Agriculture and food groundbreakers explore South Carolina’s past and future
CLEMSON — Five of South Carolina’s top experts in agriculture and food systems recently convened on the campus of Clemson University for a lively discussion designed to explore the state’s future, while at the same time revering its past.
The prestigious panel focused on several topics, including building on South Carolina’s historic agricultural foundation, enhancing new growth and identifying what niches the state will occupy in the 21st century. The conclusion? South Carolina agriculture is bursting with potential.
“My intention was to get really sharp and visionary people here and use their expertise and insights to help build Clemson’s educational and research opportunities in agriculture and food systems that fit in with the broader and future needs of South Carolina,” said Stephen Kresovich, Coker Chair and director of Clemson’s Institute of Translational Genomics. “We talked to each other about ideas, opportunities and challenges, and we looked at how past experiences inform future visions in our state.”
Joining Kresovich were David Shields, Carolina distinguished professor and agriculture historian; Glenn Roberts, president of Anson Mills, based in Columbia; Scott Blackwell, president of High Wire Distilling in Charleston; and Hanna Raskin, food editor and chief critic for the Post and Courier in Charleston.
The invitation-only event included an audience of about 100 participants representing agriculture, agribusiness, horticulture and food science, as well as representatives from Slow Food Upstate, Feed and Seed, Furman, Greenville Tech, Tri-County Tech and Clemson University.
After introductions, Shields was the first to take center stage. The nationally recognized agriculture sleuth spoke extensively about a revival in Southern cuisine that has been growing in scope and enthusiasm over the past decade. One of the leaders of this resurgence is the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, which is based in Charleston and was founded to advance the sustainable restoration and preservation of a variety of heirloom grains.
“This effort arose from the realization that the Lowcountry of South Carolina — until the mid-20th century— had its own particular cuisine. But sadly, this cuisine eventually declined into mere cookery,” said Shields, author of “Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine.”
“Very few places in the world achieve a cuisine, which is a practice of cookery whose superlative qualities are generally recognized. And we understand cuisine the way French people understand it — as a culinary expression of a growing system that has been matured over generations and shaped by interchanges between country vernacular and urban professional styles of cookery.”
Shields, chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, said that by the end of the past century, most of the ingredients that had made up Southern cuisine had vanished, leaving chefs with a set of great recipes but without the ingredients to achieve the desired flavor and vitality. Lost were such delicacies as Carolina Gold rice, Purple Ribbon sugarcane, Carolina African runner peanut, Sea Island Red Pea and Bradford watermelon, to name a few.
“Was there a way to revisit the glory that had been?” said Shields, who later that afternoon gave an extensive lecture on “The Future of Flavor” at the Strom Thurmond Institute. “The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation was cognizant that many of the offerings in the old seed catalogues had passed from the American fields and gardens for good reasons. We did not buy into the mystique of the antique. Instead, we favored only those items essential to growing systems that had deep applications for long periods of time, possessed solid agronomic values and were famed for their flavor and culinary versatility.”
Under Roberts’ direction, Anson Mills produces organic landrace grain, legume and oilseed ingredients grown on more than 100 farms across America for more than 4,000 chefs worldwide. To support this, Anson Mills grows all its own seed and works with such scientists as Kresovich, Merle Shepard and Brian Ward at Clemson University to maintain a pure landrace seed system.
“We do not sell seed, we donate it free of charge with no conditions except that the seed is planted and managed sustainably,” Roberts said. “This year alone, we have donated more than 160 tons of landrace seed to farmers across America. We believe this model is best for the future of American food and agriculture. This food is extraordinary and remarkably flavorful. And with heirloom crops, flavor equals nutrition. It’s the mission of Anson Mills to actually grow and feed — not just dream about it.”
Blackwell, who began his multifaceted food-business career by baking pies in his college apartment, is fascinated by how the quality of an ingredient — and its accompanying historical context — can affect the final product.
“Taste always wins — well, usually, that is,” said Blackwell, who was talked into founding High Wire Distilling by his wife. “If you start with quality ingredients, you should end up with something good. It isn’t about buying the cheapest stuff so that you can make the most profit. It’s about using cool and unique ingredients in the beginning to produce cool and unique flavors at the end. Before we got into distilling, I thought alcohol was alcohol, but since then I’ve been impressed with how much of the flavor of the raw ingredients comes through during distillation.”
Raskin, who has been the food critic at the Post and Courier for two years, believes American eaters are increasingly taking their culinary cues from foreign cuisines.
“I want to hear about people reaching back to other times in our state’s history. Are you reviving a craft? Are you going to other places on our planet and finding things that will grow here?” said Raskin, referring to the stories she encourages farmers to share with the media. “Chefs today are starting to borrow more ingredients from Africa and other regions of the world. As that practice continues, there will be many opportunities to grow exciting new things that will feed the nation’s appetite.”
Kresovich has long recognized the challenges and opportunities that exist between culture and agriculture. He believes it is crucial to collaborate with the brightest, most thoughtful and energetic people and also to work to engage stakeholders at the start of a project, not at its completion.
“I want to play with winners. I want to play on a great team like the Clemson Tigers,” Kresovich said. “One of the most exciting things about being in South Carolina is the quality, breadth and positive attitude of the people who cover the vast range of domains of agriculture and food systems. The skillset, energy and opportunity are here, and the results will speak for themselves. I am encouraged that the agriculture and food systems of South Carolina will have a bright and interesting future in the 21st century.”