Agriculture survey aims to optimize farming in Myrtle Beach area

sjones@thesunnews.comJanuary 19, 2013 

— Farmers have to be savvy businesspeople to turn their land into income year after year, and those in Horry County could get some help doing so in the not too distant future.

The Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. has hired Clemson’s Horry County Extension Service to do an agribusiness survey aimed at finding ways to add value to the county’s agricultural products and hopefully money to farmers’ pockets.

Doug Wendel, chairman of the EDC’s executive committee, said the information from the study should allow businesspeople to team up with farmers to develop strategic plans to add clout to Horry’s agriculture.

The same movement is happening across the state, as evidenced by the annual S.C. Agribiz and Farm Expo, held last week in Florence.

An example of how farms and business can team up to favor both might be the opening of a peanut buying station in Horry County that coincided with peanuts overtaking tobacco as the county’s largest cash crop.

Peanuts yielded $5.1 million for Horry farmers in 2010, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and more than $15 million in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available.

The buying station may have played a part, but the real cause of the meteoric rise was an increase in the price paid for the crop, said Jack Shuler, president of the privately-funded Palmetto Agribusiness Council. The same thing happened across South Carolina, he said. Shuler predicted a drop in peanut production this year that reflects a lower price.

The relation between price and production shows the complex map a business-farm team will have to navigate to develop long-term plans for more dollars from Horry’s agriculture.

“You’ve got to have some pretty solid data,” said Blake Lanford, the Horry extension agent who will oversee the survey. “We’re talking huge investments (to increase the agricultural yield).”

Lanford said the investments will have to be based on where the market is going, and a prevailing sense is that there is a growing demand for local food from residents, chefs and grocery stores. If that is seen to have a solid and growing future, Lanford suggested that investors might put their money into storage and delivery businesses to facilitate a crop’s journey from field to table.

The idea reflects a state plan to set up food hubs that would gather crops from a 150-mile radius and be a place where buyers could be sure they would find what they needed. The hubs, Shuler said, could also serve as a statistical gathering place to tell farmers the demand for each crop and allow them to plan at least part of their planting to serve it.

Shuler said Horry likely would never be the site for one of the state-sponsored food hubs because a 150-mile radius from anywhere in its boundaries would take in part of North Carolina and the Atlantic Ocean, not the optimum situation for all farmers.

He agreed that the farm to table movement opens up some opportunities for farmers and said schools might provide another limited market because only a small part of the school year would coincide with the harvest of most produce they might use.

Shuler said the entire state doesn’t grow enough of any one product except maybe peanuts to justify a production facility to convert crops to things such as canned corn or flour. “What we’ve got to look at is how do we capture some niches,” he said.

He suggested that the state’s farmers could use their location in the middle of the East Coast to establish customers from Boston to Miami, and to look at farmland as productive for things other than crops. Livestock is one example, the breeding of racehorses another.

He further thought that Horry farmers could take advantage of the Grand Strand’s 14 million visitors each year through agritourism.

“We have a lot of people who are interested in spending the day on the farm or spending the night on the farm,” Shuler said.

A wild idea, he said, would be to convert out-of-business golf courses into irrigated crop fields.

Lanford said the survey will be about more than just crops and look at how farmland can be used for everything to raising stock for biofuels to timber.

But the only information officials have now is anecdotal and solid data is needed so the business-farm team can do its work.

Lanford said that gathering data for the survey could take six months and two to three months afterwards will be needed to develop strategic plans.

The EDC matched a $25,000 grant from the Northeastern Strategic Alliance to pay for the survey.

People watching urban areas take up more and more farmland might assume that agriculture is on the decline. Indeed, the USDA statistics say that more than 30,000 fewer acres were planted in Horry County in 2011 than in 1992. But technology allows farmers to produce more on less land than they could in 1992, and Horry still has 165,000 acres plowed and planted.

Others might assume that there’s less and less net income for small farms. But Shuler cautioned not to underestimate the collective power of the smaller operations.

“We don’t want to forget the fact,” he said, “that small farms are big business.”

And a key goal of the survey will be to make them bigger business.

Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.

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