A s the world’s population grows, so does the global demand for U.S. food and fiber.
In 2013, American agricultural exports topped $140 billion and accounted for almost a million jobs. South Carolina’s export numbers mirror that growth, having increased by 157 percent since 2000, averaging more than $950 million in annual revenue since 2012, and representing a third of the state’s total farm revenue.
Economies of Sale
China, Vietnam and Taiwan continue to top the list of importers of South Carolina agricultural products, says Meredith Atkinson, public information director for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.
“Our focus is on China,” she says. “Soybean imports to China will continue to grow, so there are big opportunities there.”
Atkinson says that while cotton has traditionally been the number one agricultural export, poultry exports have overtaken the top spot in recent years.
“We’ve been in conversation with the state to revamp flash freezer space at the Port [of Charleston]. That would give us more vertically integrated opportunities,” she says.
Forestry products also have seen a jump in exports in recent years. Forests make up close to 70 percent of South Carolina’s landscape, and forestry is one of the top manufacturing industries in the state, with an annual economic impact of some $17 billion. The state exports more than $1 billion in forestry products, particularly paper, each year.
Right Place, Right Time
Location plays a key role in South Carolina’s successful trade economy. Agribusinesses looking to import supplies or export products have access to seven major interstates, including I-95, I-85 and I-20, three international airports, as well as the Port of Charleston, which boasts the deepest harbor in the south Atlantic and offers access to more than 150 countries.
Containerization and bulk transload operators, such as The Scoular Company, have opened new marketing channels and export opportunities that were not previously available. Atkinson says containerization has given the Port of Charleston a way to delve into new export markets without having to revamp older bulk facilities.
“It allows farmers to hit that market directly, meaning, for instance, they don’t have to load 22 tons of soybeans from vessel to vessel,” she says.
Port of Authority
Over the past three years, the port has increased its volume by 17 percent, and Atkinson says the South Carolina Ports Authority is in talks to deepen the Charleston harbor to 52 feet to allow access for larger vessels, which will bring in even more revenue for the state.
“The Ports Authority is an extremely valuable tool for the agricultural industry. The opportunities the Port of Charleston provides are very important, if South Carolina is going to continue to play a role as a world leader in the ag industry,” says Clint Leach, assistant commissioner of External Affairs & Economic Development.
“The Ports Authority recognizes the importance of agriculture and understands that infrastructure needs to be in place, so we can capitalize on strategic export markets. As a team, we will continue producing quality, needed products so that we remain a valuable industry, not only to the state Ports Authority, but to farmers small and large, throughout our state.”
The agriculture industry is equally important to the South Carolina Ports Authority, which has focused on expanding international markets for agricultural exports. In 2013, agricultural products made up 30 percent of the Port of Charleston’s total container volume.