Betting the Farm

Posted: June 1, 2021 at 4:38 pm

Scientists at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center go all in on plant research that benefits South Carolina farmers

Jodi Helmer

To those driving past, the acres of farm fields visible out the windows look no different than thousands of other row crop farms scattered across South Carolina.

Although soybeans, cotton, sorghum and corn are in regular rotation on the 2,300-acre farm, there is nothing ordinary about what’s happening at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center.

“People drive past this place all the time and don’t know what it is,” admits Jonathan Windham, extension associate at the Pee Dee REC at Clemson University. “Because it’s far away from the road, there’s a fence out front and it’s gated, it gets a lot of people wondering, ‘what’s going on back there?’”

The Pee Dee Research and Education Center is one of six such institutions in South Carolina working to help make the most of natural resources and farming methods.

The Pee Dee REC was established in 1911 as part of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences at Clemson University (and moved to its current location in 1985). It’s one of six Research and Education Centers in South Carolina where researchers explore topics ranging from forestry and watershed management to organic pest management and drought stress in agriculture.

“Agriculture has always been a big deal in South Carolina and, in particular, in the Pee Dee region; it’s a very rural area, there’s lots of farmland,” says Windham. “The research we do here and those chances for collaboration gives us an opportunity to further our research for the farmers in South Carolina.”

The scientists at Pee Dee REC, located in Darlington and Florence counties, are part of the Advanced Plant Technology program at Clemson; their research is focused on creating new row crop cultivars that have genetic traits that are optimized for local growing conditions. The research, Windham explains, leads to crops that require fewer inputs such as water, fertilizer and pesticides, which helps improve farming in the Pee Dee region.

More than 10 researchers, including a sorghum breeder, wheat breeder, cotton breeder, turf grass specialist, tobacco specialist, entomologists and a soil health specialist, conduct experiments on the site.

In addition to lab research, scientists have access to acres of farmland to conduct real world trials that will help local farmers improve soil, manage crops, reduce pest pressure and improve yields.

Windham believes the research ensures that local farmers have access to information and genetics that are specific to their region.

“The Pee Dee region is in the coastal plain of South Carolina with some specific soil conditions and pest pressures,” he explains. “What we do here is breed plants that are adapted to these conditions so that when these plants reach market for the farmers, they’re already suited for their growing area.”

Better genetics means healthier crops and that translates into more success for farmers.

Pee Dee REC offers scientists access to acres of farmland to conduct
real-world trials that help local farmers improve soil, manage crops,
reduce pest pressure and improve yields.

“You can have the best soil in the world but if your plant material isn’t optimum for your region, you’re not going to have a good crop and you’re going to lose money,” Windham adds. “With the research that happens here, we’re developing crops and plants that require fewer inputs, which translates into more savings for the farmer—the less they have to spray, the less they have to water [and] that’s just more money in their pockets.”

Recently, the Pee Dee REC added two certified organic areas on the farm. Consumer demand, according to Windham, has created the need to research which crops grow well under organic conditions and which are not well-suited to organic production. The research, he hopes, will help farmers make educated decisions about transitioning to organic.

Collaboration Nation

The scientists at Pee Dee REC engage in collaborations with agencies like the United States Department of Agriculture-Agriculture Research Services, National Resources Conservation Service and North Carolina State University.

Matt Smith P.E., professor and director of Pee Dee REC, believes these collaborations are essential to allowing researchers to share knowledge and information and provide access to shared equipment that is important to their research and increases operation efficiencies.

“It’s getting harder and harder for each land-grant university in each state to have a full complement of specialists for every crop,” Smith explains. “Every group brings something different to the table. [Collaborations] allow for a magnification of our efforts and maximize what we can get done.”

Farmers benefit, too. Thanks to a partnership with the National Resources Conservation Service, Pee Dee REC is the site for side-by-side cotton trials. In one field, conventional cotton is rotated with corn and on an adjacent field, researchers are growing cotton using sustainable techniques such as no till and cover cropping to measure the impact on pest pressure, crop health and yield.

