DARLINGTON — Members of the agriculture community gathered this week to learn about crops that are becoming economically viable for the Pee Dee region.
Crops such as energy cane (a form of sugar cane), sorghum, switch grass and flax are not exactly new crops, but with economic conditions ripening coupled with research and crops bred to the Pee Dee environmental conditions, farmers now have a new wave of options to maximize their double crop potential.
These crop opportunities sprouted from research done at Clemson’s Pee Dee Research and Education Center, an integral resource for farmers that is now evolving.
In July, the Statehouse overrode Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto to nix $4 million in funding to renovate the PDREC and create the Advanced Plant Technology Program that Clemson’s George Askew, associate vice president of Public Service and Agriculture, says will have major benefits to the Florence and Darlington areas.
“What component we’re missing is how do we improve the crops to make them better,” Askew said at the meeting Tuesday. “We’re trying to get crops to grow where they don’t necessarily grow right now or how to get them to grow with less fertilizer.”
By having plant breeders and geneticists at the center working on better crops, Askew and other Clemson leaders say it could lead more companies to the area that would benefit from the research.
“We may have collaboration with industry that might locate facilities here, that they haven’t had here traditionally to work with us and grow a whole agriculture hub for the next generation based on the research programs we’re doing here,” Askew said. “That’s economic development for the whole area.”
Naturally Advanced Technologies, creators of the CRAiLAR process that softens flax fiber, already has invested $10 million in a Pamplico production facility that will manufacture harvested flax fiber into yarn that will be blended with cotton into Levi jeans or Hanes apparel.
Stephen Sandroni of the Canada-based NAT says the cold hardy crop can provide farmers with a viable winter crop and that his company will provide the seeds, arrange a harvester and guarantee a market.
“It’s strictly a rotational crop. We’re not trying to compete against cotton, corn, soybeans or sorghum. We’re planting pretty much in October, and you’ll harvest in first or second week of May,” Sandroni said. “Now you have a crop you can harvest the first or second week of May, and we think that’s a big game changer because you don’t really have a rotational crop you can do that with now. I know wheat was early this year, but usually it’s the last of May or first of June.”
The company has a goal to acquire 45,000 acres of flax within 60 miles of Pamplico to feed plant production. NAT recently signed a three-year contract with Georgia Pacific and will be listed on NASDAQ within 30 to 60 days as it changes its name to CRAiits main product.
“We need growers, we need the acres,” Sandroni said.
Sorghum is another crop that leaders say could play a bigger role in South Carolina’s agriculture landscape.
David Hull, a merchandiser for the pork product producer Murphy Brown, says the shift to buy sorghum locally will help cut transport costs from Midwest corn.
“Why all of a sudden grain sorghum? It’s been around forever but you never bought it,” Hull said surrounded by multiple varieties of the corn-looking crop. “The answer is for about the last 30 years it’s been cheap and easy to get corn out of the Midwest…but then 2008 came along, and the whole world has been different and fuel prices went up and commodity prices shot up.”
“We’ve never traditionally been a sorghum market, but since we grow hogs, we now are going to be a permanent market for sorghum,” Hull said.
Sorghum sells for 95 percent of the cost of corn and is more drought-tolerant than corn. Sorghum, like flax, is expected to see acres increase heavily this year over last year’s crop as more farmers test the waters with the new generation of crops that promise competitive prices.