Whether it is peaches in Saluda and Aiken counties, greens in Lexington County, or livestock and poultry in the upstate, agriculture is big business in South Carolina. Indeed, farming is a $42 billion industry in the Palmetto State, supporting 212,000 jobs, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
Recent state investments in agriculture and the economics of farming have reinforced how critical this industry is to the state, and how fragile as well.
Two Recent Investments in Agriculture
The state has established a new Agriculture Technology Campus off I-95 in Hampton County, with the aim of creating 1,500 jobs and more than $1/2 billion in annual economic activity. The 1,000-acre project will provide hydroponic technology to a trio of farming companies, allowing them to grow efficiently, conserve water and avoid the vicissitudes of weather.
Also last year, the state created the Governor’s School for Agriculture at the John de la Howe High School south of Greenwood near the Georgia border. Students at the 1,310-acre forest and farmland campus “have the opportunity to receive hands-on training in the fields of agribusiness, forestry, equipment operation, land management, food science, and more – all aimed at assessing the needs of modern farms,” according to the school, which serves 10th-12th graders.
Existential Challenges Face Farmers
Farming is a heterogeneous industry, says Dr. Adam Kantrovich, Clemson Extension associate professor, director of the Clemson Tax School, and assistant director of the Clemson Cooperative Extension Agribusiness Team. While all farmers provide a benefit to the state, the existential challenges facing many farmers vary by the kind of crops they grow.
For example, he says, row crops like corn and soybeans are generally highly mechanized, allowing a single-family to do much of the work themselves. Fruit and vegetable crops may need to be hand-harvested.
“Only a few hundred acres might seem like a small farm but it may require 150 employees to assist with harvesting,” he said. “It adds challenges for farmers because the domestic labor market is just not there, and using H2A guest visas significantly increases the cost of access to labor, and requires significant paperwork and compliance.”
Today’s Farmer is No American Gothic
The popular conception of farming families as men in overalls with straw in their teeth, a house on a homestead with a white picket fence, mom cooking up comfort food, and a few acres outback with chickens and cows is a 200-year-old anachronism, says Kantrovich. An arrangement like that could hardly feed a family as highly leveraged as a self-employed farmer who must generate enough income to supply his own health insurance, retirement, and other costs, and to pay off loans for large equipment purchases.
“Unless someone is working off the farm to earn income, for a family to survive they must make, prior to taxes, net income of $120,000-$150,000. Health insurance alone – for a family of five that isn’t high deductible – can require $28,000-$32,000 of after-tax income,” Kantrovich said.
Market forces, urban/suburbanization, geopolitics, and weather have battered the state’s agribusiness over the past decade. Farmers have no control over the prices they charge for their product: a productive crop year can result in unprofitability if global prices plummet. Climate change has brought anomalous weather the past five years, with multiple hurricanes and a 1,000-year flood destroying whole crops, and occasional droughts around the state. A US-China trade war from 2016-2020 eliminated a huge market for exports as well.
Add to that unprecedented population growth encroaching on rural areas, driving up real estate values, and squeezing out farmland. The headwinds that face family farmers and their unique lifestyle have caused a spike in mental health issues on the farm, and a suicide rate double the national average. Kantrovich has been speaking to farmers across the Palmetto State, encouraging them to seek help if they need it by using the SC Agriwellness program number at 1-800-968-8143 or visiting the Clemson Cooperative Extension Farm Stress page for additional information.
The Lowcountry Graduate Center recognizes that a healthy agricultural community is paramount to a Lowcountry economy dependent on its culinary industry.
The Boom in Agricultural Career Paths
Those challenges have also provided an impetus for innovation in agribusiness and various new career paths for those interested in the industry but not in farming itself. Though its roots date back 30,000 years, agriculture has become as high-tech as any modern industry. Clemson offers a master’s in Applied Economics and Statistics and a bachelor’s in Agribusiness that ranks 12th in the nation and first in South Carolina, according to College Factual’s annual rankings.
Students who earn degrees often work in agriculture-related fields, selling and marketing fertilizer, chemicals, machines, and commodity training for example. Agribusiness students may also provide financial expertise and analysis to farmers to assist them in purchasing land and machinery, and running their operations efficiently, says Dr. Michael Vassalos, associate professor of Agriculture Sciences and director of graduate studies at Clemson. The undergraduate program boasts a nearly 100% job placement record, underscoring its quality and the demand in the industry.
“We need to continue the tradition of farming,” said Kantrovich, “but more than just that, we need scientists to develop new genetics of seed and plant varieties, animal behaviorists and geneticists, the next generation of financiers and engineers to build efficiencies into processes, and more. Who’s going to develop the next piece of software that’s going to be used on a tractor?”