Clemson’s Sandhill REC expanding research, educational programs
COLUMBIA — While the needs of the agriculture industry in South Carolina have changed significantly in the 92 years since the gates opened at the Sandhill Research and Education Center (REC), its mission of meeting those needs has never wavered.
Chosen for its sandy soil, Sandhill REC was established in 1926 by a state statute for South Carolina’s primary land-grant institution, Clemson University, to conduct agriculture research in the state’s then-primarily rural Midlands region. Today, research efforts at the REC have evolved and expanded to continue to support the state’s $41.7 billion agribusiness industry.
“The REC is surrounded by an urban setting now, but our mission still remains the same — and we can do many things here involving commercial agriculture and horticulture that are relevant and engaging to our urban setting,” said Kathy Coleman, director of the Sandhill REC.
“In addition, Clemson’s agribusiness Extension program saw significant cuts during the recession, and one of the things our farmers have asked for and demanded the most is to have expertise in the agribusiness area,” she said. “Clemson has worked to rebuild our Extension agribusiness program and house it here at Sandhill where we can work with our farmers statewide.”
While all six of Clemson’s Research and Education Centers around South Carolina are devoted to agricultural research in its distinct soil and climate regions, for the last 20 years Sandhill REC has been able to allow public access to portions of its grounds. But because of its research mission, a balance must be struck between public access and preserving the integrity of the research.
“We understand we’re in a community that enjoys getting out and walking and having a place to enjoy the outdoors,” Coleman said. “What we want to do is make sure what we provide in the areas we do allow the public is a learning experience about agriculture. But in reestablishing a lot of our research areas, we do have to provide a level of biosecurity and security for our researchers who are spending a lot of time, money and effort into putting in a research project that could last many years. We are working to find a balance between being a good neighbor with our community and also fulfilling Clemson’s main mission as a land-grant university — to provide agriculture research and education programs to our farmers and communities statewide.”
Among the focuses of Sandhill’s agricultural research is forestry, which is South Carolina’s largest industry, both in terms of jobs (90,624) and payroll ($4.1 billion). The total economic impact of South Carolina’s forest industry is around $17 billion annually.
The longleaf pine ecosystem that once spanned more than 90 million acres from northern Virginia to southern Florida has dwindled to fewer than 3 million acres, but researchers at Sandhill REC are working to reverse that trend by comparing bare-root seedlings to containerized seedlings to optimize growth for commercial forestry.
“It’s giving us an idea of which seedling types work best, which is valuable if you’re trying to restore longleaf pine stands,” said Cory Heaton, assistant director of Sandhill REC and Extension wildlife specialist.
But with longleaf pines spread across the state’s distinct soil and climate regions, researchers are studying not only which seedlings work best, but also working to restore ground cover in those forests — the herbaceous plants and grasses that make up the understory.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service are collaborating with Clemson Extension senior associate agent T.J. Savereno on a common garden study to better understand native longleaf understory plants collected from different areas of the state.
Seeds were collected from the wild and brought to three common gardens — one at Sandhill, one at the Pee Dee REC in Florence and one at the Coastal REC in Charleston — to allow researchers to select cultivars that perform better based on the site where they are planted.
Scientists at Sandhill REC also are working to help South Carolina farmers produce crops more efficiently and at greater profit. The REC has soybean variety trials under way with 35 varieties of soybeans planted side by side.
“Not only are they growing here, they’re also growing on-farm at a few locations and at all of Clemson’s six RECs around the state,” Heaton said. “That allows us to select the varieties that perform best for each of the state’s ecoregions, so it helps the farmers to choose the right crop for the right land.”
When Sandhill was established, most of Clemson’s peach research was conducted there. Even today, a significant portion of the peaches grown commercially in the U.S. are derived from root stock that Clemson developed.
But while peach research has been on hiatus in recent years at Sandhill, its scientists are returning to those roots.
“We’re looking at different diseases and the ability for different varieties to withstand those diseases,” Heaton said. “Clemson has been a huge player throughout peach history, and this is just a way to continue that legacy.”
Sandhill REC is home to the Agribusiness Extension Program Team. Its agents provide expertise in farm risk management, marketing, agriculture policy, local food systems development, small business planning and agritourism to commercial growers, beginning and small farmers, agribusinesses, lenders and ag professionals on improving profitability and sustainability.
“We offer education programs, work with farmers on making better decisions, look at the trends and try to improve our competitiveness not only here in the U.S. but around the world,” said Nathan Smith, Extension professor in agribusiness.
Extension agribusiness agents can also help farmers address transition or planning, whether that means how to get into farming with the S.C. New and Beginning Farmer Program, how to transition to the next generation of a family farm or how to transition out of the business at retirement.
The agribusiness team has also received a grant to begin analyzing farms to give producers better insight into the financial aspects of their farm while also allowing the agribusiness team to develop statewide benchmarking reports.
“Producers will be able to compare themselves to the benchmarking report and be able to make more informed management decisions based on their specific farm challenges,” said Adam Kantrovich, Extension associate professor of agribusiness at Sandhill REC.
Through other grant funding, the Sandhill REC staff is starting up an incubator farm, which consists of about five acres of land that is subdivided into half-acre plots.
“Interested individuals from the public who have successfully completed an application process and been awarded a plot in this farm can basically learn how to become a farmer on a small scale,” said Cody Bishop, farm manager at Sandhill REC.
While these aspiring producers come into the program often with little to no experience on growing crops, the grant funding and expertise at Sandhill REC allows them to hit the ground running.
Participants in the program who are allotted a half-acre to farm have access to specialty equipment such as bedders and plot machines specifically meant for small-scale work, as well as the use of a Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified pack shed for washing, drying, sorting and packing their products.
“We have several folks this year who are getting seeds in the ground and getting their soil beds ready for spring crops,” Bishop said. “So they’ll grow over the winter time and become ready for harvest in the early spring.”
Sandhill REC hosts a School Days program for more than 1,000 pre-K to second-grade students throughout the Midlands area each October. Schools are invited to an educational day focusing on aspects of agriculture from water usage to different crops to the life cycle of plants.
“A lot of kids in the northeast side of Columbia do not get to see agriculture as many folks in the state do,” Bishop said. “We plant cotton, soybeans, sunflowers and sorghum for them to be able to actually visualize and see what that would look like in the field.”
The REC hosts a farmers market every Tuesday from May to November for local farmers to sell their products and has a children’s garden that is being relocated to the front of its property where young people can learn about plants and the environment.
“The Richland County Master Gardeners Association works very closely with us and support us tremendously on the cottage garden they’ve developed,” Coleman said. “They help with our education days, maintain a compost garden and a turf grass demonstration site that we’re also going to expand and move to the front of the property as well as assist with the children’s garden. Our goal is for the general public to be able to see some of the work we’re doing and use that information.”