Agribusiness is Big Business in the Midlands

Driving the state's economy

By Lisa A. Maseng

Photos Courtesy South Carolina Forestry Association

What is agribusiness and how does it affect South Carolinians? The S.C. Department of Agriculture states that agribusiness – agriculture and forestry – drives the state’s economy with a $34 billion a year impact and more than 200,000 jobs. Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers says, “A few years ago South Carolina charted the course on a strategic plan for agribusiness called 50 by 20. Our vision is to increase the annual economic impact of agribusiness in South Carolina to $50 billion by 2020.”

Jack Shuler, president of Palmetto AgriBusiness Council, says, “Agribusiness is a big business in South Carolina with many facets to the industry. Not only is it the production of apples to zucchini, it also is processing, packaging, labeling and delivery of safe, affordable food.”

The four sub-clusters of agribusiness are farming, forestry, packaging and delivery. The network that makes up these sub-clusters encompasses many more industries and affects even more individuals, all of whom benefit from added commerce, technology, investments and philanthropy. When examined from this perspective, the impact is profound.

Ripple Effect of Financial Gain

The Midlands is home to several counties that rank at the top in agribusiness cash receipts: Orangeburg is number one and Lexington is number two, with Saluda and Kershaw not far behind at 5th and 6th, respectively. At last count, in the eight counties that make up the Midlands (Calhoun, Fairfield, Kershaw, Lexington, Orangeburg, Richland, Saluda and Sumter) there were more than 4,500 farms on nearly a million acres of land with total farm gate receipts of $675 million. Economists say that one dollar generated at the farm or forest gate level can produce as many as nine more dollars from added processing, inputs and additional salaries spent in the economy. Using that equation, the total economic impact of agriculture in the Midlands is more than $6 billion dollars.

Agribusiness Timber Investments

In his first year as president of the South Carolina Forestry Association, Cam Crawford traveled around the state visiting as many lumber and paper mills as possible. He was absolutely amazed at the technology being used. “I wouldn’t have believed this if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, but a computer can scan a crooked log and cut straight boards from it. Our mills are really high tech operations. Computer technology is involved in the entire process,” he says. He estimates that the wood and paper products industry has a $17.4 billion annual impact in South Carolina and provides more than 90,000 jobs. The South Carolina Forestry Association has partnered with the South Carolina Forestry Commission to increase the economic impact of the wood and paper products industry and expand its already important role by developing the 20/15 Project. Similar to the 50 by 20 program, the goal of the 20/15 Project is to increase forestry’s economic impact from $17.4 billion to $20 billion by 2015.


Trees chopped down and ready for milling.  (Right) A worker operates a sawmill.

David T. Pritchard, Jr., is president and director of American Forest Management, Inc., one of the largest forest consulting and rural real estate brokerage firms in the United States. Headquartered in Sumter and Charlotte, with 40 offices located throughout the country, AFM has set industry standards for more than 40 years. It assists clients with forest and land management, timber sales, and services such as appraisal, information technology, environmental management, wildlife management and wood flow. David says agribusiness technology has advanced the timber industry in bringing products to market. “Manufacturing processes have improved significantly,” he says. “Sawmill technology to reduce waste and improve yield; pulping technology to improve yields and reduce pollution; recycled fibers, oriented strandboard and wood pellets to replace hydrocarbons; and soon torrefied wood as fuel. In timber harvesting, equipment is more energy efficient and environmentally sensitive.”

David says research has led to trees that will grow faster and straighter with less disease. Herbicides have become more specific and less persistent. Information on how trees and groups of trees respond to management-site preparation, fertilizer, competition control and stocking levels have enabled forest modelers to develop programs to better see the forest as a whole in order to optimize those treatments and accurately forecast return on investments.

Hugh believes such practices set South Carolina apart from other states. “The availability of raw materials from agriculture and forestry are attractive to businesses wanting to expand or develop in the state. Companies want to invest where they can enhance their competitiveness and profitability,” he says. “We have a year-round growing season, fertile soil, productive farms and experienced farmers. South Carolina is within a 24-hour reach of 100 million people. We have available natural and renewable resources, a ready workforce that’s educated and trained, and an infrastructure of highways and rail systems, as well as a port that can be a significant player in the new export market.”

Midlands Attracts a Confluence of Industry

International Paper Company refers to its Eastover Mill as both a state of the art facility and a showplace for its company and the industry. It is one of the most technologically advanced pulp and paper mills in the world and one of the lowest cost producers of uncoated free sheet, fine white paper in North America. 

International Paper’s Eastover Mill. Photo courtesy of International Paper. 

