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Clemson’s Coastal REC Vegetable Research Aims to Bolster Bottom Line for S.C. Farmers

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Improving sustainability and profitability is crucial for South Carolina vegetable growers, and the fields of Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center are teeming with research to help them do just that.

At the 2019 Coastal REC Field Day in June, the state’s producers had an opportunity to peek behind the curtain, tour the fields firsthand and learn about the latest scientific work being done to provide them with the tools to bolster their bottom lines.

Corey Harmon, director of vegetable operations at Titan Farms in Ridge Spring, said he made the trek to Charleston for the event because being informed on new techniques and trends in vegetable production is essential not only for his company, but for growers across the Midlands region and state.

“If you’re not learning while you’re farming then you’re backing up; there are always new things on the horizon,” Harmon said. “It’s just good information. You have a lot of people (at Coastal REC) who have a lot of experience, so any little bit that I can learn I feel like I’m accomplishing something. I’m helping Titan Farms out, I’m helping the area out, our part of South Carolina, where some of our other farmers in the area who might not be available to go and get that information, it’s something I can bring back and be able to help everybody out.”

The event featured a tractor tour of the farm with two tour options — conventional or emerging farmer/organic tour — as well as updates on hemp, low tunnel research, eggplant cultivar trials, stale bed weed management and companion planting for pollinators.

Clemson Extension Food Systems and Safety associate Chad Carter told those in attendance about a training program offered by Extension in partnership with the S.C. Department of Agriculture to educate farmers on the new produce safety rule, which establishes science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption, as well as on-farm readiness reviews for those who have completed the program.

“What that looks like is the USDA, with me or the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, will come on farm and do kind of a pre-inspection walkthrough to make sure you are ready for the produce safety rule,” Carter said. “Those on-farm readiness reviews are off-book. Any notes that we take or any notes that we make, we leave on farm, so that there is no record of that.”

Richard Hassell, assistant Coastal REC director and Extension vegetable specialist, talked about how scientists have taken research in grafted plants to the next level with a new rootstock cultivar for watermelons called Carolina Strongback.

“It is a fabulous rootstock that is getting international attention — Australia, Mexico, as well as the U.S. … so we’re very excited about that,” Hassell said. “It’s the first U.S. cultivar that has been released for rootstock material. It has resistant tolerance to all ranges of Fusarium (a fungus that causes watermelon to wilt) so far and also has tolerance to root knot nematodes, which is a major, major concern.”

Carolina Strongback material can now be used by seed companies, vegetable grafting companies and watermelon growers as a rootstock for growing susceptible watermelon cultivars in soils infested by Fusarium wilt pathogen and root-knot nematodes.

Also presenting at the field day were Matt Cutulle, vegetable weed scientist at Coastal REC, on proactive weed control strategies for use in production when applying selective post-emergent herbicides to apply in-season isn’t an option; Tony Keinath, Clemson University vegetable pathologist, on six varieties of eggplant that were being used in a field trial; graduate research assistant Sean Toporak on methods in watermelon production for controlling Pythium, a soil-borne plant pathogen that causes root rot and stem rot in watermelon; and Monica Farfan, postdoctoral research associate, on companion planting to attract beneficials in annual vegetable specialty crops.

For Harmon, however, his collaboration with Clemson’s agricultural experts goes far beyond the field day demonstrations, as he has frequently worked with research scientist Brian Ward on such topics as “the East Coast broccoli push” and consulted with Extension agents Zack Snipes, Justin Ballew and Sarah Scott for the latest information on trends and threats to the state’s vegetable crops.

“They do a big service for us and it helps us out greatly,” he said.

Specifically, Harmon said Titan Farms has also worked closely with Clemson on new techniques that can help the company improve as stewards of soil and environmental health while also saving on its bottom line by decrease fertilizer use by using cover-cropping to add nitrogen to the soil.

While Titan Farms is a thriving, large-scale operation — the largest peach grower on the East Coast with more than 6,200 acres of peaches in production — Harmon said the research discussed at  the field day was just as critical, if not more so, for smaller farms.

“When you get to the end of the day and you say, ‘These are little things we did that are going to save us money,’” he said. “There’s not a lot of money in places like Ridge Spring for farming, so it’s one of those things where if we work together and we find a way to help us all out, then I’m all for it. There are farms going out of business because all these chemical companies are just going through the roof on some of their chemicals that are required to use for some crops, and small farms just can’t afford to do it that way.

“If we can find another way around it, if we can rent the field off and plant clover for grow season and we just increase the nitrogen in the soil and we’re bringing pollinators back into the area, there’s so many different things that that helps, it’s a win-win situation all the way around.”

Of the event as a whole, Snipes, Extension area horticulture agent for Charleston and Beaufort counties, said partnering with farmers all over the state and sharing the benefits of the latest scientific research to improve both sustainability and profitability on their farms is the essence of Extension’s mission and the land-grant university system.

“It takes partnerships, collaboration and trust between growers, Extension and research to make production changes,” Snipes said. “Those production changes can improve the growers bottom line all the while improving our environmental sustainability and creating a healthier South Carolina for our citizens.”

Written by Steven Bradley, Clemson University Media Relations.