Harleston Towles’ 2.5-acre organic vegetable farm on Johns Island may be small, but he says it is cutting edge thanks to lessons learned from Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center.

Towles is one of few growers in the state or the nation planting rice 10 inches apart (rather than right next to each other) after learning of Coastal REC researcher Brian Ward’s testing of the method, called System of Rice Intensification (SRI). Ward’s early results show SRI rice production could provide significant yield increases while reducing the use of water and fertilizer.

Clemson University researcher Brian Ward demonstrates a flame weeder to kill weeds between rows of rice.

Clemson University researcher Brian Ward demonstrates a flame weeder to kill weeds between rows of rice.
Image Credit: Clemson University

“I love the innovation at Clemson,” said Towles, one of around 150 growers and agriculture enthusiasts to attend the Coastal REC Field Day June 10 to learn ways to make his farm more profitable and sustainable. “Who else is doing this in the country? No one. We get to be on the cutting edge.”

Towles looks to Coastal REC to help him manage disease, pests and drought, and for information on the latest organic growing methods. He grows vegetables to be sold directly to Lowcountry restaurants.

Once a year, dating all the way back to 1932, the Coastal REC in Charleston has held an annual Field Day, inviting growers from around the state to see first hand how Clemson discoveries can help them become more profitable and serve the state better, healthier produce.

Clemson University Extension specialist Tony Keinath discusses crop disease at the Coastal Research and Education Center Field Day.

Clemson University Extension specialist Tony Keinath discusses crop disease at the Coastal Research and Education Center Field Day.
Image Credit: Clemson University

After last year’s field day, some growers reduced spacing of broccoli plants from 12 to 18 inches down to around 6 to 8 inches because Clemson proved yields would be the same. Reducing the spacing of broccoli plants freed up land to grow more vegetables.

“All this research, the bottom line is to help growers make more money and be sustainable doing it,” Ward said.

Here are a few highlights from the field day:

  • Grafting watermelon plants – the process of splicing disease-resistant rootstocks of one plant to the fruit-producing top of another – can improve yields by making plants more resistant to disease, insects and
    A crowd gathers to learn about watermelon grafting with Clemson University scientist Richard Hassell.

    A crowd gathers to learn about watermelon grafting with Clemson University scientist Richard Hassell.
    Image Credit: Clemson University

    drought. Coastal REC research has helped growers using grafting technologies eliminate regrowth, in which the rootstock produces its own offshoot that would cause the desired top to wither.

  • Coastal REC researchers are looking into newly developed hybrid rootstocks that can help to combat fusarium, a disease increasingly prevalent to watermelons, which have no resistance to it.
  • Propane-fueled flame weeders can be effective in killing weeds in ditches or between row crops.

The field day also included demonstrations on Coastal REC research on corn, cantaloupe, cucurbits, and tomatoes.

Egrets nest in a tree at the Clemson University Coastal Research and Education Center in Charleston.

Egrets nest in a tree at the Clemson University Coastal Research and Education Center in Charleston.
Image Credit: Clemson University

The 325-acre Coastal REC is one of Clemson’s five agricultural research centers across the state. It conducts applied research, education and public service programs on vegetables and specialty crops and works closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture U.S. Vegetable Laboratory. The focus of research is developing sustainable, efficient and economical vegetable production and conventional and organic pest management.

Video shot and edited by Bryce Donovan.