Remarkably, this mill generates its own electricity and provides pulp to operate two paper machines and one pulp machine 24 hours per day, seven days a week. The mill uses a mixture of hardwoods and pine to manufacture more than 894,000 tons of uncoated free sheet and 100,000 tons of bleached market pulp a year for sale on the open market. About 53 percent of the mill’s paper is sold directly to manufacturers who convert it into products such as envelopes, computer paper and business forms. The remainder of the division’s output, primarily printing and business papers, is sold to distributors and consumers through retail outlets. These distributors supply commercial printers, book publishers, offices, home users and organizations with in-house printing.

International Paper has been a great corporate neighbor, donating $80,000 annually through its foundation grants, local sponsorships and local support for education, parks, recreation and non-profit organizations.

American Italian Pasta Company, the largest dry pasta producer in the U.S., chose to expand to Columbia in 1985 to gain access to the east coast. A long way from AIPC’s home office in Kansas City, Mo., the Columbia location was desirable due to its geographic location and rail availability. Combined with its Excelsior Springs, Mo. and Tolleson, Ariz. locations, AIPC now has easy access to the entire country.

APIC produces more than 80 dry pasta shapes, selling its pasta to supermarket chains, food processing companies and food service companies. But what Columbians are most proud of is that in 1997 the Columbia AIPC plant underwent a $45 million expansion and gained the rights to exclusively produce the familiar Mueller’s brand of pasta. With just under 200 employees, the Columbia plant operates its highly automated and specialized dry pasta manufacturing equipment to produce more than one million pounds of pasta a day. The pasta flour used is from durum wheat grown in the Dakotas, the southwest U.S. and Canada, which is then shipped by rail to Columbia. Other staples of many American dinner tables, such as Ronco, Luxury, Golden Grain, Pennsylvania Dutch, R&F and Heartland, are produced by AIPC. The Columbia location then ships these products along the eastern seaboard as well as to Canada, Puerto Rico and Mexico. 

Commitment to the nourishment of young minds is paramount at AIPC as evidenced by their partnership with S.C. Future Minds Program. Joe Johnson, Columbia plant manager for AIPC, says that the Columbia AIPC is its only facility that has undertaken such an investment. “Last year we agreed to donate 200 pounds of uncooked Muller’s pasta to any public school in South Carolina that wanted to have a spaghetti night fundraising event.”

The oldest, most respected and largest producer of farm-raised quail in the U.S. operates in Richland and Sumter counties. Over the last 38 years, Manchester Farms has thrived as a family owned and operated business that raises, processes and ships quail to destinations such as Miami, Seattle, San Diego and Bangor, Maine on a weekly basis. In its first year in commercial production, Manchester Farms processed approximately 23,000 for the year. Now the company averages more than 110,000 birds per week.

“The culinary renaissance has created new platforms of food style. Chefs have become more educated and connected to their food sources and believe in the importance of locally grown and farm-to-table concept,” says Heather Ivey, customer relations manager.

Manchester Farms was started by Bill Odom in 1974. Steven Odom, his son, and Brittney Miller, his daughter, are now second generation owners, carrying on the family legacy. Heather feels fortunate to work with a family that has integrity and character. “We have a terrific team, and the synergy is a huge contribution to our success. In this world of temporary and instant, it is refreshing to work for a business that is more concerned with long-term relationships with its customers and employees than a quick sale,” says Heather.

Manchester Farms believes that it is their social responsibility to engage in activities that promote hunger relief. Last year, the company donated two truckloads of vegetables to Feed the Children. It also participated in The Taste of the NFL and Taste of the Derby – events that raised money for Second Harvest food banks and Blessing in a Backpack chapters across the nation. “It is our pleasure to participate in these events, because we feel civically responsible to do what we can in the fight against hunger,” says Heather.

Although its primary business is the farming of quail, Manchester Farms has branched out from its quail roots into other areas, such as processing bacon-wrapped chicken breast appetizers, and the company currently is developing its own brand of franks in a blanket for Dollar Tree. Products can be found in the freezer sections of select grocery stores, and customers also can arrange to pick up frozen packaged quail “seconds” at reduced prices at the office location on Garners Ferry Road in Columbia. They taste just the same – delicious.

In order to generate a greater economic impact, modern technology will play a significant role in the future. Hugh is certain that breakthroughs in technology will lead to paths only imagined just a few years before.

“Research and development provides the means for producers to increase yields and reduce costs. It also can determine the viability of new high value crops and can find new uses for traditional crops. It is an important link as we look ahead 10 years to determine what is possible in the agribusiness industry,” he says.

There also are many innovative solutions for generating renewable energy and electricity. Santee Cooper Electric Coop is using biogas made from biomass for renewable energy. Waste from livestock or timber can become a fuel source for generating electricity. Hugh sums it up best: “To remain viable and vibrant, we must capitalize on our strengths to grow the agribusiness economy – here in the Midlands and all of South Carolina. Agribusiness must grow to meet the expanding demands of the future.”

«  back to issue