South Carolina farmers looking to the future have formed a new co-operative called the Carolina Agri-Solutions Growers Association (CASGA).

Formally incorporated during a meeting at Clemson University’s Pee Dee Research and Education Center near Florence, CASGA is designed to bring together efforts in the areas of purchasing and marketing for traditional and non-traditional botanicals for South Carolina Agriculture in the 21st century, according to Greg Hyman, the association’s first president.

Other incorporators and board members include vice-president Bob Childers of Woodruff, treasurer Jim Irvin of Wadmalaw Island, secretary Jody Martin of Florence, and Johnny Shelley of Nichols.

Martin, Clemson Extension agent who coordinates the South Carolina Muscadine Initiative, which includes a one-acre demonstration vineyard at the Pee Dee REC, said that CASGA hopes to capitalize on the huge public interest in health issues.

“The health and wellness industry is the next trillion dollar sector in our economy,” he said. “There is a market for natural products in the nutraceuticals area. We also have opportunities for juices, wines and vinegars. Some people may want to make jellies and jams.”

Martin pointed out that tourism and agriculture are the top two industries in South Carolina and CASGA hopes to find ways to tie the two together.

Hyman said the initial thrust for CASGA will come from tobacco farmers in transition to other crops, either to supplement or to supplant tobacco.

“They are looking for a reason to keep farming and to make a profit,” he said.

“We need to move away from the typical cash flow-scenario to a profit-based revenue structure,” Hyman said. “Typically if a farmer pays his bills at the end of the year he made money, because he lives off cash flow during the year.

“The new mentality is geared toward identifying the consumer before you start the product and building a profit margin into the process instead of just growing a crop and hoping somebody buys it,” he said.

As owner of Hyman Vineyards he received a USDA grant of $275,000 in October for muscadine product development and market research to help with that change. He said that effort blends in perfectly with CASGA’s mission.

He noted that muscadine grapes contain high amounts of phytochemicals such as resveritrol, which is good for the heart, blood and cholesterol and helps prevent stroke. It’s one of the compounds found in red wines.

“When it comes to fruits and vegetables, the darker the color, the more anthocyanins the contain — hence more phenolics and more antioxidant activity,” he said.

He noted that lots of research has already begun on nutraceuticals in South Carolina. Clemson University, the University of South Carolina and the Medical University of South Carolina have joint studies under way.

Hyman said the new cooperative could lead to enterprises such as mouthwash made from muscadines, since they contain a large amount of ellagitannins, which help degrade or eliminate periodontal disease.

“You don’t think of the farmer as the person who formulates and makes your mouthwash, but he could,” Hyman said.

He said South Carolina farmers have to take their crops and be the ones who produce value-added products rather than working for others who take those profits.

“We’re looking at not only non-traditional plants but non-traditional uses of traditional plants,” he said, holding up a small plastic container called Razz Tabs. “For example, you can take a raspberry and do something different with it, like make a dietary supplement out of it. “Tobacco even has a food value if you learn how to do the proper extractions, which we’ve been exploring,” Hyman said. “We could use tobacco to make animal feeds or insecticides. It even has some industrial uses.”

The CASGA board set $100 for an initial membership fee for growers. He said the association opens up opportunities for grants, access to resources and other things, such as the potential for luring industries to support their efforts.

Martin said the association will meet in January at the Pee Dee REC during a two day period which will also see the South Carolina Tobacco Growers Association and the third annual R.A.I.N. Conference meeting.

Val Dunham, retired biochemist from Coastal Carolina University, which hosted R.A.I.N. I and II, said the third conference will concentrate on the acronym — Research, Agriculture, Industry and Nature — in the context of the new association.

Martin estimates conservatively that more than 400 acres of cultivated muscadines are scattered across the state, but growers are unaware of one another. He said that CASGA should improve the lines of communication.

“Most people are not aware that Bob Childers and three of his neighbors are co-owners of 100 acres of muscadines near Woodruff which are around 40 years old,” said Martin, noting that the large planting is the only place in the state where muscadines have been harvested by machine.

“If acreage really picks up in the state, mechanical harvesting will have to be the way to go,” he said. A cooperative will be more able to support mechanization in the vineyards.

Martin has worked to collaborate with others in the muscadine industry throughout the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi and other areas, pulling them together to discuss formation of a National Muscadine Board to build collaboration in developing new markets and branding.