Last updated: June 18. 2014 6:08AM - 200 Views

With the average age of farmers in South Carolina now 59, a new crop of farmers is preparing to enter the state's largest industry.
With the average age of farmers in South Carolina now 59, a new crop of farmers is preparing to enter the state's largest industry.
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HONEA PATH — Before you can grow a crop, you have to plant the seed. That’s as true of South Carolina’s crop of new farmers as it is the commodities their farms produce.


“We have to prepare new farmers to take the torch from previous generations,” said Dave Lamie, an associate professor and Extension specialist in agribusiness in the Clemson University Institute for Economic and Community Development at the Sandhill Research and Education Center near Columbia.


“The nation’s farm population is aging and fewer people are growing up in rural areas with farming experience,” said Lamie, who directs the South Carolina New and Beginning Farmer Program. “Preparing the new crop of farmers to be successful is essential both to our food supply and to the state’s economy.”


The South Carolina Department of Agriculture estimates that agriculture and forestry combine to generate more than $30 billion a year in the state economy. But the most recent census from the National Agricultural Statistics Service lists the average age of South Carolina farmers at 59, higher than the national average by a year.


Just 11 percent of South Carolina farmers are under the age of 45. Nationally, there are five times as many farmers aged 75 or older than there are farmers 25 or younger.


“Agriculture has changed radically during the lives of today’s farmers, and we’ve re-tooled our research and education programs to meet those changes,” said George Askew, associate vice president for Public Service Activities at Clemson. “When a farmer retires, he takes with him valuable experience. New farmers have to learn a lot in a short time. That’s why we’re reaching out with programs specifically for emerging farmers and start-up agribusinesses.”


With that much on the line, it helps to start early. In Honea Path, straddling Abbeville and Anderson counties, the future of farming goes to school every day at Belton-Honea Path High School.


“We have a diversified program that exposes students to many different sides of agriculture,” said Glenn Stevens, an agricultural education teacher at BHP who leads the Future Farmers of America chapter there. “We want to them to see the diversity in agriculture, so we give them experience in horticulture, equine, small animals, agricultural mechanics and environmental science. Just about anything the kids are interested in they’ll find in agriculture.”


The agricultural education program at BHP is one of the largest in the state. With a solid track record of placing students in higher education and agribusiness employment, the 236-member FFA chapter works closely with local chapters of Young Farmers and Agribusiness.


“More than half our students will go on to higher education in agriculture or a related field,” Stevens said. “We’re trying to expose them to the many different opportunities in agriculture and give them skills that will important in the job market.”


Many FFA students will enter traditional agriculture degree programs at Clemson. Some will pursue a new degree program, just begun this fall, specifically for agriculture-related businesses.


“The Bachelor of Science in Agribusiness further demonstrates Clemson’s commitment to supporting an agribusiness industry that has a $34 billion impact on our state’s economy by preparing our students to be a driving force for the state’s economic development and prosperity,” said Tom Scott, dean of Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences.


The curriculum includes classes in agribusiness economics and management, leadership, marketing and sales, finance, accounting and business skill development.


“Managing the business of agriculture is critical and graduates coming out of Clemson’s agribusiness program will have the business skills required to help South Carolina’s agriculture industry reach an even higher level of efficiency as it enters emerging markets,” said South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers.


Not all new farmers come from high school and college ranks, however.


“There’s no age limit on entering agriculture. In addition to young people entering the profession, we have a lot of adults who are looking at agriculture as a second career or as a retirement strategy,” Lamie said.


“A number of them are looking to take advantage of increasing opportunities to create new markets for locally grown food,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons the South Carolina New and Beginning Farmer Program was started in the first place.”


A multi-agency partnership supported in part by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the program seeks to prepare entrepreneurs to be sound business managers, environmental stewards and successful marketers.


Since the program began in South Carolina started three years ago, more than 100 new farmers and ranchers have joined the ranks.


Clemson is assisted by primary partners Lowcountry Local First and the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. The partnership also includes the S.C. Department of Agriculture, S.C. Farm Bureau, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency and S.C. Young Farmers and Agribusiness Association.


“At whatever stage they enter the business, it’s important to enter prepared, and it’s important to our state that we keep agriculture productive” Lamie said. “Our goal is to prepare the next generation of South Carolina farmers to be as successful as the one before them.”


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