Not long ago, Zachary Brenton was the driving force behind the wheel of his stick-shift Nissan truck as he became quite familiar with the Interstate 95 corridor — and the other interstates that crisscross South Carolina’s midsection — thanks to many, many road trips between Clemson and Florence in the name of higher education and research.

Agricultural researchers work in a corn field at Clemson's Pee Dee REC.

Zachary Brenton (second from left), who completed his Ph.D. work at Clemson University and is now the chief executive officer of Carolina Seed Systems, works with Stephen Kresovich (second from right), director of Clemson’s Advanced Plant Technology Program, in a cornfield at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center in Florence.
Image Credit: Clemson University

These days, Brenton is the driving force behind a company that aims to revolutionize regional agriculture — by building a Southeastern feed grain pipeline to serve growers from its new home base along that same I-95 corridor. The key, Brenton says, was simply having a place to call home while he acquired the research skills needed to start his own entrepreneurial venture in agriculture.

Twenty-two years old and having just finished his undergraduate work at the University of South Carolina, Brenton got the chance to continue his studies as a graduate student in Clemson University’s Advanced Plant Technology program. Headed by geneticist Stephen Kresovich and composed of a multifaceted team of renowned scientists, the cohort does the bulk of its field work at Clemson University’s Pee Dee Research and Education Center (REC) in Florence.

Because his classes were on Clemson’s main campus and his graduate research duties were in Florence, Brenton had a regular three-and-half-hour commute — in both directions — throughout his course of study. He considered himself fortunate just to have a place to stay at the REC between road trips.

“I was at the Pee Dee REC when we didn’t have grad student housing at all, so Dr. Kresovich put us up in the extended-stay motel for the entire summer,” he says. “We had to be out in the fields every single day, so he literally got us a motel room for like three months to do our research.”

Eventually, as Brenton continued his work at Pee Dee REC, a small amount of graduate housing opened at the facility, and, he says, it made a huge difference in productivity and research progress.

“Having graduate housing enabled us to spend more time close to the research, and by cutting the cost associated with travel — and travel budgets are always really limited in federal grants — having the option to stay allowed us the resources to do better research projects, more research projects,” he says. “By staying out here, we were able to do higher quality work.”

Clemson’s ag research footprint

Clemson has six RECs located strategically across the state’s distinct soil and climate regions. Teams of scientists perform transformative research at these facilities — research that helps build South Carolina’s agribusiness economy, conserve the state’s environment and natural resources, and improve the nutritional quality and safety of the food supply.

S.C. map

Clemson’s Research and Education Centers (REC) stretch from the Simpson REC near Clemson’s main campus in the Upstate to rural areas such as Blackville, to Florence and the Lowcountry in Georgetown and Charleston. The result is a footprint for Clemson scientists to conduct work vital to the profitability and sustainability of South Carolina’s $42 billion agribusiness industry.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Little surprise, the Clemson graduate students who live, work and research at these REC facilities play a vital role in support of the state’s economy and provide a talent pipeline for South Carolina’s economy.

Now that Brenton has completed his Ph.D. work under Kresovich, he is preparing to launch a spinoff company, Carolina Seed Systems, which is moving from Greenville to co-locate with Clemson’s research station in Florence. The company is working to address a lack of feed grain hybrid crop development and solve a regional feed shortage in the state’s coastal plain.

For Kresovich, Carolina Seed Systems epitomizes a tangible product of the Clemson APT program as a result of the vision, innovation, technology and commitment of the program to agricultural stakeholders of South Carolina. But, he notes, neither Carolina Seed Systems, nor much of the other research taking place at Pee Dee REC and elsewhere, would be possible without the tireless work of graduate students stationed near the facility.

“The work that graduate researchers like Zach are doing at Pee Dee REC is turning advanced genomic and computational sciences into useful products for the farmers and consumers of the state,” Kresovich says. “Our goal is to improve agriculture in South Carolina one field at a time, by employing translational, problem-solving science to advance crop agriculture. But without the ability to house — and in turn, recruit — these budding young scientists, we wouldn’t be able to maximize the potential impact that this research can have.”

Housing innovation

Paula Agudelo, associate dean for research and director of Clemson’s research facilities, noted that graduate student housing at the RECs is not a luxury but rather a necessary complement to the University’s research capacity.

“When we don’t have the ability to house students at the RECs, that limits the ability to involve more students and better students in our projects,” Agudelo says. “We have fantastic facilities and opportunities for field-based research, but when graduate students have to choose — because of financial reasons or time constraints — where they can live, and they cannot have two homes to be on campus to do their coursework and at our research facilities to do their research, sometimes we miss out.

“If we have the ability to provide them the place to stay, they can take full advantage of that capability,” she says.

Funding requested from the state legislature would provide housing at Clemson’s off-campus research facilities not only for graduate students but also for undergraduates pursuing research goals and for visiting scientists who bring opportunities for collaboration, Agudelo explains. At present, she says, Clemson is at a competitive disadvantage for elite students seeking research-based opportunities in the field.

Graduate student housing at one of Clemson University's six Research and Education Centers across South Carolina is pictured.

Funding requested from the state legislature would provide housing at Clemson’s off-campus research facilities not only for graduate students but also for undergraduates pursuing research goals and for visiting scientists who bring opportunities for collaboration.
Image Credit: Clemson University

“We have world-renowned experts at our Research and Education Centers, and having the ability to host — either groups from other universities, people from other states, visiting scientists from other countries even — will completely open our RECs to many more collaborations, many more possibilities,” she says. “For students, having that applied component, that hands-on aspect will make our programs a lot more attractive to students who are seeking that — and so we’ll be able to compete for the best of the best.”

As for Brenton, the experience gleaned from his graduate work at Pee Dee REC — and the many road trips he made back and forth to Clemson — gave him the perspective and support he needed to build a business in South Carolina that will help farmers develop new revenue streams and enter new markets at a time when they are struggling due to global trade uncertainty.

“I probably wouldn’t have moved the business out to the Florence/Hartsville area if I didn’t have a really good understanding of the area,” he says. “And the only way I was really able to understand the area is because I lived here in grad student housing, short-term housing, for summers at a time,” Brenton says. “If I wasn’t aware of what was out here or the community that was out here, I wouldn’t have moved.

“So, I think it’s really important for graduate student recruitment, retention and then getting people to stay here after they graduate.”