Are you following the big race for state ag commissioner? No? You should be.
Most non-farming South Carolinians only hear about the agriculture commissioner when they see his name on gas station pumps. But the department does a lot more than check weights and measures, and the four candidates running this year have widely different views on how to run things. One of them, American Party candidate Emile DeFelice, says he would work to either shrink or eliminate the Department of Agriculture.
Is that a crazy idea or a prudent cost-cutting measure? Well, let's take a look at what the Department of Agriculture actually does.
The Department of Agriculture, created by the General Assembly in 1879, works with the USDA to certify and grade produce, poultry, eggs, and grains. It runs a food laboratory to inspect food and seeds for safety. And the department's Agribusiness Development Program works to lure companies to the state that will buy and use South Carolina produce.
In perhaps his most visible action from nine years in office, incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers created Certified S.C. Grown, a branding and promotional campaign for South Carolina produce. A second phase of the program, Fresh on the Menu, created a smartphone app to help consumers find restaurants and recipes that feature local meats and veggies.
The Department of Agriculture had a total budget of $16.6 million in the 2013-2014 fiscal year. According to recent estimates from the department, cash receipts for South Carolina crops and livestock are $2.5 billion a year, while agribusiness has a $34 billion economic impact and accounts for nearly 200,000 jobs.
While large-scale poultry, peach, and commodity crop farms still account for most of the state's agriculture business, farmers and industry experts agree that our farms are changing.
You can see one of the changes at Legare Farms, a 289-year-old farm on Johns Island, which now makes more money on agritourism than it does on agriculture. When crop prices fell during the Great Recession, the Legare family found creative uses for their 300 acres of land, from putting on gourmet harvest dinners to hosting summer day camps and Civil War re-enactments. Farmer Helen Legare-Floyd says one of the most important things the Department of Agriculture does for her farm is its Agritourism and Tourist Oriented Directional Signage Program, which helps direct tourists to cotton fields, plantations, and other points of interest.
Aside from the tourist boom, Legare-Floyd says she's also seen a new movement in Lowcountry agriculture: Small farms are cropping up on tiny tracts of land, specializing in hyperlocal food production and gourmet ingredients. "I think the future of South Carolina agriculture is these little hippie farms," Legare-Floyd says.
Whoever takes over as commissioner will have to take into account the needs of both large-scale and tiny farms. Hot-button issues this election include getting more local produce into grocery stores, recruiting young farmers, and finding ways to stock school cafeterias with locally grown vegetables.
The Republican primary will be June 10. The general election will be Nov. 4.
Emile DeFelice (American)
Emile DeFelice previously ran against Weathers as a Democrat in 2006, but this time he's running on the newly created American Party ticket. The biggest plank in his campaign platform is sure to turn some heads.
"The Department of Agriculture should be drastically reduced, if not eliminated," DeFelice says. "How in the hell are we advertising and paying for all this marketing for ultimately private businesses?"
DeFelice is no outsider when it comes to promoting agriculture. As founder of the Soda City Farmers Market in downtown Columbia, the former heritage pork farmer from St. Matthews has been boosting local produce for nearly 10 years now. But he says marketing is the job of private industry, not government.
"Do we have a Department of Automobiles because BMW makes cars? Do we operate furniture warehouses? It's the only government department we have that's dedicated solely toward a single private industry," DeFelice says.
As for the Department of Agriculture's laboratory work, DeFelice says it could be shifted over to the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Weights and measures? "Hire it out to a private contractor, third party. Nobody does it better than business people," he says.
DeFelice says the department ought to encourage farmers to be more business-savvy. "That's what I do. I spend every day helping over 300 small businesses do better vendor income," DeFelice says. "That is my record, and I am first and foremost running on my record."
As for farm-to-school initiatives, DeFelice says they're a good idea, but the Weathers administration has been too slow in rolling them out. "It was a good idea nine years ago when I started running for 2006," DeFelice says. He says he would also like to create a land-link program to connect new farmers with old farms.
David Edmond (United Citizens)
Growing up in Lexington County, David Edmond remembers gardening with his parents and picking peanuts with his aunt. He joined the U.S. Army as a veterinary food inspector, serving part of his time on a peacekeeping mission on the Sinai Peninsula. After retiring from the military, he moved to Batesburg-Leesville, went to college at Allen University, and became ordained as a Methodist minister. He says he's currently "semi-retired" from the ministry, but he's looking to write a third act for his life in the role of agriculture commissioner.
