FLORENCE — Clemson University is renovating its Pee Dee Research and Education Center in Florence to quicken its development of crop varieties with improved resistance to drought, disease and pests.

The center also has added a research plot to focus on high-value specialty vegetable production for small and emerging farmers and is hiring soil health and cover-cropping specialists to help growers get more value from their land.

The $7 million renovation of the 34-year-old John B. Pitner Center at the Pee Dee REC includes new labs for the Advanced Plant Technology (APT) program with state-of-the-art equipment, a stronger network for data transfer and more collaborative workspaces. The Pitner Center also serves as the REC’s main administrative building. Pee Dee REC director Matt Smith said the renovation will help Clemson recruit top-flight scientists and stimulate more genetic research.

“South Carolina growers grow peanuts that were developed for Georgia or North Carolina or Virginia,” Smith said. “We need first-rate genetics specific to our environment.”

The Pee Dee REC is hiring a peanut breeder and already has added a soybean breeder. The impact to growers could be substantial. South Carolina produced $160 million in soybeans in 2014, the most recent year for which federal data is available. Improving output just 1 percent, for example, would generate $1.6 million for South Carolina soybean growers.

To develop a pure crop variety with desirable traits, breeders must grow thousands of crossed plants each year and scout the fields to identify desirable characteristics. That process can take seven to 10 years or more before new varieties are released for the benefit of South Carolina farmers, Smith said. Within the new labs, scientists will be able to more quickly identify the favorable genetic markers in plants without the need for plants to reach maturity. The Pee Dee REC is hiring a molecular biologist to assist in this process, Smith said.

Pee Dee REC building and grounds manager Sam Goodman looks over renovation plans.

Pee Dee REC building and grounds manager Sam Goodman looks over renovation plans.
Image Credit: Clemson University

To reduce renovation costs, which were funded by the state, the REC has saved doors, lab casework and other materials to be reused when possible, Smith said. Renovations are expected to be complete this fall.

In addition to renovating facilities, the Pee Dee REC is hiring more specialists and updating programing to better serve South Carolina’s $41.7 billion agriculture industry. Last year, Smith allocated a 20-acre plot at the 2,200-acre research farm to conduct vegetable research for new and emerging farmers.

“Even farmers who own their own land and have been at it for a long time struggle to be profitable on commodities like corn, cotton and soybeans. You’re at the mercy of local weather and global price pressures,” Smith said. “Someone who has just started farming can’t afford to buy equipment and be subject to those kinds of forces.”

The John B. Pitner Center

The John B. Pitner Center
Image Credit: Clemson University

Specialty vegetables, however, require less investment and can be grown year round to be sold at local farmers markets, grocery stores, restaurants and other venues, Smith said. Prices are not subject to global forces and can be more favorable to growers, he said.

On the 20-acre research plot, Clemson Extension agent Tony Melton will test various methods of irrigation and pest control. He’ll also be breeding some vegetables to improve yield potential. For example, breeding collards with kale could create a collard that could grow more quickly, Melton said. He also hopes to breed a large sweet potato for processing. The 20-acre plot will include five acres devoted to organic growing practices, as well.

“We’re going to do whatever growers need us to do,” Melton said.

Clemson Extension agent Tony Melton, far right, speaks to growers at a field day at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center.

Clemson Extension agent Tony Melton (far right) speaks to growers at a field day at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center.
Image Credit: Jonathan Windham

Melton will conduct educational field days at the 20-acre site and will also work directly with growers to share his insights from the research.

Darlington County grower Ricky James credited the Pee Dee REC for identifying ways to reduce operational costs at his farm and said he regularly contacts Melton for advice on weed and pest management.

“When I have crops growing, I probably talk to Tony once a month for advice and he comes by to check on things randomly, too. I really appreciate that,” said James, who grows nearly 1,600 acres of row crops and 25 acres of vegetables.

Florence County farmer Dickie Kirby, who grows row crops and produce, said research into new varieties developed specifically for the Pee Dee’s environment has been neglected and is badly needed. He also is happy to see Melton adding vegetable research at the station.

“That research station is a diamond in the rough. It’s a prime location. Expanding it will be a great benefit to anybody,” he said. “The state of South Carolina does not put enough money into research.”

Smith said searches are ongoing for soil health and cover-cropping specialists. Cover crops can add valuable nutrients to South Carolina’s sandy and clay soils and improve the water and nutrient retention of soil, effectively reducing farm input costs while potentially increasing yield. Smith expects new specialists to assist in the development of new cover crops that mature more quickly than those currently available — a trait needed for South Carolina’s early spring planting season — and to identify cover crops that also produce a cash commodity.

The Pee Dee REC is one of five Clemson research farms located throughout South Carolina working to improve farm profitability. Many of these stations are outdated. Clemson has requested $1.7 million in capital funds from the state Legislature to renovate field facilities at these research stations, campus farms and veterinary lab. The university also requested $2.5 million in recurring money to support agriculture and natural resources research across the state.

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