For a state where agribusiness is the top industry, the past two years have been a bit unfriendly to South Carolina from a weather standpoint. But, as the growers themselves will tell you, that’s farming.
South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers would tell you the same thing – and in fact, does in this exclusive interview with SPW from earlier this week.
Weathers is a fourth-generation farmer himself and has served as commissioner since 2004. He ushered in the “Certified SC Grown” branding program to promote South Carolina products. In 2009, Commissioner Weathers introduced the “50 by 20” goal to grow the economic impact of South Carolina agribusiness from $34 billion to $50 billion by the year 2020.
Here he talks about how growers are recovering from a 100-year flood event that impacted the 2016 season and record cold that hit this spring; labor issues; the “Certified SC Grown” program; and ways to get younger people back into farming:
Southeast Produce Weekly — It’s been a challenging couple of years for SC growers, between Hurricane Matthew, the 100-year flood and this year’s freeze. The damage can’t be undone, but farmers are nothing if not resilient. Will there be longer-range impacts from these weather events or will most recover and continue about their business?
COMMISSIONER HUGH WEATHERS — Thanks to the help of Farm Aid (a one time, $40 million disaster relief fund enacted by the SC General Assembly), many farmers were given a lifeline to continue farming in 2016.We are hopeful these efforts limited the number of farmers forced to give up their operations, but they will certainly feel the financial effects going forward. The impact of the flood and other weather-related events was devastating, but I am confident that agribusiness will continue to be the #1 industry in South Carolina.
SPW — The famous peach crop will be severely diminished, but we will at least be able to look forward to some fruit in July and August we hear…
WEATHERS — Peach farmers are cautiously optimistic that folks will still be able to enjoy the signature summer fruit this summer, but the quantities will be limited. I encourage folks to visit roadside stands and local farmers markets to find peaches this summer
SPW — Strawberries are finishing up and blueberries are coming on after the bad weather. Is the role of those two crops increasing in SC agriculture?
WEATHERS — Farmers are planting more high value crops like these and we’ve seen an increase in organic production as well. With low prices in traditional row crops, farmers have seen the value in changing their crop mix. Diversification is always important to ensure viability of the agriculture industry.
SPW — Weather was not an issue for many crops, obviously, like watermelon and vegetables. South Carolina is deservedly proud of those — how are they shaping up for summer of 2017?
WEATHERS — Mixed vegetable and summer melon planting are going according to schedule for this growing season. Farmers are optimistic on the initial outlook for squash and tomatoes and other vegetable crops.
SPW — The Certified SC program continues to grow in importance. Are there new success stories/trade missions that kind of thing to report?
WEATHERS –This year, we celebrate the 10th anniversary of Certified SC. We’re over 2000 members strong and we’ve had increased participation from members in the food supply chain like commercial packers and processors. Partnerships with retailers continue to grow stronger as the brand recognition increases among consumers and shoppers demand this fresher, tastier product.
SPW — Labor is always an issue in ag — how is the state’s labor supply projecting for late spring and summer?
WEATHERS — Fruit and vegetable farmers rely heavily on H2A workers, and the process for securing a reliable workforce is cumbersome at best. We’re engaged with elected officials to try and streamline the process while ensuring our farmers have access to the help they need to get their crops harvested. In the short term, the demand for labor will be lower this year due to the impact the freeze had on the peach crop.
SPW — How can South Carolina and the industry as a whole bring more young people into agriculture? Does the state have programs in place to encourage young farmers?
WEATHERS — We need to be able to provide the resources and support to make agriculture an inviting and exciting industry to join. One of the biggest challenges for young people looking to get into farming is gaining access to land. This year, we launched South Carolina Farm Link, a program to help connect those seeking land and other farming opportunities with landowners looking to retire, but want their land to remain in agricultural production.
SPW — In summation, it was a rough spring without question, but that’s farming — what are the brightest spots on the horizon for SC agriculture?
WEATHERS — As I said earlier, the demand for locally grown food has never been higher. There are so many opportunities for farmers to diversify and include high value fruit and vegetable crops. South Carolina is positioned to be an international supplier of specialty crops thanks to our ideal growing conditions and geographic location on the eastern seaboard with easy access to the Port of Charleston.