Southeast major player in vegetables

Fifteen years ago a regional project known as the ‘Tri-state Project’ envisioned the three states on the south Atlantic coast, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, joining together to compete with California in production of vegetables.

With the changes in latitude and altitude from the coastal plains of far South Georgia to the mountain valleys of North Carolina, the region could match California season for season in the production of many popular vegetable crops.

The project has ended now, but its legacy lives on among the many growers in this region. Even though it did not happen quite as fast as hoped, the three states all have become major players in the vegetable industry.

Because of changes in Florida and its more southernly location, Georgia has become the giant of the three, although the Carolinas have both seen an increase in production and diversity of vegetable crops.

The coastal islands of South Carolina have long been an important vegetable production area. However, this is changing due to increased development pressure along the coast.

Still, much of South Carolina's tomato acreage is located here. The 1997 Census of Agriculture showed 2,885 acres of tomatoes in South Carolina. By the 2002 Census, the acreage had increased to 3,080 acres with much of this increase occurring in the interior of the state, particularly in the mountain valleys along the North Carolina border.

During this same five-year period, the number of tomato growers increased from 247 to 357.

Bell pepper production has increased from NOT REPORTED in the 1997 Census to over 400 acres by 2002. In 2003 and 2004, several farms each planted more than 400 acres of pepper.

Butterbeans and snap beans both saw increases of several hundred acres between 1997 and 2002. Specialty peppers, mainly hot peppers, have increased in acreage from NOT REPORTED to 79 acres produced on more than 20 farms.

Eggplant acreage has also increased in this five-year period from 35 acres to 123 acres.

Squash, cucumbers (including pickles), and melons have always been widely grown in South Carolina. Summer squash was grown on 1,479 acres in 1997 and 1589 acres in 2002.

The number of cucumber growers increased from 185 to 267 and the acreage from 2,939 acres to 4,858 acres in this five-year period.

The South Carolina melon industry is centered in the Savannah Valley region with some acreage along the coast and up in Chesterfield County bordering North Carolina. Over the years the acreage of watermelons has steadily decreased, although production hasn't decreased proportionately.

Increased management and new varieties have contributed to major yield increases. Gilbert Miller, area horticulturist in the watermelon area, reports that a great shift in watermelon types has occurred.

In the mid-1990s, less than 10 percent of the watermelon acreage was devoted to the seedless type, whereas now about 90 percent of the watermelons grown in South Carolina are seedless.

The small watermelons known as ‘palm’ melons are also making inroads into the conventional melon acreage.

Cantaloupe acreage has steadily increased in South Carolina, going from 1,411 acres to 1,579 acres between 1997 and 2002. Reported acreage for all types of melons is much less than Extension estimates.

The center of South Carolina in the Sandhills region is an important area for production of leafy greens and green onions. South Carolina is the second leading state for collard production nationally and also ranks in the top four states nationally in the production of kale, turnip, and mustard greens.

Statewide acreage for these commodities in 1997 was 4,251 with collard making up about half of the acreage. The acreage in 2002 of leafy greens was 3,272. Most of this drop was caused by a significant decrease in the acreage of greens for processing in the coastal plain region.

Reporting of greens acreage is poor among growers. Also, reliable Extension estimates indicate that the Sandhills region alone of South Carolina grows over 4,000 acres of greens.

The acreage of green onions has increased from 327 acres to over 650 acres, while the number of producers has dropped from 25 to 13 in the five years between 1997 and 2002.

The number of producers reporting ‘mixed vegetable’ production has decreased from 13 to eight in five years, although the acreage has increased from 39 to 165 acres.

Many new crops are being grown in South Carolina with ‘other pepper’, radishes, Chinese cabbage, and parsley/cilantro not being listed in 1997 but were all showing acreage in 2002.

Lexington County in the Sandhills is shipping several truckloads each of parsley and cilantro weekly.

Leaf lettuce acreage increased from 3 acres in 1997 to almost 40 acres in 2002.

Acreage of other vegetables such as asparagus, sweet corn, pumpkins, cabbage, and okra has remained essentially the same over this period. Southern peas and spinach both saw a decrease in acreage due to fewer acres being grown for the processing industry.

Overall, according to the Census of Agriculture, acreage devoted to vegetable production in South Carolina went from 30,362 in 1997 to 30,894 in 2002. The number of farms involved in vegetable production during this same period went from 1,046 to 1,213.

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