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Gardening | Agritourism, Certified SC Grown products enhance state

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Have you ever driven through the countryside and wondered what verdant crop you were looking at in a field adjacent to the road? Or what was protected under yards of shade cloth? If only there were a sign to identify the crop. Farmers in some areas of the country serve travelers’ curiosity by posting a simple sign that informs passersby what grows in their fields. It’s also a good way to connect with a tourist and an urbanized local resident.

The largest industry in South Carolina is agriculture, and the second largest is tourism. Combine the two, and we have the emerging business of agritourism.

Agritourism was conceived to supplement a farmer’s income and help consumers become more aware of the contributions agriculture makes in their region. It benefits farmers as well as their surrounding communities and the state by generating additional business, which brings in new income.

Tightly defined, agritourism is a farm enterprise operated for entertainment and education. More loosely, agritourism invites visitors to an area used for agricultural purposes, vineyards and wineries for example. Agritourism also extends broadly to include more diverse agriculture-related operations like microbreweries (think hops), restaurants that serve locally produced food and festivals that celebrate regional food.

Locally, the Pee Dee is rich with small farms and specialty crop growers. Many sell their produce at roadside stands and U-Pick farms. Some also take their fresh farm products to the burgeoning farmers’ markets in nearby urbanized areas of the state.

Locally grown food is fresher, better tasting and more nutritious because there is less time in transition from field to table. The reasons to buy fresh local produce are undeniable.

You have likely seen the Certified SC Grown logo. It represents a S.C. Department of Agriculture branding program designed to create interest in the local food economy. At a glance, it allows consumers to easily identify and buy quality S.C. grown products. The logo may be applied to fruits, vegetables, nuts, honey, fish and seafood, poultry, meat and a few prepared foods.

“Fresh on the Menu” is a program for restaurants and institutions, including farm to school sites. “Fresh on the Menu” features restaurants whose chefs agree to include or prepare 25 percent of their menu with Certified SC Grown foods and products. The program creates opportunities for S.C. farmers to provide restaurants and institutions with high quality local food.

These programs are important because small farmers are fully engaged growing their crops and running their farms. They do not have additional time or training to market and sell their products, plus establish distribution channels.

Experiences such as hunting and fishing trips, and seasonal events such as a trip to a pumpkin patch, corn maze and Christmas tree farm all fall under agritourism. In essence, they are all South Carolina grown. In addition to food, experiences like these forge a stronger connection with the rural aspect of agriculture. That in turn enriches visitors’ and our own sense of place.

You likely recognize crops that handle South Carolina heat and humidity like tobacco, corn, soybeans, okra and cotton in roadside fields, but farmers in the Pee Dee grow much more. If it’s not part of your regular shopping routine, stop at a roadside stand or walk through a farmers’ market to see and buy locally grown products.

Kudos go to our state legislature, which recently overrode Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto of new funding for the Clemson Cooperative Extension. The Extension offers programs related to sustainable gardening and farming practices, but current funding has been insufficient for trained staff to execute outreach programs. The new funding for the Clemson Cooperative Extension will serve the expanding S.C. agriculture industry, which needs the state funds to fuel its growth.

Reach DEBBIE MENCHEK, a Clemson Master Gardener, at dmgha3@aol.com.

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