September 18, 2013

Food hub, equine center among ideas in Horry County agribusiness study

Clemson University’s Extension Service has some big ideas to stimulate agribusiness in Horry County, but some worry that farmers may chafe at the rules that come with a couple of them.

Clemson University’s Extension Service has some big ideas to stimulate agribusiness in Horry County, but some worry that farmers may chafe at the rules that come with a couple of them.

The creation of a farmers cooperative would be the best way to help the ideas succeed, but “cooperatives, for whatever reason, is kind of a bad word in the Southeast,” said David Hughes of Clemson’s Institute for Economic and Community Development.

Horry County is an ideal place for a food hub, Hughes said, where farmers could take their produce to have it sold to distributors or end users, such as the restaurants and grocery stores that serve the Grand Strand’s 15 million tourists. According to a study that Hughes and others did for the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp., tourists spend $469.8 million a year on food and beverages in Horry County. A total of 42.3 percent of each food dollar spent in Horry County comes from the wallets of tourists, according to the study.

Food hubs would want its growers to meet certain quality standards, and Hughes said farmers generally aren’t interested in someone else putting rules on how they grow their crops.

There are now 42 food hubs in the Southeast, the closest in Charleston.

But Hughes said the state has determined that Horry is a good location for another, and because of the agribusiness study done for the EDC, the state is putting up about $20,000 for a food hub feasibility study.

“There’s plenty of demand (for locally-grown produce),” Hughes told the EDC executive committee Wednesday. “We’re not worried about that. It’s just developing interest among growers.”

The food hub recommendation was one of several in Clemson’s agribusiness study for the EDC.

Others were the development of an equine center, the establishment of a peanut shelling operation and exploration of growing sweet potatoes for the Asian market.

Hughes said there is not now a shelling operation in South Carolina. It might be better located in Orangeburg County, which is the center of peanut growing in South Carolina, he said, but one located in Horry County would be better for all the state’s growers than shipping peanuts to Georgia or Virginia for shelling as now must happen. And a shelling operation in Horry could draw from counties in southeast North Carolina as well.

As for the sweet potatoes, Hughes said that North Carolina grows so many that it has the corner on the domestic market. But demand in Asian markets, particularly China, is huge. China is among the world’s major sweet potato producers, but Hughes said demand there is even higher.

A significant sweet potato export would further benefit the port in Georgetown, which is configured for that kind of break-bulk cargo.

Hughes said there is interest locally in an equine center, a facility where horse shows could be staged.

Blake Lanford, Horry Extension agent, agreed that the $93 million estimate in the study to build an equine facility “just takes the breath away,” but added it would have to be a joint, public-private venture.

Lanford and Hughes agreed that a much smaller equine center could be built and likely would be used. But the big bucks come from the big centers that stage national shows, such as those in Camden and Southern Pines, N.C.

“These people travel and spend money,” Hughes said.

As with the food hub, each of the recommendations would need its own feasibility study, Hughes said.

EDC executive committee member Dodd Smith, president of Metglas, said that the committee should prioritize the ideas and do a business plan for each.

“I’d choose one or two and then flush it out,” Smith said.

EDC executive committee member Doug Wendel said Clemson and the EDC should see what other areas have done with similar ideas and study the financing and economic impact of each.

“Lastly and most importantly,” Wendel said, “what kind of interest are we going to have with farmers?”

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