with the mileage to that place.

At the bottom of the pole, was the sign for Charlotte, NC. Next to it were these words: The center of the known world.

There’s so much to learn about this state, even for those of us who have lived here all our lives. It’s good to get out and see what there is to see.

And if you can get a little education while you’re on vacation, well, all the better.

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