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Tucked in a corner of Spartanburg Community College’s campus, some of the Upstate’s newest agribusiness entrepreneurs just might be getting their start as part of the college’s sustainable agriculture program.
Call it reaping what you sow.
The program’s students are getting a look at the plants, systems and practices that can be used to get a small scale, intensive farming effort off the ground, according to Spartanburg Community College Horticulture Department Chairman Jason Bagwell.
The idea? If you can learn to grow and harvest crops sustainably on a small footprint, you’re well on your way to understanding what it takes to replicate that effort on a larger scale, according to Bagwell.
“Trying to get into commercial farming, unless you’ve already got a family that is in it already, it’s hard to break in,” Bagwell said. “But from the small scale, intensive side, it’s doable.”
He said some of the program’s students just want to understand how to grow and harvest a few backyard veggies to supplement their own grocery efforts. Others have designs on making money selling their labors to local farmers markets, restaurants or cooperatives.
“There’s more than a few ways to approach this game,” Bagwell said. “But if I can teach you to do it right here on a small scale, you’ll understand what it will take to do it in a way where you can actually make some money.”
A hands-on laboratory
Bagwell, along with SCC Horticulture Instructor Jay Moore, said the program found its start as a way to help students understand the foundational principles of sustainable agriculture.
It covers things like crop selection and production, water harvesting and management along with design principles.
It was an idea Bagwell and Moore said they’d kicked around for years but finally got off the ground in 2017, with grants through Dominion Energy and the Mary Black Foundation.
The program combines academic work with fieldwork. This semester, the program’s small farming site has 10 or 12 different varieties of tomatoes planted, along with corn, watermelon honeydew and green and black beans.
It also features different styles of crop production, like raised beds, and an orchard that mixes both dwarf and conventional varieties of fruits and berries.
The group is putting the finishing touches on its onsite classroom and production hub.
A piece of the action
Bagwell and Moore said the proliferation of farmers markets, cooperatives and farm-to-table restaurants, among other opportunities, mean smaller farms have a good chance at capturing a piece of South Carolina’s agricultural economy.
The South Carolina Department of Agriculture said agribusiness has more than $42 billion in economic impact annually, and believes that number could increase to $50 billion by 2020.
That encompasses the production and sale of everything from poultry to peaches, but Bagwell and Moore said the smaller farmer has a variety of methods in today’s market to reach consumers.
The key to remember? There’s no one path to success, Moore said.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is get across to the these kids is that it’s OK to turn this over in their minds and look at things from a different perspective,” Moore said.
This semester’s Farm to Market class, for instance, features local farmers who have found ways to survive and thrive despite changes in the economy.
Moore said classes will hear from entrepreneurs who were forced out of the large scale cultivation of tobacco only to find that they’re now making more money selling veggies through farmer’s markets than ever before.
Other farmers have signed deals with distributors to allow them to focus on what they know best, Moore said, which is growing crops. Community Supported Agriculture models, where customers purchase a kind of subscription in exchange for regular deliveries from farms, can also be a viable business model, according to Bagwell.
“Part of what we’re trying to stress to students is: Hey, networking and learning what’s worked for others is a smart thing to do,” Moore said.
The lessons are learned along the way
Bagwell said the program offers a one-year certificate that can be transferred into a two-year associate’s degree. He said it’s one thing to learn about crop production from a book, and an entirely other animal to put principles into practice.
The student’s coursework is largely project driven, he said, and the final grade isn’t based solely on successfully teasing a vegetable from the ground.
“Failure is a big part of a farmer’s life, and you need to know what happened and how to deal with it,” Bagwell said. “So we’ve got them recording their steps along the way with their projects to hopefully help them apply what they’ve learned and report what they did right and wrong at the end. Truthfully, sometimes you learn more when things don’t go right, so we want them to be able to figure out a way to do things differently in the end.”