The last stop on our national trip was Columbia, SC for a visit with the SC Department of Agriculture. This was particularly special for me, because I worked for SCDA for several years before moving back to Virginia. (Hence the title reference to the Kings of Leon song, “Back Down South.) The staff at SCDA organized a networking breakfast for us to interact with industry leaders, including those from SC Farm Bureau, Palmetto Agribusiness Council, and the SC Forestry Association. Commissioner Hugh Weathers welcomed the group with an overview of South Carolina agriculture and the agency’s goals. Different from Virginia, South Carolina’s elected commissioner of agriculture serves a double-role as the leader of the industry and the head of the agriculture department. Known as the 50 x 20 plan, under Commissioner Weathers’ leadership, SCDA has established a goal of growing the SC agribusiness industry to a $50 billion economic impact by 2020.
SCDA is divided into 3 divisions: Agency Operations, Consumer Protection, and External Affairs and Economic Development, each overseen by an assistant commissioner. Assistant Commissioner of Agency Operations, Aaron Wood, graciously coordinated the day for us. We heard from Assistant Commissioner of External Affairs and Economic Development, Clint Leach on a wide range of topics from industrial hemp to marketing. SC has developed a highly successful branding program called Certified SC Grown. We also learned about the Agribusiness Center for Research and Entrepreneurship (ACRE), which is a really unique approach to solving industry’s problems and assisting developing producers and entrepreneurs.
Class IV asked many questions of State Statistician, Eddie Wells. With the most recent Ag Census results just released, this was a timely opportunity to learn more about how SC compares to VA. A couple of random, but interesting stats that stood out to me were the 11% increase in farm less than 50 acres and that 62% of farmers have an estate plan or succession plan.
Led by Assistant Commissioner Derek Underwood, Consumer Protection staff toured us around the many labs on site, including the food and feed lab, seed lab, chemical residue lab, and petroleum products lab. A highlight was the brand-new state of the art metrology lab for weights and measures.
All of this took place on the State Farmers Market campus. SC has three state-run farmers markets in Columbia, Florence, and Greenville. The Columbia market primarily serves as a wholesale site and houses the consumer protection department, retail sheds, and event space. A relatively new addition is the Vertical Roots container farm. We heard from their marketing strategist, Shelby Weimer, on how that operation works. Each pod can fit 3,400 plants with 15 harvests per year and a 90% yield.
Thank you to everyone at SCDA who took time time out of their busy schedules to share their work with us! It was wonderful to be able to introduce my former co-workers to my current cohort! And best of luck to those involved in the inaugural SC agriculture leadership program, Palmetto Leadership Program for the Environment, Agriculture, and Forestry (LEAF)!