As we near the end of October, it’s shaping up to be a pretty good harvest in South Carolina.

Yields and acreage were high in 2021, and they’re high again this year.

I expect Hurricane Ian damaged our cotton crop slightly in some areas, but we were on track for a good year.

Meanwhile, soybeans and peanut production are both forecast above last year, while corn had inconsistent yields and tobacco is looking OK. It’s encouraging to see that the long-term trajectory is positive as we continue to improve yields and farm more efficiently.

Of course, for that positive trajectory to continue, we need to ensure there are people to do the hard work of farming 10, 20 and 50 years from now. We have to develop an expanded agribusiness workforce and a stronger pipeline of agriculture talent.

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You’ve heard me note before that the average age of a farmer in South Carolina is 57.5. Those older farmers won’t be around forever. I hope that by inspiring more young people to farm, and helping out the ones who are starting or taking over farms, we can ensure a strong future for the state’s largest industry.

We need more students not only studying agriculture and related fields, but we need to help lower some of the barriers for new and beginning farmers get into the business.

There are many ways the state agriculture industry works to inspire young people.

Our SC Farm to School program, a partnership with the Department of Education, helps teachers with agriculture learning resources and establishing school farms, and helps nutrition programs get more local food into cafeterias. We’re big supporters of the new Governor’s School for Agriculture at John De La Howe, and we jointly manage the annual South Carolina Commissioner’s School for Agriculture program with Clemson University.

Our Agribusiness Center for Research and Entrepreneurship, created in 2017, is also essential to nurturing new entrepreneurs.

Through the curriculum program, we help train people to develop a business plan, market their business, navigate regulations and other essential skills. The ACRE program also gives grants to support innovative agriculture businesses that can help change the agricultural landscape in the future.

We are building relationships with our land-grant universities and technical colleges to create career pathways and technical training programs. The South Carolina Department of Agriculture also works with the S.C. Department of Commerce to bring more business to the state and create more jobs, especially in rural areas.

But we can do more.

We’re proposing to the governor and the General Assembly to create an agribusiness development fund to help attract new investment to the state and build on what’s here now.

Encouraging nontraditional farmers is also important to our farming future.

South Carolina has a higher percentage of female farmers than the national average. To help serve this population, we’re sponsoring the new SC Women in Agriculture Network and its inaugural conference.

South Carolina also has a large number of military veterans, and we are working with the Farmer Veteran Coalition of South Carolina and Project Victory Gardens to lead “Farmer Bootcamp” workshops for service members transitioning out of the military into an agribusiness career.

We’re also building bridges with the SC Black Farmers Coalition and others to help new and beginning African American farmers see a future for themselves in agriculture.

Besides new farmers and new workers, one of our most pressing immediate concerns is the need for more processing capacity in South Carolina. That’s especially true of beef processing. South Carolina’s meat-processing facilities can’t keep up with local beef producers’ processing needs. This is a priority for the proposed agribusiness development fund.

You’ll remember that during COVID, as larger national processing plants shut down, South Carolina facilities faced long backlogs and couldn’t keep up.

We recently helped a group of South Carolina cattle farmers form a cooperative association with the goals of increasing beef-processing capacity in South Carolina and jointly creating a South Carolina-branded beef product. This is through the South Carolina Center for Cooperative and Enterprise Development, a collaboration between our agency, Clemson University Cooperative Extension, the South Carolina State Small Business Development Center and Matson Consulting.

We’re putting resources toward helping the co-op apply for federal grants and seek state funding to expand existing capacity. More processing will also mean a need for more skilled workers to process and cut meat, so we’re working on that as well.

And, of course, more innovation and better technology will help keep agriculture sustainable in the Palmetto State.

I continue to believe that South Carolina is a natural fit for Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) because of our abundant sunshine and hot summers.

We’re seeing more and more indoor agriculture projects getting off the ground, including City Roots, a family-owned urban farm in Richland County, which is in the midst of a $4.4 million expansion to build a state-of-the-art microgreen production greenhouse and solar farm.

This expansion will create 60 new jobs over the next five years. Development of the Agriculture Technology Campus in Hampton County is also rolling again after clearing some COVID-related hurdles. This massive indoor agriculture project will create more than 300 jobs in this rural part of the state.

Our future certainly is bright, but we’ve got to keep working together to meet a long list of challenges.

I thank you for your continued support of our farmers.

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

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