History of SC Agriculture
The Spanish explorers were the first to come to South Carolina in the early part of 16th Century. The native Indian culture they found was based primarily on agriculture---beans, pumpkins, onions, melons, and maize. The English came next, not for gold and riches like the Spaniards who abandoned their mission, but to make money from the new province by settling South Carolina with traders, craftsmen, and farmers. The great majority of settlers in South Carolina were from the "middling" orders of England, people who were not afraid to soil their hands with trade or manual labor. Aboard their sailing vessels they carried seeds of indigo, cotton, tobacco, ginger root, cattle and hogs. The high rents, indifferent soil, class legislation, and narrow choice of crops drove the colonists to the new world. In the colonies the settlers were given large land grants, and they could harvest many varieties of crops in almost every month of the year.
A heavy influx of colonists settled in South Carolina in the late 1600s. The pioneers farmed for survival, and corn was their major crop. Their main commercial enterprise was trade in furs and deer hides. In 1731, the port of Charlestown handled 250,000 deer hides, the high point of that trade. The love of experimentation was a strong quality of the colonists. It was from their desire to spread knowledge of agricultural advances and discoveries and to stimulate further experiments in the basic industry of agriculture that South Carolina was established.
In 1685 Carolina Gold rice was bought to South Carolina by accident on a brigantine from Madagascar. Captain John Thurber gave the rice to Dr. Henry Woodward, the first English settler in South Carolina, as a parting gift. Dr. Thurber planted a portion of the rice seed and parceled out the remainder to his friends who also planted the rice. From this incident grew the great rice industry of South Carolina. Methods used by the Chinese and the colonists were very similar, because the colonists copied Chinese prints to plant and cultivate rice.
Around 1696, commercial rice production began in earnest in South Carolina. Rice was the first aquaculture practice in the state, and planters developed a highly effective hydraulic system for flooding and draining the fields, even though almost all of the other work was done by hand creating a new reliance on slavery.
The rice planters found two profitable markets in Europe where the better grades sold well and in the West Indies where the common grades served as food for slaves. By the Revolution, they exported over 165,000 barrels a year---about 66 million pounds of rice annually. Along with rice, planters cultivated mill pond oysters along the coast. The second most important early crop in South Carolina was indigo which was brought from India. EdistoIsland was famous for its indigo, and the staple grown there brought a premium price.
A long series of wars in Europe and tariff battles gave South Carolinians an assured market in the steadily growing British textile industry. It is interesting to note that a sixteen year old woman farmer, Eliza Lucas, who was left in charge of her father's plantation in South Carolina, experimented with indigo and produced the first commercially successful crop in 1742.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney was the mother of Thomas Pinckney who published the first report on diversification of crops. Indigo production merged nicely with rice production on many plantations. The planter could use land for indigo which was not suitable for rice, and slaves could be given year-round employment. The planters lost their market for indigo by 1783, because other producers in South America and India who had a more suitable climate for the crop captured the British market.
Any man unable to pay passage to the colonies was allowed to make payment with 200 pounds of cotton, ginger, or tobacco within two years of arrival. Tobacco, the golden leaf, prospered in South Carolina and was highly prized by the Europeans.
By the end of the 19th century, a new variety of tobacco, called "bright leaf" because of its lemon yellow color from flue-curing, was being produced and sold for premium prices. Before the American Revolution, South Carolina was exporting annually almost a million pounds of tobacco to Britain and Scotland and receiving about 17,000 pounds of manufactured tobacco from the British. After the war, tobacco cultivation increased, and South Carolina introduced regular warehouse and inspection procedures. Markets opened in the Pee Dee area, and much of the leaf from South Carolina was sent to Virginia and North Carolina for processing and manufacturing.
During the Revolution, the Continental Congress offered land bounties to national army troops, and the states offered land bounties to state armed forces who enlisted for the duration of the war. Grants varied according to rank: 500 acres to a colonel, less in regular downward steps to other officers, and 100 acres to enlisted men. Most large South Carolina landowners after the war had the title of "colonel" or "major", because they received these land bounties from their military obligations.
By 1787, the indigo planters had shifted to cotton. Sea island cotton, which had long, fine, strong fibers, was introduced into South Carolina and was favored in both English and American markets. From sea island seed imported from Georgia, Mrs. Kinsey Burden of St. Paul's Parish raised the first long-staple cotton crop in South Carolina, and William B. Seabrook of EdistoIsland discovered the best seed for growing sea island cotton---"black seed" cotton.
