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Farming always involves uncertainty, but I know many Orangeburg area farmers have been feeling especially uncertain this year — with good reason.

Dairy finally gets boost; 2019 OK for cattle

Trade disagreements with China brought us new tariffs on agricultural export products like soybeans, cotton and pork, making it harder for South Carolina farmers to realize a price for their crops that covers their input costs. There are signs that the trade tensions may have peaked around September, fortunately, and since then, China has been buying U.S. soybeans and negotiations between our countries appear to be more productive.

'In the red this year': Tariffs on top of hot and dry growing season

Getting China to deal fairly on the global market is a long-term process, and perhaps overdue. While there’s been some serious short-term pain for farmers, we’ve got to think that the end results will be better prices and a more even playing field.

Meanwhile, the drought that gripped the Southeast through late summer and early fall did some real damage to crops and pasture here in South Carolina.

'Great stress to local crops': Drought, heat reduce dryland yields in Calhoun

We have yet to see how badly yields were affected, especially dry land corn planted early in the season. Bamberg, Orangeburg and Calhoun counties have received a disaster declaration via U.S. Secretary of Agricuture Sonny Perdue due to drought. The recent rainfall certainly has been a welcomed relief.

Despite the difficulties, there are some real bright spots in South Carolina’s agricultural economy.

First, we are nearing the end of the second year of the state’s Hemp Farming Program.

After the legislature and Gov. Henry McMaster expanded our program in March, we licensed 114 farmers to plant 3,700 acres of hemp — quite a big step up from last year’s 20 farmers and 400 acres. Several of the 114 farmers are in the Orangeburg area. We’ve essentially built a program from the ground up, and I know we have a lot more to do.

'Survival-mode year': Drought, heat reduce yields for Orangeburg County crops

Recently we’ve been particularly focused on licensing hemp processors so that farmers can secure profitable markets for their hemp crop, and I believe that is paying off in terms of both competitive pricing and better guidance for farmers. The primary lesson working with this new crop is to have patience waiting for answers on regulations from U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration in Washington.

It’s not just in the area of hemp that we’re focused on business development.

We’re working constantly to recruit and develop new industries in the agribusiness sector. Our Agribusiness Center for Research and Entrepreneurship (ACRE) program is in its second year, helping innovative farmers develop their businesses through grants, training, and FarmLink, which connects people who need land to those who have it. The research coming through the ACRE initiative will help find solutions to a variety of issues impacting agriculture going forward.

Want to get a whole lot more from TheTandD.com?

As some international markets present challenges, others present opportunities.

I recently traveled to both the United Kingdom and Egypt to develop trading relationships between those countries and South Carolina.

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As the UK prepares to exit the European Union – the event popularly known as Brexit – the country is working to develop unilateral trade relationships. Their immediate focus includes a free trade agreement with the U.S.

I was one of five state commissioners of agriculture invited as guests of the British Embassy to discuss some opportunities. It was interesting to hear from national leaders in London, but also very informative to get out in the country to visit with farmers.

Egypt was next, and what a different and fascinating place it was. There are 100 million people in Egypt, many of them facing a nutrition challenge, and the government is working creatively to address their future needs.

I toured SoyVen, a soybean-crushing facility that’s a joint venture between Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, and met with officials there in Alexandria. The Port of Charleston is probably the closest U.S. port to the SoyVen facility – closer than the Port of New Orleans, through which SoyVen is getting much of its soybean supply — so we discussed opportunities for future supply.

Our group also had the opportunity to meet with the president of Egypt. He was very well versed in South Carolina trade and agricultural products, and I hope our talk paved the way for some future exchange.

Another big victory for South Carolina farmers this year is the focus by the Trump administration on expanding broadband internet access in rural areas.

In October, Secretary of Agriculture Perdue came to Orangeburg to announce $9.75 million in matching funds for a project that will extend high-speed internet access to new areas of rural Orangeburg County.

While he was here, Secretary Perdue visited a farm in the new expanded broadband territory. They told us that they had invested in precision agriculture equipment, but were unable to use it without high-speed internet. I can only imagine this was what it was like in the 1930s with rural electrification.

Of course, the S.C. Department of Agriculture also has a regulatory role, and we’ve made some positive changes this year.

Peanut growers sell their crops at buying points staffed by inspectors from our department, and we made some changes to attract and recruit a more stable workforce to serve those farmers.

We also began inspecting large produce farms this year under a federal law passed in 2012, after several years of outreach and education. I can report positive results from that project, and I think it shows we all have a common goal of feeding people safely and efficiently while helping farmers make a living.

South Carolina’s strong agricultural traditions provide a base for a bright future. The statistics also bear that out.

With the release of USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, we learned that the proportion of women farmers in South Carolina is growing, and is higher than the national average. Also, around 19% of South Carolina farms have a principal producer who’s served in the military. 

How can you help keep South Carolina farms strong?

One is by buying local with your food dollars. Our Certified South Carolina program is in its 12th year, and through it we’ve pumped money back into our state economy and introduced South Carolinians to fresh, delicious local food.

Use the S.C. Department of Agriculture to help you stay close to agriculture. Our website, agriculture.sc.gov, is pretty informative, and you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Another way is to take advantage of the Monday farm-related stories in The Times and Democrat. Through those, you can stay informed on the challenges facing our farmers in the future.

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Hugh Weathers of Bowman is S.C. commissioner of agriculture.

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