However, the typical gypsum sources that are commercially available for agricultural often contain impurities which result in a Ca level between 18 percent-23 percent.

The dependence on an electric utility for a critical supply of calcium for South Carolina’s fastest growing agricultural industry shouldn’t be surprising, according to Carter.

“Farming and the energy business are intrinsically connected, which is in part due our mutual challenge to be more and more efficient,” Carter says..

 “My brother, a life-long farmer, now farms what used to be six family farms with significantly fewer people than it took to run the individual farms. Our company now employs fewer people than it did 20 years ago and generates much more energy than they did back then.”

In the future, the Santee-Cooper CEO says farmers should keep an eye on the cost of natural gas to follow the availability and cost of gypsum. About 20 percent of energy generation at the South Carolina electric company comes from burning natural gas, Carter says.

Natural gas prices have steadily gone down in price. To take advantage of these low prices electric utilities are burning more natural gas and lesser amounts of coal and other energy bearing materials.

“We are burning absolutely as much natural gas as we can. The more natural gas we burn, the less coal we burn, and the less coal we burn the less gypsum we produce,” Carter says.

“It takes time to switch from coal to natural gas and vice-versa. Right now all our gas-fired generators are running and most of our coal generator burners are not running. Even if prices of natural gas jump significantly, it will take a while to convert back to running primarily coal-fired equipment, he adds.

“Right now we have plenty of gypsum to supply farmers, and farmers will always have a high priority as customers with our company.

“However, we do have minimal contracts with other industries, and we cannot let those industries shut down, because that impacts the lives of so many people,” Carter says.

“If the price of natural gas remains low in 2013, gypsum will be a highly sought after commodity and supply and demand will come into play — just like it does with any commodity.

“If I was a peanut farmer, I would definitely pay attention to natural gas prices. You don’t want to get caught in the summer time when you need gypsum and not be able to find it. If natural gas prices stay low, I recommend to farmers to buy there supply as early as they can,” Carter says.

rroberson@farmpress.com