“We can bring farmers out and show them what it looks like before they adopt it [in their fields],” Smith says.

The Pee Dee REC also fosters multi-disciplinary relationships within Clemson University. The site is home to several college programs, including the Advanced Pant Technology program, the Integrated Pest Management program and the South Carolina Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. Researchers from within those interdisciplinary programs also carry out research at the facility.

The public is invited to learn more about the research happening at Pee Dee REC during annual field days. In 2020, scientists hosted short virtual information sessions about their ongoing research in areas like turfgrass pathology, pollinator protection, corn earworm, cotton seeding rates, tobacco transplant water fertilizers and prescribed burns.

Graduate students, researchers, instructors and local industry experts collaborate to create and encourage efficient, more productive methods
of working the land.

During previous field days, researchers have introduced producers to novel crops like flax and sorghum and talked about the potential for growing sugarcane for biofuel. The events also include a luncheon and opportunities to earn pesticide applicator credits. The 2021 field day will be an in-person event on September 9, 2021.

Field days not only provide a chance to educate farmers about the latest research, they offer a chance to showcase the world class facilities, which include greenhouses, research plots and field laboratories. The John B. Pitner Center, which underwent a $7 million renovation, includes four state-of-the-art plant technology laboratories, an auditorium and classrooms. Extension agents often use the space to lead classes that are open to the public.

“The field days are valuable because it gives growers the chance to witness the research…and get to ask the researchers questions about best practices for their operation,” Windham says. “They also offer the opportunity for networking, not only between growers and researchers, but also with industry partners who sponsor the event. Finally, for the general public and students who may not have been exposed to agriculture and its significance, the field days give first-hand insight into just how scientifically advanced modern agriculture has become.

Emphasizing Education

Agricultural education is at the heart of every project at the Pee Dee REC. In addition to the 40 researchers working onsite, the facility also offers opportunities to allow emerging scientists studying at Clemson University to conduct research projects—there is even graduate student lodging on the property.

“Clemson students can actually stay here at the REC for the summer and complete their research project and then return to campus during the semester and do their on-campus coursework,” Windham explains. “You get hands-on experience working in the lab, working out in the field, seeing how an actual plant breeder handles a breeding program and handles their data. It’s pretty cool.”

While pursuing his graduate degree at Clemson University, Windham worked alongside one of the scientists to research whether a gene editing technique called CRISPR could be used to create peaches that re-bloom. He’s in the process of publishing his research.

Smith believes that the graduate research program at Pee Dee REC also serves another important mission: It creates a place where the next generation of teachers, scientists and agriculture researchers can receive mentoring that will shape their research and their careers.

“The knowledge developed at the Pee Dee REC is carried back into undergraduate and graduate classrooms on campus and brought directly to citizens of South Carolina through the Cooperative Extension Service’s agents and staff located in every county in the state,” he explains.

The Pee Dee REC also hires high school students for summer work. Their duties can include helping plant, maintain and harvest crops; assisting with data collection of crops in the fields and greenhouses; preparing samples for chemical analysis in the lab; or assisting with facilities maintenance.

“The opportunity gives high school students a chance to understand [agriculture] and explore possible career opportunities,” Windham says. “A lot of students go to college thinking that agriculture is just farming; they think it’s boring and decide they don’t want to be farmers—but you don’t have to be a farmer. We’re doing molecular biology, plant breeding, work with pollinators, turf grass, gene editing and sequencing. Agriculture is still very much important and there are a lot of opportunities.”

Everyone who works at the Pee Dee REC from high school students and graduate students to scientists plays a role in advancing agricultural knowledge—and sharing that information with local farmers ensures that agriculture will continue to thrive across South Carolina.

“Releasing those reports, letting the farmers know yeah this variety of corn is going to do well here, this one won’t or this variety of soybeans needs this amount of water…or looking at soil as an ecosystem…and figuring how to best utilize the soil to maximize the yield is all information that really matters to farmers,” Windham says. “It’s high level research that benefits everyone, especially the farmers in this region of South Carolina.”