When farmer Monty Rast drives past his acres of row crops in Calhoun County, he sees more than parcels of land. When Ansley Turnblad, branding and program coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, walks through the produce section of a local grocery store, she sees more than vegetables. And when president and CEO of the South Carolina Farm Bureau Harry Ott looks around a fifth-grade classroom, he sees more than a group of kids who might not know the first thing about agribusiness.
“Farming is always a risky business, but for most, it’s a labor of love,” Monty says. “It’s satisfying to see what you’ve accomplished each day and to know you’re providing an integral part of what people need to sustain life.”
Each of these leaders in South Carolina agriculture plays a different role in the development of the industry, but their passion for its history and vision for its growth are unwavering. “Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in the state,” Monty says. “I’m certainly proud to contribute what I can to feeding my family and the rest of the world.”
From Humble Beginnings
Like many farmers, Monty’s story begins with tradition. “My family has farmed for several generations,” he says. Monty was raised on land near Cameron, South Carolina, where his father and former Army man, served at Fort Campbell astride the Kentucky-Tennessee border before taking up the plow.
A young Monty helped pick cotton and run errands before he officially started working on his family’s farm in high school. After graduation, he attended The Citadel where he earned a degree in business management in 1977. Three years later, Monty returned to Cameron to farm with his father, and three years after that, he struck out on his own, determined to build a new farm to support his young family. “It was always a desire and a dream because that’s what I knew best,” he says of starting Rast Farms, where he grows strawberries, blueberries, cotton, corn and peanuts.
Over the past nearly four decades, Monty has continually expanded his agribusiness resume to include uniting and educating the state’s peanut growers and mentoring budding farmers and their families. In 2012, he was named the South Carolina state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year, acknowledged for his efforts to modernize farming and expand agribusiness potential in the state. Monty’s enthusiasm for developing South Carolina’s agriculture industry is contagious: several of his adult children have pursued education and careers in agribusiness, including his daughter Ansley, who has made waves in her 10 years with the South Carolina Department of Agriculture’s marketing department.
“As a farmer’s daughter, I didn’t realize I was so lucky growing up. I learned so much on the farm riding around, watching food grow, climbing on hay bales — stuff people are amazed by,” Ansley says. “My dad taught us to respect the equipment and the land on the farm; it’s what sustains us all.” Ansley now works to connect South Carolina’s farmers with the public they grow for through programs like Certified SC Grown, which places farm-to-table products in local restaurants and school cafeterias.
Monty speaks fondly of his four children, their spouses and his two grandchildren. “I’ve tried to teach them what’s valuable and what’s real in life, and to remember where they came from,” he says. “I wanted them to know how to nurture something, to take the time to make sure it’s healthy and done right.”
Farming might be one of the oldest and noblest professions in the world, but it is not without its challenges. Palmetto agriculturalists are not hard pressed to name the difficulties they’ve faced — whether they were natural, legal or absolutely unprecedented. “This past year we experienced the ‘thousand-year flood’ that nearly wiped us out,” Monty says. The catastrophic floods of October 2015 that devastated the state not only took precious lives and destroyed homes, businesses and cars, but it washed away crops and farming soil as well. Like the rest of their communities, area farmers were left picking up the pieces of their lives.
“Farmers are the hardest working and most honest group of people I’ve ever known,” says Harry, who was elected the sixth South Carolina Farm Bureau president and CEO in December. While he might be new to his appointment with the Bureau, Harry is no stranger to the challenges of farming. “My family moved out to a farm when I was 5 years old,” he recalls. While attending Clemson University, Harry went home nearly every weekend to help his ailing father on the farm before joining the family business in 1974. He started farming by himself full-time in 1979. Harry also served as a schoolteacher, school board member and minority leader in the South Carolina House of Representatives before accepting an appointment from President Barack Obama as the state executive director for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency in 2013. “As we say, it’s been a good ride,” Harry says casually of his impressive careers in agribusiness and public service.
In his newly elected position with the Farm Bureau, Harry immediately went to work, using his political experience to advocate for emergency funding for South Carolina’s farmers following the October 2015 devastating floods. On May 24, House Bill 4717, also known as the South Carolina Farm Aid Bill, was passed, establishing a grant program to distribute $40 million to state farmers who can prove they suffered at least a 40 percent loss as a result of the flooding.
“I’ve heard over and over, ‘Wow, they really do care about us,’” Harry says of the farmers he’s spoken with since the spring announcement. “Seeing this kind of support from the House and Senate was what they needed. The emotional uplift was almost as important as the financial reprieve they are receiving. They are a grateful group, they enjoy what they do and want a safe way to continue doing it while making a profit and raising their families.”
