With a warm climate, adequate water supply and cropping expertise of a large labor force, the Southeast seems ideally poised to become a major fruit and vegetable growing center in the U.S.

But labor shortages, unstable weather patterns and the introduction of new insect pests are major roadblocks to overcome.

Veteran Clemson University Extension AssociatePowell Smith says South Carolina is a microcosm of vegetable and fruit potential in the Southeast that is being held back by these three factors.

Among producing states, California produces more than 40 percent of all the vegetables grown in the U.S.

Florida and Georgia are both in the top five and North Carolina is the next largest vegetable producing state in the Southeast.

Perhaps the most telling factor in growth of the industry in the Southeast is a look at planted acres versus harvested area over the past three years.

In Florida in 2010, 190,100 acres were planted and 176,500 harvested. In 2012, 201,000 acres were planted and 186,700 acres were harvested.

Regardless of the size of the planted crop, each state reports annually a loss of 10-15 percent of acres from planting time to harvest. Losing that percentage of a crop annually from the time vegetables are planted until they are harvested, processed and sold makes expansion challenging at best.

Labor is absolutely critical to vegetable production and can be just as critical during fruit harvest seasons. Currently, labor, across all agricultural production, is uncertain at best.

Smith says it is understandably difficult for a grower to invest the money necessary to plant a high value vegetable crop without the certainty that he or she will have the labor needed to grow it, and more importantly harvest it.

“The biggest cost in most vegetable production comes at harvest time. If you need 175 laborers to pick your crop in a relatively short time period, and you can only come up with 100, you’ve got yourself a big economic problem,” he says.