Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes grown at the Clemson University Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville during a trial planting of one of the crop’s varieties in 2018. About 500 or more acres of sweet potatoes are projected to be planted in 2019 in The T&D Region, which would be an increase from 2018.

If contending with Mother Nature is not difficult enough, fruit and vegetable growers in The T&D Region will have several new regulations and laws to contend with this year when trying to grow their produce.

New trade agreements, trucking regulations, temporary worker programs and water-use restrictions will tag team the produce farmers, according to Dr. Gilbert Miller, Clemson Extension area vegetable specialist.

The North American Free Trade Agreement is gone, replaced by the United States, Mexico, Canada Agreement (USMCA).

"The Produce Marketing Association had hoped for some new provisions addressing seasonal products such as watermelons, tomatoes and peppers,  particularly early season imports from Mexico," Miller said. "Although many sectors of U.S. agriculture saw improved market access due to USMCA, not a lot changed for the fresh fruit and vegetable industry in the Southeast."

Then there are the changes in trucking regulations requiring truckers to use electronic logging devices (ELD).

"Truckers have less flexible 'road time' under the ELD mandate," Miller said. "Consequently, the cost of shipping produce from some farms to terminal markets has roughly doubled in cost – from $2,400 for 40,000 pounds (watermelon load) of produce to more than $5,000," Miller said.

Miller noted the cost is relative to the distance shipped.

There have also been changes in both the H-2A and H-2B temporary worker visa programs.

The H-2A program allows employers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis to fill positions for agricultural work for which domestic labor cannot be found, Miller said. The H-2B program does the same but for non-agricultural work.

"The H-2A program is used extensively for more labor-intensive seasonal agricultural work like picking fruits and vegetables," he said. "Often, it proves impossible for producers to find American workers to fill the needed positions."

The challenge in 2019 will be that the use of temporary workers provided by the H-2A program has increased significantly throughout the Southeast.

"The demand for H-2A workers will probably exceed the availability in 2019," Miller said. "The H-2A agriculture employers are among the most heavily regulated and monitored employers in the U.S."

Finally, he said, the recently approved Western Capacity Use Area (WCUA) designation for counties for The T&D Region -- as well as Aiken, Allendale, Barnwell and Lexington counties -- will be in play.

"The vast majority of the fruit and vegetable growers in the above counties use drip irrigation and consequently are very conservative in their application of water," he said. "The new regulations should not be a problem for fruit and vegetable growers – just more paper work."

Watermelons

Watermelon acreage will be about the same as last year, around 3,000 acres for the tri-county area, including spring and fall plantings.

"There has been a slight increase in production of the firm-fleshed seedless watermelons for the cut market," Miller said. "Also, late season fall watermelon production continues to slightly increase."

Miller noted south Georgia suffered greatly from the 2018 hurricanes, as many of the area's cotton producers ended up growing watermelons.

"Because of the tremendous revenue lost on destroyed cotton this past year, some of the south Georgia growers will be opting out of producing watermelons in 2019," Miller said. "No crystal ball on my end, but if there is a decrease in production south of us, just maybe our watermelon prices will be improved."

The EREC will once again have Watermelon Field Day on July 11, with close to 50 different watermelon varieties for Field Day participants to view and taste.

Cantaloupe

Acreage will be about the same as 2018 at approximately 1,000.

"We might see a slight decrease as the consumer demand for cantaloupe has dropped somewhat over the past couple of years," Miller said. 

Unlike with watermelons, he said growers will make multiple plantings in hopes of having a constant supply of cantaloupes through the market season.

"The most widely planted cantaloupe variety will remain the same," he said. "It has been the dominant eastern shipping cantaloupe for a couple of decades now. There are some other cantaloupe varieties being tested which have an extremely long shelf life."

The EREC will have some newer cantaloupe varieties for viewing and tasting at the July 11, Field Day, Miller said.

Cucumbers and squash

Miller expects The T&D Region to have a couple hundred acres of each crop planted in 2019.

"There will be both spring and fall plantings, although the fall plantings are very susceptible to virus problems, which can cause poorly formed and discolored fruit," he said.

Also, like cantaloupe, planting dates will be staggered to provide season long-harvests, Miller said.

Sweet potatoes

This year should see about 500 or more acres of fresh-market sweet potatoes planted in the area.

"There is also significant commercial acreage of organic sweet potatoes and substantial acreage of sweet potatoes being grown for the processing market," Miller said. "Sweet potato acreage planted for processing could increase in 2019."

The EREC will once again be testing new sweet potato varieties developed at the U.S. Department of Agriculture research facility in Charleston.

"We will also be screening sweet potatoes for herbicide carryover and looking at different herbicide treatments to control weeds in sweet potatoes," he said.

A big player in the sweet potato market for 2019 could be a new sweet potato pest, a highly aggressive root-knot nematode, Meloidogyne enterolobii, Miller said.

"This new nematode has been positively identified in one county in South Carolina (not in the tri-county area)," he said. "It has also been identified in Louisiana but is considered to be widespread across the North Carolina sweet potato growing area."

Miller said the new nematode causes high rates of infection on the roots of host plants and more severe galling than other nematodes.

"The North Carolina Department of Agriculture has established an interior quarantine for all 100 counties for the pest," Miller said. "Under the quarantine, regulated articles are prohibited from movement to non-quarantined states unless they meet the conditions specifically outlined in the official declaration."

"The quarantine is effective immediately and does not affect the movement of fresh market potatoes," he continued. "The fresh-market sweet potatoes from N.C. can have the nematodes within the market potato."

Greens and sweet corn

Miller said he does not expect a significant change in acreage of either crop in 2019.

"Most of the commercial green acreage is in the Santee area," he said. "Most of the sweet corn planted is grown mainly for local or farmers market sales."

Strawberries and blueberries

Miller said in The T&D Region, there are mostly pick-your-own strawberries totaling about 50 acres.

"Acreage might be slightly down this year," he said. "Last year was not kind to strawberry growers. The excessive rain and freeze during flowering and early fruit set hurt several fields of strawberries."

Pick-your-own blueberries are also scattered throughout the region.

"Most of the commercial acreage, including organic, is in Hampton County," Miller said.

Peaches

Miller noted the big thing heading into 2019 for peaches is hoping the area does not suffer from a late freeze during peach bloom as it did in 2017.

"The peach harvest in 2018 showed a significant improvement over the mostly 2017 lost crop," Miller said.

Miller said the peach trees this winter have seen an adequate amount of chill hours that should help the crop grow and set fruit.

"A chill hour is equal to one hour that a fruit tree spends in cooler temperatures, ranging from 32 degrees to 45 degrees Fahrenheit," Miller said. "For most of the tri-county area, we have accumulated around 900 chilling hours (through Feb 18)."

"Hopefully by bloom time, we will have received the 1,100 chilling hours needed for some of the late-season varieties," he said.

Miller noted chilling requirements for peach variety range from 600 hours to 1,100 hours.

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Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.

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Staff Writer

Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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