Thursday, July 11, 2013

Charleston: Part 1

Below is an article I wrote for the Farm Bureau Spokesman as a recap on my trip to South Carolina to learn more about their Agriculture...enjoy!

On June 23rd – 25th I attended the Farm Bureau Campaign Managers trip to Charleston, South Carolina. The Iowa and South Carolina Farm Bureau organized some outstanding tours for us, allowing us to not only optimize our time while we were there, but our learning of their agriculture practices as well. I’m thankful for the opportunity to see Agriculture in a different part of the world, and will do my best to share some of my takeaways from our trip!  

On our first tour, we visited a 1,200 acre operation that had a rotation of corn, soybeans, peanuts and cotton. The corn fields were planted in mid-March (corn planned for silage was planted in January) and were fully tasseled which was an unfamiliar site compared to our crops at home! The average yield for corn in South Carolina is around 125 bu/acre. They have very sandy soils, so while they get an average rainfall of over 50 inches per year, this can cause a drought situation in a matter of two days. For example, two years ago they were hit by a drought. As a result, the average corn yield was 25 bu/acre and bean yield was 15 bu/acre. Last year they received more timely rains and averaged 130 bu/acre on corn and 45 bu/acre on beans. Corn harvest must happen by July, otherwise the insect pressure is unmanageable and they would have to spray the crop every day to try to save it.
Cornfields in South Carolina are quite a bit ahead of schedule when compared to Iowa's corn crop!
The cotton and peanut plants were just coming up as they had finished planting a couple weeks prior to our visit. Both crops require extremely warm soils before planting. Once the cotton plant is waist high, they spray a growth regulator on it to stunt the growth. The plant is able to produce a better yield, as well as make harvesting easier if the plant growth is controlled. They will harvest the cotton in October and November. Average yield is around 750 pounds/acre.
Photo of a John Deere cotton harvester. Fun fact - this was made in Iowa!

Cotton field.
Peanut acres have been on the rise in South Carolina since 2002 when there was a change in the U.S. Farm Bill. This change presented an opportunity for growers to plant more acres. South Carolina has the ideal soil suited for growing peanuts, so naturally farmers seized the opportunity. As the farmers explained to us; peanuts are the most profitable crop by far, they are easier to maintain, and they are a more resilient crop. But when it’s time to dig peanuts, producers must stop everything and dig peanuts! If they don’t harvest the peanuts at the exact time they are ready, they will drop off the plant the next day. Typical yield for peanuts will average around 3,200-3,400 pounds/acre and the price currently is around $540/ton.
The peanuts are dug up with a "digger" then harvested with this machine!

Peanut field.
Some of the most interesting things the farmers mentioned to us on this tour were:
  • It is typical to make at least 10 trips through these crops with a sprayer due to weed and insect pressure.
  • The average field size is only 20 acres due to the large amount of timber and wetlands in the area.
  • The government regulates which crop and how much of it they can plant each year.
All of these things made me realize we are fortunate here in Iowa!  
Knowing where land values are at in Iowa, I had to ask the question, “What is the going price of land around here?” The farmers both grinned and laughed as they mentioned they have been reading about our $20,000/acre land sales! They then explained land is selling for around $2,000/acre today. It was up to around $3,500/acre just a few years ago due to investors attempting to develop the land for housing and commercial property. However, these investors all “lost their shorts” as they explained it, and land has since gone back down to a price point to where their break-evens look more realistic and they can make money. They also told me the going rate for cash rent is around $40-50/acre and share cropping with landlords is common in the area.
Found a BIG chair at one of the roadside markets - if it wasn't for the humidity I might consider being a Southern Bell!
The second stop on our tour was one of the largest farming operations in South Carolina. This operation consisted of two brothers and their families. Together, they farm mostly tobacco, an assortment of vegetable crops, strawberries and honey, as well as operating a roadside marketplace where consumers can purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from their farm.
We spent the balance of the tour at the tobacco farm, which I found quite fascinating. We first went out to the field to see the planted tobacco plants. We moved from there to the farm where the greenhouses, processors, and drying houses are located. The tobacco seeds start out in a greenhouse in January where they grow approximately 6-8 inches tall. A small greenhouse, like the one we toured, will grow plants for about 120 acres. The farm we toured grew around 1400 acres of tobacco annually, so you can imagine how many greenhouses were at their farm! After they reach 6-8 inches, they are transplanted to the field where they are planted in beds. As you may know, tobacco is a very labor intensive crop. They hire crews of 30 plus people, in addition to their regular employees, to help out multiple times throughout the growing season to manage weeds, manually take blooms off each plant, harvest, etc. Tobacco producers typically pay higher cash rents which range anywhere from $50-$150/acre. They will harvest the tobacco plant three times in a growing season: the first time harvesting the bottom 25% of the leaves, the second time harvesting the middle 50% of the leaves, then the last time harvesting the top 25% of the leaves. Average yield for tobacco is around 2500 pounds/acre and the price is currently $2.00/pound.
Tobacco fields.
Tobacco harvester.

Drying house.

Greenhouse where the tobacco plants are started.

Dried tobacco leaves.
The last tours were at a fourth generation tomato farm and the USDA Vegetable Lab. More and more consumers are making the decision to buy local and South Carolina vegetable growers are jumping at the opportunity. As you might imagine, the climate and soil in South Carolina are very well suited to grow vegetables, however, the climate can also provide challenges as well. Due to the hot and humid nature of South Carolina, insects thrive in this environment. At the USDA Vegetable Lab, they are currently conducting research to help growers with this issue; however it continues to be an uphill battle to manage.
Heirloom tomatoes....YUM!!! Where's the basil, fresh mozzarella and balsamic glaze!?!
Some sweet signs from the different roadside markets we visited!
As it turns out, Iowa is not the only state with late crops and an abundance of moisture! One common theme we heard at each farm visit was every crop is at least three weeks late this year due to so much rain. As I mentioned earlier, South Carolina gets around 50 inches of rainfall per year. So far this year they’ve already had over 40 inches!
There is so much more to South Carolina’s agriculture that we didn’t have time to explore, but from what we did have the opportunity to see and experience, it’s a beautiful part of the world with a diverse agriculture influence!
Stay tuned for part 2 of my South Carolina experience. I'll give you a was a lot of fun!!!

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