In 2020, measured optimism for S.C. agriculture

In 2020, measured optimism for S.C. agriculture

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Farmers can be some of the most optimistic people I know and some of the most pessimistic people I know, sometime all at the same time — and for good reason.

Last year was another tough one that challenged even the most optimistic producers, but now that spring is around the corner, we’re ready to go out and do it all over again.

Just like most years, 2020 presents both challenges and opportunities for South Carolina’s farmers.

Here’s some of what I see going into the 2020 growing season.

Trade situation easing?

The last few years have been tumultuous when it comes to trade with China, with the U.S. government raising tariffs on a bunch of Chinese goods, and the Chinese government imposing tariffs in retaliation, particularly on U.S. agricultural exports like pork and soybeans.

The tariff situation is always fluid, but it feels to me like we’re making progress.

The “phase one” agreement announced in December is still vague, but China did commit to buying $32 billion in U.S. agricultural products over the next two years — and that’s a good starting point.

Now we’ll have to wait to see the impact that the coronavirus will have on trade with China.

In the meantime, there’s a lot of emphasis on diversifying trade so U.S. growers have options beyond China.

We’re looking to organizations like the Southern United States Trade Association, or SUSTA, to help develop overseas markets for small to medium-sized South Carolina companies — and we’re developing those relationships ourselves through our agribusiness economic development team.

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which our entire congressional delegation supported and President Donald Trump signed in January, is also a win for farmers, expanding the long and positive trade relationship between our three countries.

There are some issues in the fruit and vegetable component that we wish could have been better for our Southeastern U.S. farmers. And the U.S.-Japan Agreement is another piece of the international trade puzzle, easing tariffs on many agricultural and food products.

We have to hope the trade situation will improve, as the Market Facilitation Program payments that helped farmers through the trade war will wind down this year. Needless to say they were tremendous help to the impacted farmers in 2019 — but every farmer I know would prefer trade over aid.

State addresses disaster funding

Of course, sometime the challenges for our farmers come from the sky.

Hurricanes, floods and droughts have all taken their toll on South Carolina farms over the past few years.

This year, the South Carolina General Assembly is taking some important steps toward preparing for future disasters by working to create a mechanism for future disaster relief for farmers.

This way, the General Assembly wouldn’t have to set something up on the fly after a disaster like in the aftermath of the flood four years ago.

Food safety compliance

The federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was passed back in 2011, but many smaller farms only had to begin complying with the rule this year.

This law helps prevent contamination and improve traceability on farms, reducing the potential for food-borne illnesses.

We’ve been pleased with how the vast majority of South Carolina farmers have gotten on board with this law, attending training sessions and working with the SCDA team on readiness reviews and inspections.

Food safety and transparency are important to consumers, and we hope this helps them extend their trust in South Carolina farmers.

Hemp regulations evolving

This is the third year that South Carolina farmers can legally grow hemp, and the crop continues to present challenges for farmers and regulators alike.

We’re currently accepting applications for hemp farming, processing and handling permits for 2020.

While there’s no cap on the number of permits our agency can issue this year, I expect the costs and complexity of growing hemp and meeting state and federal regulations will continue to limit the number of people in the industry.

In the fall, USDA released its national regulatory framework for hemp. I have a few concerns about the plan, as do many South Carolina farmers.

USDA recently made a few concessions, such as relaxing the requirement that only Drug Enforcement Administration-registered labs can test hemp plants for THC — but there are other parts of the law that could also be a burden on farmers.

For example, in previous years, farmers could sample their own crop within 30 days before harvest, submit the samples for testing to a lab of their choice, and share the results with us.

Under the federal rule, SCDA staff has to do the sampling, all within 15 days of harvest. We’re staffing up to inspect and sample hemp crops, but it’s going to be a challenge.

Over the next few years, I think we’ll start to see the South Carolina hemp industry develop an identity all its own.

We’d like our crop from South Carolina to be known for quality and innovation. I admire the farmers who’ve taken a risk by growing hemp, and we’re committed to helping them succeed.

We’re not alone

In February, I went to Washington, D.C., for the Winter Policy meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture to talk with other state agriculture commissioners about some of these issues.

While South Carolina has some unique situations, in many cases, other states are going through the same thing we are, whether it’s regulating hemp or providing trade opportunities.

Farming is an uncertain business.

The optimist in me hopes it’s a positive year for all South Carolina farmers. They deserve one!

We’re committed at the S.C. Department of Agriculture to do our part to make it one.

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

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