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Growing farmers

  • Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Williamsburg County generates nearly $50 million in agriculture-related business. In order to continue to thrive in the ever-expanding agribusiness, the next generation must be encouraged: beginning with a fundamental awareness of its importance and enlightenment through education in the classroom. PHOTO BY MICHAELE DUKE

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Farming isn’t what it used to be. In fact, the term farming has morphed into agriculture and more recent agribusiness. Agriculture is the nation’s largest employer with more than 23 million jobs.

The depth farming spams include processing and distribution, mechanics and engineering, science and research and the list goes on and on. In fact, new Ag-based economy is related to over 300 diverse careers. Data for Williamsburg County shows we are worth between $40 and $50 million, in the top 10 percent for tobacco, grains, soybeans, corn for grain and cotton acres, following a career in agriculture is a no brainer.

However, so much focus has been on health care and manufacturing has placed agriculture on the backburner. In order to rekindle the interest in our youth, one must begin a long time before college and that was the theme of a recent meeting of minds.

The Williamsburg County School District hosted a roundtable focused on growing agriculture within the system. Key speakers included Billy Keels, State Director of Agriculture, Clemson University, Teri Luther, Apprenticeship Carolina, SC Technical College Systems and Kenneth Sales, Williamsburg County Economic Development.

The school district curriculum is lacking in the specific programs that support such a thriving industry. Williamsburg County is one of the four counties left in the state that does not offer the program. In the past, C.E. Murray, Kingstree, Hemingway High Schools, and the career center have offered the program. Superintendent Yvonne Jefferson-Barnes is onboard with the idea.

Scott Williamson is a commissioner on the local Natural Resources Conservation Service Board.

Williamson spoke on the industry that contributes $40 million into the state’s economy. “When you have that kind of money coming into and through our economy, how can you not try to encourage interest?” said Williamson. “We’re one of four counties in the state that don’t have anything, but yet, $50 million comes into our economy because of it? Well, we’re just missing the boat here.”

Eileen Patonay, Waccamaw Regional Education Center Coordinator for Williamsburg, Georgetown and Horry counties agrees with Williamson. “It is imperative because there is a future when you see the figures,” said Patonay. “When you look at these and trends and growth in our economy, sustainability for us is going to be through agriculture.” Patonay said the program would be wide-ranging. “The focus with this program is going to be ways that we can grow, not just economically, but socially and environmentally sustainable. It’s not just about working in the fields. It’s processing and distribution, engineering, science horticulture.” Patonay pointed to Myrtle Beach and its vast array of golf courses and the Myrtle Beach Pelican’s, which is the farm team of the Texas Rangers to make her point. “The Myrtle Beach Pelican’s field is an award winning turf,” said Patonay. “All of the golf courses - you could work in agriculture on turf management in professional sports. There is just so much out there, so much opportunity.” The only caveat: Funding and qualified teachers. Funding is based on student population, poverty and census data. Teacher contracts are allocated annually through the state legislature; however, qualified teachers are hard to come by.

Clemson, which is the hub of the program, is working with several school districts. Clemson will pay a portion and the school is obligated for the balance.

Williamsburg County Superintendent Yvonne Jefferson-Barnes attended the meeting and is on board with the idea. “What they are willing to do is to work with the system to assist us in securing at least a teacher to begin the program,” said Jefferson-Barnes who is in hopes to eventually have a teacher in each district high school.

Jefferson-Barnes believes the program will ultimately benefit the county in many ways. “Because we are such a significant landmass area it would be a strong way to pull our students back - those that leave us and go to college and major in areas of this nature would have an opportunity to come back and find employment. Many of them could even create their own employment opportunities.”

Robbie Watts is a local farmer. He and wife Nina are raising three children on land that saw its first tobacco planted by his father David. Robbie said though farming can be tough at times, it has been a rewarding way of life. “It’s harder now than it was when I was growing up because of technology and everything is so much bigger,” said Watts. “But it is important to have our kids interested at an early age.”

Watts may not realize it but he is cultivating more than crops. “I’ve driven the tractor a little bit, and the combine,” said the Watts’ eight-year-old son Emerson. “He sits with me. I bring daddy chemical jugs and I help take out the trash for mama.” Emerson’s youth masks an incredible knowledge of agriculture and at the same time illustrates the importance for the program. “You have to know how to add up the chemicals to put in the sprayer and you have to know how many gallons per acre,” said the fledgling mathematician.

It is predicted that the world population will grow from 7 billion to 9 billion in our lifetime. Scientists say we must double the amount of food we produce to meet the demand. To accomplish this, production must come from efficient technology. Looking at the big picture it is imperative that the groundwork is laid for future “farmers” who will continue to retain agriculture as the number one industry in South Carolina.

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