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Despite being hard hit by Mother Nature in recent years, South Carolina agribusiness is strong, Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers of Bowman said Thursday.

Weathers, a longtime farmer and agriculture commissioner for the past 15 years, was the keynote speaker at the Rural Strong Business Resource Expo at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College's Roquemore Auditorium.

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“Agribusiness is the largest contributor to South Carolina’s economy. Roughly, we have 20 million acres ... So, if you take farming, we have just under 5 million acres of farmland. That’s not all being farmed," he said.

“We have just under 13 million acres of forest land. So, you add those two up ... the amount of land in farm and forestry ... (and) that’s a lot of dry land in South Carolina,” he said. “That takes up over 90 percent of the land mass in South Carolina."

Weathers said the agribusiness industry supports more than 212,000 jobs, which is nearly 10 percent of the state’s employment.

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Weathers detailed how the natural disasters that occurred over the last five years have negatively impacted the industry, specifically the flooding that occurred in both North Carolina and South Carolina.

“From the flood of 2015, our farmers lost -- because crops were washed away -- about $345 million. That’s actual crops. Then by the time you put a multiplier on it, it probably doubles,” the commissioner said of the natural disaster's impact on South Carolina.

“This past year, with Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael, the number was just over $200 million. (There was) not a lot of attention with Hurricane Michael because most of the damage done from that hurricane was crops,” Weathers said. “About $80 million worth of crops ready to harvest washed away, flooded and couldn’t be harvested."

He said an increase in investments is needed in the state's agriculture industry to create more jobs, especially in rural South Carolina.

“The drive in between those great urban areas” of Columbia, Charleston and Greenville “is where our challenges exist," Weather said.

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“The team effort around rural South Carolina is probably as strong as I can recall in the years that I have served as commissioner,” he said.

“It’s almost an unspoken saying that a job in Marion County, a job in Dillon County is worth three jobs in Greenville County.”

Weathers said the Department of Agriculture now has a “closing fund," which can offer incentives to close the deal in bringing agribusiness-related industry to the state.

In addition, there's an existing tax incentive package that rewards agribusinesses for using a certain amount of agricultural products from South Carolina on a yearly basis, he said.

“There’s a host of things we do, but the first thing we do is collaborate wherever possible with other state agencies,” Weathers said.

Rural counties “get a lot of attention from (the Department of) Commerce, Department of Agriculture, from every one where we can find those opportunities,” he added.

“We’re dealing with a company that’s a prospect that could be one of the largest investments in quite a number of years,” Weathers said, adding that the investment “could mean a lot of jobs in some places where our employment is still challenged.”

The focus on expansion led to the creation of ACRE, or the Agribusiness Center for Research and Entrepreneurship, which is an initiative to help farmers grow their operations vertically, the commissioner said.

“We want to encourage those in South Carolina that have entrepreneurial ideas about something in agriculture. If they have an idea, or product, or something that we can help move forward through our entrepreneur center, that’s what it’s there for,” Weathers said.

The initiative also conducts research that identifies any barriers that could prevent industries from wanting to locate in South Carolina and solutions to knock down those barriers, he said.

“It’s like putting research out for bid and seems, so far, very successful,” Weathers said. “We were fortunate to be supported by our state budget leadership to do something very cutting edge."

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Farm Link is part of the ACRE website that links those seeking to enter the farming business with those who have farmland that isn’t being farmed," the commissioner said. “It’s like FarmersOnly.com for land."

Weathers also addressed the promising industrial hemp industry, noting that South Carolina has a program designed to research the possibilities of the hemp industry as it relates to the state.

“We are in the second year of the South Carolina Industrial Hemp Pilot Program. The first year we picked 20 farmers to do 20 acres each. In 2019, we picked 40 farmers to do 40 acres each out of 162 applications,” he said.

Six of the 40 farmers participating in the 2019 program are in The T&D region, according to the S.C. Department of Agriculture website.

The Farm Bill, which was recently passed, states that hemp is no longer a controlled substance and that some of the restrictions enforced by the DEA have changed. Weathers said the change in federal law has prompted a proposal to change state law to comply with it.

That proposal has been stymied by the government shutdown, he said.

“We want to see how South Carolina’s hemp industry can be the best in the country. And it can’t be just growing more acres and hoping there’s a market for it. We’ve got to start at the demand side and work our way back,” Weathers said.

He also discussed controlled-environment agriculture, or "growing things indoors," which appears to be in farming's future. 

“We’ve got a company out of Charleston who is very aggressive, who takes shipping containers, brings maybe four of them together and calls it a pod,” Weathers said.

He estimated that growing one acre of a crop inside the pod is equivalent to growing 30 acres outside as a result of the faster growth.

Weathers noted, “We’ve got to figure out (what) farming is going to look like in 10, 20 years and what we’ll maintain, what we’ll blend in, how to find some of our new industries and build on some of the ones that we have."

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Contact the writer: bharris@timesnaddemocrat.com or 803-533-5516

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Staff Writer

Bradley Harris is a Government and Sports Reporter. The Irmo, SC native is a 2018 graduate of Claflin University and recipient of the 2018 South Carolina Press Association Collegiate Journalist of the Year Award.

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