COLUMBIA — Nearly 50 aspiring entrepreneurs look to turn their green thumbs into profitable agribusinesses through the South Carolina New and Beginning Farmer Program that begins Thursday.

The seven-month course concludes in May when participants complete business plans crafted through weeks of tutelage with experts from Clemson University, federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, and private enterprise.

The program aims to help meet a critical need for more farmers. Demand for food is rising sharply as farmers are nearing retirement. The average age of South Carolina farmers is 59 and rising, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two thirds of South Carolina farmers are over the age of 55, an increase of 4 percentage points from 2007.

“This program will provide participants the knowledge and tools necessary to become successful farm and food business managers. But it also will help them make the connections with the professionals they’ll need to know and with each other. By creating a shared space, we’re bringing together a network of beginning farmers who typically are out working in isolation otherwise,” said program director Dave Lamie, an associate professor and Extension specialist at Clemson.

The program boasts more than 150 alumni throughout the state, including Eric McClam, co-owner of City Roots, an organic urban farm in Columbia that supplies vegetables to Whole Foods stores, restaurants and other vendors throughout South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia.

“The program made me be more introspective about where I was and where I wanted to go,” said McClam, who had farmed for three years before completing the program and has seen revenues increase 400 percent in the past few years.

In addition to helping him craft his first business plan, McClam credited the New and Beginning Farmer Program with creating the connections that helped secure grant money to grow his business.

This year’s class, like those before it, is diverse. Some have farmed before. Others have not. Some are retired. Some hope to switch careers and become business owners. Some have no agricultural background at all. The New and Beginning Farmer program is available to any resident of South Carolina who is beginning to farm or who has actively farmed for less than 10 consecutive years. Applicants to the program were selected by an advisory committee.

Core workshops will be held centrally in Columbia and focus on farm business management, with some optional workshops held throughout the state.

Topics covered by the program include business planning, land acquisition and leasing, marketing, regulatory matters, legal issues, food safety, insurance, soil health and more.

Lamie plans to conduct “Resource Rodeo” on May 5 at the South Carolina State Farmers Market in West Columbia with federal and state agencies and private enterprises on hand to discuss resources available to agribusinesses.

For more information, see the program website at www.scnewfarmer.org.

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