NEWBERRY — Hugh Weathers, South Carolina’s Commissioner of Agriculture, discussed the future of agriculture and future plans for the industry during the Rotary Club of Newberry’s meeting on Friday.
Weathers is a fourth generation farmer, his great-grandfather was a cotton farmer in the late 1800’s.
“You take agriculture and forestry and it’s the largest industry that impacts our economy. When we measured it about three years ago nearly $42 billion of economic activity is generated by agribusiness in South Carolina and between production, processing, marketing and delivery of all those products grown it’s over 212,000 jobs,” Weathers said.
He added that while 25,000 farmers make up the base of the industry without production there would be nothing to deliver, process or market.
Weathers said that now is a challenging time for South Carolina farmers, with some being challenged by economic conditions.
“The last few years we have been challenged by floods and hurricanes. It’s what makes my job as Commissioner exciting, challenging and requires a lot of passion about this industry. We’re mostly interested in where this industry is going” he said.
The average age for a South Carolina Farmer is 60 years old, with about three times as many farmers over the age of 70 as there are under the age of 35. The challenge is to sustain the agriculture industry and make it an attractive career for the next generation.
One of the efforts taken to help sustain the agriculture industry is through highlighting the industry through a branding program for South Carolina agriculture products called Certified SC Grown.
“Obviously we are spending dollars on food, the last estimate was between $11-12 billion spent on food. Our dollars are going somewhere, we want them to stay in South Carolina,” Weathers said.
He added that work is also being done to attract new processing companies who will use South Carolina through agriculture products in whatever they are producing.
Launching this spring will be a program called A.C.R.E. (Agribusiness Center for Research and Entrepreneurship.)
“Research and entrepreneurship are two legs that we think are vital to growing this industry. We want to reach out to companies and say ‘What are your hurdles to expanding in South Carolina or coming to South Carolina?’ We’re going to those companies and finding the two or three issues that we can attack through research,” Weathers said.
Another service under this umbrella of services is South Carolina Farm Link.
“With the age of some of our farmers who want to exit the industry they don’t necessarily want to sell their properties to the first person that comes along. If they want to keep it in production, but don’t have a family member to do it, on the other side of that equation we find a farm seeker or couple, anyone looking to get into the business,” he said.
As for future crops, Weathers said that they will be dipping their toes in the pool of industrial hemp. He said that industrial hemp has potential in South Carolina and that hopefully it will be added to the list of crops.
“The future of agriculture has a long list of challenges, but I’m always hoping that the list of opportunities is longer,” he said.