Wheat was introduced in South Carolina by John Kershaw, who operated a mill near Camden. Corn, or Indian maize, was planted chiefly for the slaves, who preferred it to most foods. It was prepared as corn bread, corn mush, pone, and hominy grits.
Some barley was cultivated and exported. Madder for dye was grown by a few planters, and hemp, flax, and hops were produced with profit in the Up Country. The olive tree was brought over from Europe and naturalized, and native grapes were made into wine.
Another crop which might have developed into a flourishing industry was silk. Eliza Lucas experimented with the raising of silk worms and again scored a success. From the cocoons produced on her plantation, she had enough silk spun for three dresses. Another early product was Spanish moss – not really a moss at all, but a flowering aerial plant belonging to the pineapple family – from which mattress stuffing was made. Native grasses, groundnuts, and pumpkins were also early crops in the state. As time went on, upland cotton and South Carolina's special flue-cured tobacco brought the Middle Country and the Piedmont of South Carolina into the larger agricultural picture.
The agricultural structure in the late 1700s included the planter at the top of the pyramid, then the farmer, the cottager, the squatter, and the slave at the foundation. Plantations were self-sustaining from necessity. Weaving cloth, making garments, repairing implements, and processing food were usually done in the home or at small shops in the plantation curtilage. Slaves were employed as field hands, house servants, carpenters, masons, cabinet makers, wood carvers, and mechanics. The great plantation houses were deserted in the summers, because the gentry went to their summer retreats by the seashore or resided in pineland villages, away from the "deadly swamp air". The lack of fresh water by the ocean and the possibility of transmitting disease through the water system led people to consume great amounts of watermelons. They were in much demand as a source of water for those who frequented the coast.
In December of 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union and on April 12, 1861, the sound of cannon fire echoed over the cotton fields. During the Civil War export of cotton, rice, tobacco, and sugar had practically ceased. However, a militia of blockade runners was created to make their way through the Union blockade undetected usually at night. If spotted, the runners would attempt to outmaneuver or outrun the Union ships. The privately owned vessels carried cargo to and from neutral ports in the Caribbean where neutral merchant ships would then carry the cargo to or from England or other points abroad. Inbound ships usually brought badly needed supplies and mail to the Confederacy while outbound ships often exported cotton, tobacco and other goods for trade and revenue while also carrying important mail and correspondence to suppliers and other interested parties in Europe, most often in England.
After the defeat of the Confederate Army, retreating Confederates burned and the Northerners seized the remaining cotton bales, together with quantities of food and rice. Scarcely a plantation was fit for operation after the war. South Carolina farmers' affection for their ancestral soil was deep and steadfast. They were, in a sense, as much a part of the land as the oak trees that grew upon it. Sturdy characters, these men, as sturdy as the oaks themselves. Their battle scars won them no bounties or special privileges. They kept on fighting alone, expected no help, received none, and yet somehow they held to their piece of earth and made it bear fruit once more.
Farmers mortgaged their plantations to the hilt, so that they could replant and begin farming again. When the next crop season arrived, they had paid off their debts and were ready to take in new ground. Planters after the war used the share-cropping system. The landowner would furnish seed, fertilizer, and other supplies, and the share-croppers furnished the labor. When the crops were sold, the planter would give Yankee food. The Yankee spuds became one of the chief crops of the Low Country in South Carolina. They also tried other fruit and vegetable crops---cabbage, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers.
In 1908 the Southern Railway Company gave Clemson College 300 acres to develop an experimental farm to test other crops---grasses, vetch, alfalfa, Egyptian cotton, soybeans, peanuts, corn, flax, tobacco, and 90-day oats, crimson clover, field peas, millet, and Texas blue grass. The farm was named "Drainland", because they had to drain the land before they could plant and experiment.
In the early 1900s farming changed from "muscle power" to "motor power". The rise of commercial agriculture early in South Carolina's history provided the capital for other enterprises in the state. The astounding rise in total population, urbanization, and the increase in agriculture production all resulted from an abundance of rich farmland.
Urbanization and industrialization strongly influenced farming between 1815 and 1840. Farmers began to take greater advantage of their markets in Europe as well as larger American cities. Improvements in technology helped the farmer receive higher returns from his land and labor. Improvements in transportation and processing of products facilitated the flow of farm commodities to market.The introduction of railroads allowed city dwellers to obtain better and cheaper food and greatly affected dairy and truck farmers. Farmers in South Carolina and other southern states were slower to take advantage of new equipment and inventions, because they still had slave labor to prepare the land.
