Finding Young Farmers to Bear the Heat and Carry the Pitchfork

Jul 18, 2019

South Carolina's farming industry remains a stalwart economic engine. With approximately 25,000 farms over 4.9 million acres of land, the Palmetto State's agricultural community maintains its relevance in South Carolinians' day-to-day lives.

In a changing world, though, South Carolina's farming industry still continues to face the same old problems that it has for years.

A common denominator for a successful crop is the weather, and this equaled a negative for this year's summer produce crop in the Palmetto State. That's because a devastating late May heatwave brought temperatures up to a high of 100 degrees, causing extensive damage to popular crops like tomatoes, watermelons, squash, and corn.

Willie Capehart, a small truck crop farmer from Bamberg, South Carolina, said that both his squash and cucumbers received significant damage from the heat wave. Capehart said that he planted those crops two weeks late, but the rain did help. "The rain was good, but it came a little too late," he said. 

Luckily, small acreage and a well-established irrigation system helped Capehart's truck-crop farm during the rain spell. This is an advantage many farmers simply didn't have to keep their plants nurtured, though, Capehart said.

Running a larger-scale operation in South Carolina has been challenging for some farmers. Michael Cone, who runs a 2,500-acre farm in Allendale County, said that corn, one of his major cash crops, has wilted in the summer heat. Now, he finds himself selling unpopular crops at discounted prices.

While weather is a never ending concern for farmers, another new predicament could be on the horizon: a lack of young farmers eager to pick up the pitchforks passed down from an older generation. That's evidenced by the fact that the average age of a farmer in the state is 59.

Capehart illustrated the issue by describing an experience he had as a member of a young farmers' association. At the time, he was 50 years old. "I was considered a young farmer. That's a bad sign, we need young farmers going into farming," he said.

Hugh Weathers, the South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner, in front of an emblem certifying locally sourced South Carolina produce
Credit Thelisha Eaddy/SC Public Radio

Hugh Weathers, the South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture, expressed concern with the trend.  He said, "When you are my age, you know, who will be growing our food? Will they be doing it to the standards that we've come to expect in this country?"

With small and women-owned farms sprouting throughout South Carolina, Weathers hopes this newfound interest will spread to the next generation of farmers and help them find their green thumb in the Palmetto State.