Reviving new opportunity from old crops

By Tom Hallman

Researcher in a fieldIf everything old really is new again, then South Carolina can prepare for a revival of a pair of near-forgotten crops.

They’re what Darlington County Extension agent Trish DeHond calls “the resurrected crops” – commodities with a proven pedigree that once profited producers and thrived in the Carolina climate. If not exactly household, their names intone a familiar flair: canola and milo.

“These are the comeback kids,” DeHond says. “They’re crops that have been grown here before. We have a track record with them. We’ve proved they grow well in our climate and soils and that we know how to produce successful yields. But until recently we haven’t recently had a market for them.”

No crop will survive long on the farm without a marketable purpose. In the case of these row crops, buyers have popped up in the coastal plain:

  • Milo, or grain sorghum, is finding a market as feed for livestock producers like Murphy-Brown LLC, just across the state line in Warsaw, N.C. Sorghum, a more drought-tolerant alternative to corn, can be used as a feed for poultry, hogs or cattle on the farm as well.
  • And just across the Savannah River in Bowersville, Ga., AgStrong LLC has built a crushing mill to process canola, an oilseed that – depending on its composition and processing – can be used either as a high-grade food oil in the kitchen or as an industrial lubricant.

“Each of them has its own niche at the moment, but people are watching them closely for their potential,” DeHond said. “If either of them develops a strong market, we want South Carolina agriculture to be in a position to take advantage of it.”

Both crops fit nimbly into the Palmetto State’s climate. The drought-tolerance of grain sorghum is handy during hot summer moths, particularly on the sandier soils of the Pee Dee region.

Canola – typically grown in colder climes over the summer – is cultivated in the winter months in Southern states, allowing farmers to get more production revenue from each acre on the farm. Like winter wheat, canola pairs nicely with a summer crop of soybeans.

Canola has an added benefit, DeHond said: Most of the equipment needed to tend and harvest it already sits in the average row-crop farmer’s barn.

“It’s about the same work as wheat,” said Johnny Tedder, a Darlington County farmer who grows 200 acres of canola for AgStrong. “I have a little more money in it (than in his wheat crop), but it’s easy to cut with the combine.”

Shortly after its development in Canada in the 1970s, Southern farmers experimented with canola briefly, but the market for it wasn’t sustained.

“We had a lot of growers who grew it back then, and some might have a bit of a bitter taste in their mouths having lost that market before,” DeHond said. “It’s all about making money. Farmers want crops that they can grow and sell. But a lot has happened since then. I think ‘cautious optimism’ is the watchword now.”

From the buyer’s point of view, the optimism is enthusiastic.

“From 20 years ago, the technology has just exploded,” said Mike Garland of AgStrong, who works with growers who contract with the company to grow canola. “This is the one of those times when Carolina agriculture can do it better. We can double the crop and get twice the yield of the Canadians.

“As a grad student I was excited about soybeans, but I’ve never been as excited about a crop as I am canola. It’s the right thing to do,” said Garland, a Hartsville, S.C., native who began his career as a soybean breeder in Iowa. “I want to be remembered for coming back from the Midwest to establish a new winter crop for my home.”

If the market strengthens and South Carolina farmers increase their acreage, Clemson Extension grains specialist David Gunter intends to be prepared.

Gunter is putting varieties of canola to the test in plots at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center near Florence to ensure that Clemson Extension has reliable recommendations for achieving the best yields and controlling pests of the plant.

“The question is which will perform better here, the spring or winter varieties. South Carolina is right on that break line,” he said. “What you want is to get away from is that freeze loss. If the flower freezes, nothing pollinates.”

South Carolina’s unpredictable winter weather reared its head in the trials, but Gunter has high hopes for a type called Flint, which he calls “an old stand-by variety.”

“Normally this comes off earlier than the wheat, so you can get your beans in or even plant cotton behind it,” he said. “We need something more like a normal winter to get some reliable results. But if more farmers make the decision to go with canola, we’ll be ready.”

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