Milk could now be refrigerated and delivered to market in acceptable condition. Dairymen formed associations, set up receiving stations in the cities, and ran city delivery services. Consumers could receive a fresh product with fewer health risks, but the milk cost less. Per capita consumption of milk in cities significantly increased and as the railroads expanded, so did commercial dairying. Fresh fruit and vegetable producers also benefited from the railroad. Farmers began to grow many specialty produce crops, like strawberries, and the great increase in the supply of these specialties caused prices to fall, because as the production expanded, so did the demand. Fruit and vegetable growing and dairying were developed to supply Chicago, New York, and other large cities.
Agricultural marketing; the use of marketing agents and cooperatives; efficient transportation; innovations in handling, storing, canning, refrigerating, and preserving food; the development of large commodity exchanges; and the rise of chain food stores appeared.
Technology and science seemed to dominate agriculture from 1861 to 1914. The first successful cotton seed oil plant in the state began operation in Charleston in 1882. Industrial exhibitions were held to display products of field and home, industrial art, farm implements, and machinery. Farmers had to sell their produce at prices high enough to afford the new technology.
Therefore, profitable and effective marketing was necessary for the adoption of new methods, equipment, chemicals, plants, and animals. Farmers in South Carolina and other areas of the nation experienced a rare time of prosperity from 1898 to 1914 – the "Golden Age" of agriculture.
During WWI and WWII farmers produced heavily to contribute to the Allied victory which brought general prosperity to the nation. After the war, farm population began to fall. The invention of machinery meant less labor, and farmers could produce as much as before with less labor, but the yield per acre rose little or not at all. After the invention of the cotton gin, cotton completely replaced indigo as the major crop.
The loss of foreign markets from 1919 to 1940 brought agrarian distress, and farm relief became a political issue.
The Great Depression of the 30s drove many back to the farms. From 1945-1972 the agricultural industry ranked first in the US, employed more people and had a greater capital investment and cash flow than any other industry.
Agricultural societies began to propagate the best known doctrines of cultivation – the first was established in Philadelphia and the second in South Carolina which still operates under its original charter.
South Carolina agriculture has been plagued from time to time by hurricanes and droughts. The average age of a farmer is about 57-years-old, and farm children are entering other careers, so the number of farmers has decreased while the number of farms has remained stable. Farmland is being placed in Crop Reserve Programs or planted in forests. But, the need for food, fiber, and shelter remains high. With new technology and better farming methods, farmers are producing more on less land than ever before. While trade agreements have created new avenues for farmers, they have also created an influx of foreign products. While less than 10% of the average taxpayer's disposable income is spent on food, the price to the farmer has remained the same or decreased.
At the turn of the millennium, South Carolina experienced a revival of nature's wonder crop. Growers hoped that the renewed demand for the fluffy, white crop would once again reestablish cotton as "King" in the state. Other row crops included soybeans, corn, wheat, peanuts, hay, and a variety of small grains.
Major changes occurred in the tobacco industry by the turn of the century. Domestic demand for tobacco continued to decrease. Bales of tobacco instead of piles on the warehouse floors meant less need for space in warehouses. More contract growing with manufacturers was replacing the traditional auctioning system.
And demands from manufacturers like retrofitting tobacco barns for indirect heat placed added financial demands on growers. The centuries old traditional tobacco system had changed forever.
Farmers looked at other avenues for alternative crops. The ornamental horticulture and floriculture industry continued to grow in the state. South Carolina growers produced an abundance of colorful, fresh flowers, plants, and sod grasses essential to the environmentally conscious consumer. With a need for landscaping of over 350 golf courses in the state, new businesses, and urban expansion, ornamental horticulture became the fastest growing industry in the state.
Also, with increased demand for herbals and functional foods, South Carolina farmers were examining the possibility of those as alternative crops. Researchers, test farmers, and others were looking at growing herbals like Echinacea, fever few, and St. John’s Wort as well as raspberries and broccoli to be packaged as functional foods.
Specialty fresh and processed value-added products were abundant and included: sauces and seasonings; jams and jellies; honey and cane syrup; pecans, peanuts, and popcorn; wines and beverages unique to South Carolina like American Classic Tea, the only tea grown in North America. Other special agricultural items included items like artichoke relish; aromatic rice grown on the Pee DeeRiver; a variety of sorbets and yogurts; Charleston benne wafers; pumpkin chips; grits chips and Yalsa Salsa; ostrich meat; and even a line of gourmet pet treats.
In three hundred years of South Carolina agriculture, some things have remained the same, and some have changed. Individuals or families---not large corporations, still own South Carolina’s farms. Some are incorporated, but those corporations consist of fathers, sons, daughters, or partners. There are few, if any, truly "corporate" farms in the state.