An event bringing together South Carolina agriculture and the businesses that support it showed what the immediate future holds for agribusiness as a whole: more of the trend toward higher technology in production that has characterized the Twenty First Century along with intense cost-price analysis of any expenditure made.
“With the cost of putting in an acre of crop, you need the ability to be precise, and you have to be able to show that you can pay back the upfront cost in a reasonable time,” said South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers in an interview during the first annual South Carolina AgriBiz and Farm Expo in Florence.
“You sure don’t want to have to count on best case scenarios. I am sure that is why we are seeing farmers here at the show looking to invest some of their profits with the goal of developing precision agricultural operations.”
Weathers remembered a study conducted in South Carolina a few years ago that showed all commodities and services in modern agribusiness, when considered together, have an impact on South Carolina’s economy that is larger than any other sector.
The study conducted by Harry Miley of Gallo and Associates of Greenville, S.C., in 2008, shows that:
• Agribusiness makes an increasingly large contribution to labor income, output and jobs;
• The agribusiness industry generates a total output of direct and indirect activity of $7.5 billion in annual labor income;
• The agribusiness industry is also a major job producer, with direct and indirect employment of 199,469 of the state’s jobs.
Weathers, a peanut, grain farmer and dairy operator in Bowman, S.C., said those trends certainly haven't changed. Unfortunately, the role of agriculture and forestry has long been overlooked in the state’s economy, although that may be changing.
“For a time, the short distance from field to fork had become light years in the minds of people,” he said. “But we see a change in that more and more folks will go the distance looking for local buying opportunities.”
The market outlook in South Carolina should be similar to 2012, said Edgar Woods, president of Palmetto Grain Brokerage, in one of a number of educational sessions offered at the expo.
But planted acres among crops will be a little different. “I think corn acres are going to be up 10 to 15 percent. Cotton acres will probably be down some. Beans I think will be up a little bit, and peanuts will be down, depending on contracts,” Woods said. “Acres aren’t going to matter...We’ll have good acres. All the land will be farmed, so I see positives for our area.”
Markets are also going to be a lot like last year, Woods said. “Last year we were running on tight stocks of 2011 crop, and we needed to grow a good crop and were getting projections of more acres.”
Corn and soybean plantings and prices will continue to drive the market this year, with tight current supplies and a projected increase in worldwide demand.
He made a projection — based on proposed plantings and yields — of a price of around $4.50 to $6.50 a bushel for September corn and $11 to $14 a bushel for November soybeans. But weather between now and then could affect that , he added.
• Canola may be about to make an impact among Southern crops. It is not a new crop, but it has made a very slight impression in the South so far.
That is about to change, said Mike Garland, crop development director for AgStrong. “It’s going to be done now because it’s the right thing to do.”
If you have modern grain production equipment, you have most of what you need to grow canola, he said.
• The outlook is “wonderful” for South Carolina agribusinesses, said Jane Eckert, president of Eckert Agrimarketing, a firm that consults on agritourism and direct farm marketing.
“With the local food movement, with the branding that you’re doing within this state, with the energy that young people are bringing into the business and the impact they want to have.
Times are changing
“Even 10 years ago, we didn’t have the media buzz related to buying local food (that exists now). People are now recognizing they want to meet a farmer just like you. The times they are a-changing, and I’m very positive they are for the better.”
• One Southern food producer that has had some success supplying sophisticated food consumers has been McCall Farms of Effingham, S.C. It sells a variety of products, almost entirely fruit and vegetables, and has done very well recently with its Margaret Holmes line, which provides a wide array of Southern-style canned fruit and vegetable products.
The head of McCall Farms, Henry Swink, spoke at the expo, and told Southeast Farm Press, his company doesn’t contract with any farmer who doesn’t have center pivot irrigation.
“Everyone’s interest is protected when you know the crop's water needs will be met,” he said. “No farmer can afford to lose his inputs to drought.”
There is one exception. “We use drip irrigation on squash,” he said. “It yields so much better. Drip irrigation would be a drawback on most crops, because you can't mechanically harvest. But squash has to be hand harvested anyway.”
McCall Farms' growers enjoyed a good season in 2012, he said. “We had very good yields and excellent quality, and I would have to say it was one the better years we have ever had.”
The expo attracted about 2,500 attendees, and that, along with the good response to the sessions and exhibits, encouraged organizers to announce it will be held again during the same week of January in 2014.
“We had a great event,” said Jody Martin of Palmetto Consulting Solutions and co-chairman of the event.
“We got great response from our vendors, and we had a good quality group of growers to come through. There was a lot of knowledge shared, and a lot of information shared, and the exhibitors made good connections.
“At this point we are getting input from all of the people involved so we can makes tweaks for the next show.”
“The event should lead to a stronger agricultural industry in the state, with increased economic opportunities for those currently involved, said David Winkles, president of the South Carolina Farm Bureau. “It should bring new agricultural industry development to our state.”
(For background on planning for the Expo, see First South Carolina AgriBiz and Farm Expo set for Jan. 16-18).