Harry says though $40 million is a generous amount, farmers will only be paid 20 percent on their proven losses, up to $100,000. “I would not be surprised if the final amount requested exceeded the $40 million. We had anticipated about $250 million in losses not covered by insurance,” Harry says. The state accepted applications through Aug. 15.
While the past year’s unforeseen natural disaster hit area farmers hard, challenges existed in the agribusiness industry long before the rains fell in October.
“We have issues that need to be solved politically to make sure agribusiness is a viable industry,” Harry says. “Farmers will also always face challenges with labor supply; it’s hard work. Not very many people want to be out in the field when it’s 100 degrees and sweaty and working and dirty.”
Harry also cites the public debate about the use of genetically modified organisms as a worthy conversation for farmers to engage in. “We’ve been growing GMO products for 35 years, and to the best of my knowledge, there’s never been a headache or stomachache reported.” According to Harry, consumers’ interest in food sourcing is at an all-time high, including among South Carolinians. “I think that’s a good thing,” he says. “I’m not afraid of the public wanting to know what’s in their food and where it comes from. I’m convinced it’s the best and safest in the world.”
Growers have also had to get creative with their planting techniques, as the population increases but the amount of acreage available does not. Harry explains that the ingenuity of agriculturalists now allows farmers to produce twice the food from the same land in an effort to feed South Carolina, the country and the world. Developments like this give Harry hope in the future of his industry. “We have our challenges ahead; you have to be an optimist to be a farmer.”
Monty seems to epitomize the profile of the modern farmer as an eternal optimist. He doesn’t rest on his laurels when it comes to challenges, but turns them into opportunities. “We’ve had huge gains in technology, not only through GPS and data systems on tractors, but different ways to plant, grow and harvest,” Monty says. He also points to significant advancements in localizing irrigation sources to mitigate risk during periods of dry weather and minimizing the use of chemicals and pesticides in crop fertilizer: “It’s 10 times cleaner than it used to be,” he says. “I tell my wife all the time, planting a crop is like having a baby — every day you have to watch it, and it requires your full attention from the time you plant it to harvesting it in the fall. You do all you can to make it turn out as best as it possibly can.”
For Harry and Ansley, keeping communities in touch with farmers is their biggest challenge and greatest calling. “Forty years ago everyone had a connection to the farm; they knew where food came from,” Harry says. “Fast forward two generations later, and there are very few people on farms. Right now, farmers represent about 1.5 percent of the population but grow enough food to feed the world.”
Harry and his team at Farm Bureau see it as their mission to tell the story of agriculture well, seeking to help consumers understand how food makes it to their supermarkets and restaurants. “I’m afraid most fifth graders don’t make the connection between the hamburger patty on their plate and the cows on the side of the road, or the sandwich bun and the wheat farmer,” Harry says. Nearly 10 years ago, the Farm Bureau started the Ag in the Classroom program with a state grant to educate middle-school students on food sourcing and agribusiness. The Farm Bureau also hosts the Young Farmer and Rancher Program to encourage the next generation of agribusiness leaders to have a voice locally and nationally, with trips to Washington, D.C. where they’re exposed to the political process and networking across the state with other farming families and the consuming community.
Ansley is also in the business of educating the public through the Certified SC Grown program, which launched in 2007 when the Department of Agriculture realized people wanted to buy locally produced items, but did not know how to properly identify them. Now, items go through a certification process and are marked with a Certified SC Grown label. “We have close to 2,000 members participating,” Ansley says of the farmers who’ve applied to have items included in the program. “The whole goal is to increase agribusiness in South Carolina creating brand loyalty and awareness.”
In addition to shopping for locally grown food items, Harry encourages South Carolina’s interested urbanites to take a tour of a local farm. “Touch a chicken, see a growing stalk of corn up close, have a personal experience,” he says. Ansley cites City Roots, an urban sustainable farm located on three acres at 1005 Airport Blvd. in Columbia as a visitor-friendly establishment. She also suggests curious Columbia residents visit Cottle Strawberry Farm at 2533 Trotter Road for the chance to pick their own juicy strawberries from April to June. For more information on these local farms, visit CityRoots.org and CottleStrawberryFarm.com.
For farmers like Monty, engaging with the public turns long nights and harvested acres into quite a worthwhile endeavor. “The future of ag will be determined by who buys our products and chooses to consume items that are plant-based and not manufactured,” Monty says. “More than anything, know your farmer, go out and visit him. He’s proud of what he does and he would love to share it with you.”