Digging into South Carolina’s most pressing problems, Clemson PSA is yielding solutions
CLEMSON — Agriculture does more than feed South Carolina’s residents. It enriches the state’s economy. It encompasses an impressive 4.5 million acres, 25,000 farms, and it represents a $41.7 billion annual economic impact. And Clemson University — from its 17,500-acre Experimental Forest to its half dozen research labs that span the state — is South Carolina’s leading advocate for agriculture and natural resources research, thanks to efforts spearheaded and supported by Clemson Public Service and Agriculture (PSA).
Six Research and Education Centers (RECs) represent the broad footprint of Clemson PSA, which works collaboratively with Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences (CAFLS) to support research and outreach across South Carolina. Collectively known as the Clemson Experiment Station, these RECs are strategically located to conduct agricultural research in representative conditions of South Carolina’s distinct soil and climate regions, benefiting a variety of producers in those locations.
“The RECs exist to work on solutions for South Carolina — either solving existing problems or anticipating problems, but also making our agriculture and natural resources industries more competitive and profitable,” said Paula Agudelo, Clemson Experiment Station director and interim associate dean for research for CAFLS.
The RECs are a “complete laboratory” for scientists to become familiar with any conditions that might affect farming in the state, Agudelo said.
“We need all the hands and minds that can come together,” she said. “We connect scientists on campus with experts at the RECs, so they can work together on projects, putting experiments in the ground and analyzing results to provide solutions we can actually implement.”
Starting with a seed
Clemson’s research centers are also notable because they attract private grants and amplify public funding to solve the most pressing questions industry and government have about farming: How can Clemson make South Carolina agriculture more sustainable? More economical? More competitive and more profitable?
One such solution was born out of research and researchers from Clemson’s Advanced Plant Technology (APT) Program, and it is taking shape as a company that seeks to revolutionize regional agriculture — by building a feed-grain pipeline through the Southeast. The company, Carolina Seed Systems, is working to address a lack of feed grain hybrid crop development, as well as a regional feed shortage, by creating a grower-focused company to maximize crop productivity in South Carolina.
As graduate students in Clemson’s APT Program, Richard Boyles and Zachary Brenton evaluated grain sorghum characteristics and began working to exploit natural variations in the plant’s genetic material to determine the genes responsible for adapting it to the climate in South Carolina and the southeastern United States. After completing their Ph.D. work, Boyles took a job as a research scientist at Clemson’s Pee Dee REC in Florence, while Brenton left to pursue Carolina Seed Systems, which has licensed the intellectual property from Clemson through the Clemson University Research Foundation (CURF).
“Carolina Seed Systems is an excellent example of the student entrepreneurial culture here at Clemson University,” CURF Executive Director Chris Gesswein said. “The technical acumen and business instincts behind these guys is impressive. It’s a real joy to work with graduates who exhibit dedication, work ethic and tenacity in translating their academic research endeavors into a high-potential commercial enterprise.”
Tim Lust, chief executive of the National Sorghum Producers and United Sorghum Checkoff, said the sorghum seed industry typically focuses breeding efforts in areas where more sorghum is produced — states such as Kansas and Texas — leaving potential growth areas such as the mid-Atlantic without diverse hybrid choices.
“Carolina Seed Systems has an opportunity to match local grain demand with tailored hybrids, which will increase grain sorghum productivity and, most importantly, increase on-farm profitability for sorghum producers,” Lust said.
Boyles said the company’s concept is to create “a vertically integrated supply chain,” meaning both the university and Carolina Seed Systems are involved in the process from beginning to end.
“Basically, from the start — when the seed goes into the ground — to that end product, whether it goes into an animal or human food or any other products, we want to be involved in some capacity,” he said. “That allows us to stay in tune with what each sector of the supply chain is looking for, what their challenges are and how we can get better science and technology from the university out to companies like Carolina Seed Systems, so that they can develop better products ultimately for the growers.”
The goal of the APT Program — part of Clemson’s Institute of Translational Genomics — is to improve agriculture in South Carolina one field at a time, by employing translational, problem-solving science to advance crop agriculture in the state.
“The whole mission of the APT program is to spin out products for growers,” said Brenton, now CEO of Carolina Seed Systems. “But we can only achieve that mission with the foundation of Clemson and the research they provide. We think it’s a critical component of the land-grant mission at Clemson.”
Extending seasons, expanding regions
Agricultural research at Clemson University isn’t limited to new products. The soybean planting season and growing region have also been extended in South Carolina and across the Southeast thanks to scientists at Clemson’s Pee Dee REC.
In 2016, in acreage planted, soybean was listed as the No. 1 row crop in South Carolina. Figures from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service show a total of 405,000 acres of soybeans were harvested in South Carolina in 2016.
The Agustina soybean cultivar was developed and released by soybean breeders Benjamin Fallen and Emerson Shipe. Fallen said this cultivar possesses the long juvenile (LJ) trait which gives it the ability to produce high yields even when days get shorter and daylight hours are fewer. The LJ trait also allows the Agustina soybean to be grown in regions not suited for most existing soybean cultivars.
The United States and Brazil are the world’s largest soybean producers, and most soybeans grown in Brazil are found in areas from latitude 10 degrees south to 25 degrees south, or from Mato Grosso to Parana. Most soybean varieties in the U.S., however, grow in areas between latitudes 35 and 45 degrees north, or from Arkansas to Minnesota.
“Most of the time, when a new soybean cultivar is developed, it is adapted for specific regions in these countries,” said Benjamin Fallen, a Clemson scientist at the Pee Dee REC.
But Clemson soybean breeders Fallen and Emerson Shipe have developed a cultivar, Agustina, that is more adapted and performs best in regions from latitudes 22 to 29 degrees north, offering a much-needed resource to extend the growing season and expand the growing region for this key crop into South Carolina.
Bringing the research to the farm
And once the research is done, the next component of Clemson’s land-grant mission comes into play: putting the results in the hands of the state’s producers and helping them put it into practice on their farms through the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service.
With offices in all of South Carolina’s 46 counties, Clemson Extension helps improve the quality of life of all South Carolinians by providing unbiased, research-based information through an array of public outreach programs in areas such as agribusiness and agriculture.
Bhupinder Farmaha, who is a soil fertility specialist at Clemson’s Edisto REC in Blackville and an Extension Agronomic Crops Program Team member, has received funding from Koch Agronomic Services and the South Carolina Cotton Board to investigate nitrogen management strategies. The goal? To optimize cotton yields on non-irrigated fields across different soil types and cropping systems in the state.
Thanks to his research, the state’s cotton farmers may one day know precisely how much nitrogen their crops need to produce higher yields with greater quality. Armed with this knowledge, farmers can reduce costs and help protect the environment.
“Nitrogen is one of the most important, yet most difficult to manage, fertilizers used on cotton,” Farmaha said. “Farmers had several questions about using nitrogen enhanced efficiency fertilizers.”
Farmaha’s research will provide solutions to the state’s farmers — saving them time and money in the process — by determining which nitrogen-enhanced efficiency fertilizers work best in South Carolina. It’s part and parcel to the work of Clemson’s RECs and the statewide footprint of Clemson PSA, which is designed specifically to provide independent, sound-science-based research that makes a positive impact on the lives of all South Carolinians.
Whether the focus is adaptability or site-specific advantages, it all amounts to a leg up on the farming industry.
“When you’re talking about living things and managing agricultural systems, there are so many factors,” Agudelo said. “It makes a world of difference when you can test these things in-field and under the conditions that are specific to South Carolina — not just environmental conditions, but also economic and social conditions.”