"For me, the conversation is, how do we have what we have now and increase the dollars and bring more persons into the conversation, stakeholders? And I can't think of a better place where there can be some job creation," Edmond says.
As commissioner, Edmond says he would encourage farmers to look into new ventures like wineries, and he would seek to bring more food canneries to South Carolina. "We could do it here in some of the depressed places like in Allendale. I pastored down there, and there are some empty warehouses down there," Edmond says.
Edmond also says the Department of Agriculture should look into attracting businesses that produce alternative forms of fuel.
"A leader is not afraid. A leader, in my opinion, welcomes ideas, and with good common sense will be able to determine whether it's a good idea or a bad idea," Edmond says. "That's the kind of person I've been. That's the kind of person I will continue to be."
Edmond previously ran for a seat on the Richland District 1 school board in 2011.
Joe Farmer (Republican) (Update: Farmer was defeated in the Republican primary.)
In addition to having the world's best name for an agriculture commissioner, Greenville's Joe Farmer has big ideas for South Carolina farms. He works in marketing and sales for the pharmaceutical company Actavis, and he says his experience will help him teach farmers how to better market their products.
For starters, he says farmers need to get their products into supermarkets, not just farmers' markets and roadside stands. "I don't think small farmers can survive on the side of the road," Farmer says. While he realizes that small-time farmers can't keep up with the volume demand of a national grocery chain, he says he could work with individual grocery managers to make local produce a feasible option.
"My initiative is to go to these chains and say, 'We don't have one farmer who can do this, but we have this group of farmers,'" Farmer says.
Farmer says he would also like to expand the Certified S.C. Grown program with a "Know Your Farmer" campaign that tells consumers more about the individual farmers who produce their food. And he's bullish on the idea of farm-to-school, which he says would start with educating district cafeteria managers on how to source and prepare local foods.
Farmer says he sees an opportunity for growth in the timber industry in South Carolina and would encourage landowners to enter contracts with timber companies. "We've got a lot of land that is not being used for anything, that is just overgrown," Farmer says. "If we work with these landowners, we can say, 'Hey, if you supply the land, we'll hook you up with the companies.'"
One other idea: Why not grow hops? Sierra Nevada is building a massive new brewery in Asheville, N.C., and Farmer sees an opportunity for farmers to sell local hops.
"It's a matter of showing somebody you have the land, you have the availability," Farmer says. "If we can have some education, that's a valuable use of this land."
Hugh Weathers (Republican)
Hugh Weathers was appointed as interim commissioner of agriculture in September 2004 and has since been re-elected twice to the position. A third-generation dairy farmer from Bowman who also co-owns the bulk milk delivery service Weathers Trucking, Inc., he says his experience as a farmer and businessman has helped him run the department efficiently.
In addition to creating Certified S.C. Grown, Weathers has taken an interest in small farms in recent years. His department commissioned a 2013 report titled "Making Small Farms into Big Business" that found more than 90 percent of the food South Carolinians buy is sourced from out of state. The report recommended creating three regional "food hubs" modeled after Charleston's GrowFood Carolina to manage produce distribution for wholesale, retail, and institutional sales.
Weathers says he also works as an advocate for curtailing onerous federal regulations that affect farmers. "We play a lot of defense behind the scenes that the public just doesn't become aware of," Weathers says. For example, he says he successfully curtailed EPA regulations that would have affected farmers' property holdings by expanding the definition of "waters of the state" and a Department of Labor regulation that was "going too far with child protection of kids working on neighbors' farms or uncles' farms."
When it comes to recruiting young farmers, Weathers says he has had success with the Commissioner's School for Agriculture, a program at Clemson University that has enrolled well over 300 students.
Weathers has also been working on a farm-to-school initiative. A pilot program in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control put local produce in 51 pilot schools last year, and he says the results were encouraging. "The results showed positive potential for the economics of agriculture," Weathers says. "I will make a strong push working with other agencies around that."
Weathers says he prefers to stay behind the scenes and is not a big self-promoter. "I do those things, but I don't attach my name to them," he says. "I just get results."