South Carolina’s New Legislation Aims to Protect Farmland and Boost Economy

south carolina agriculture commissioner hugh weathers speaks at a december 2022 news conference on the economic impact of agribusiness in south carolina

Amid South Carolina's rapid population growth, preserving farmland is essential for sustaining its $51.8 billion agricultural industry, which supports 259,214 jobs and generates $12.3 billion in annual labor income. (Credit: SCAD)

by | Jun 3, 2024

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The passage of the Working Agricultural Lands Preservation Act represents a significant stride in South Carolina’s efforts to safeguard its farmland from the relentless march of development. This landmark legislation, signed into law by Governor Henry McMaster on April 23, 2024, creates a robust program within the South Carolina Conservation Bank to compensate landowners for conservation easements.

The Act is designed to conserve and protect farmland by supporting agricultural landowners in preventing urban development on their lands. Key components of such legislation typically include:

  • Conservation Easements: Landowners voluntarily agree to restrictions on land use, particularly against development, to permanently maintain agricultural integrity.
  • Financial Incentives: Participants receive financial benefits, such as tax breaks, grants, or compensation, for participating in conservation easements.
  • Eligibility Criteria: Landowners must meet specific requirements, such as earning a substantial portion of their income from farming or committing to ongoing agricultural production.
  • Local Implementation: The act is managed by state or local authorities, with landowners collaborating with land trusts, government agencies, or other entities to set up conservation easements.
  • Long-Term Impact: Preserving farmland supports food security, environmental conservation, and the cultural heritage of rural communities.

Strengthening Conservation Efforts

South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers lauds the new legislation, a crucial enhancement to the state’s conservation initiatives. “We hope that some additional funding will be coming with a carveout for agricultural conservation easements. In the meanwhile, what we will do is create a review team to look at the agricultural applications and talk about those in the agricultural vernacular then pass it on to the Conservation Bank members with an evaluation of return on investment that those particular easements might provide,” Weathers remarked in an interview with Southeast Farm Press.

The act is anticipated to receive funding in the upcoming state budget, which begins on July 1. According to the American Farmland Trust, this financial support is expected to bolster the program’s effectiveness in mitigating the loss of farmland—a pressing issue in South Carolina, which lost more than 280,000 acres of farmland between 2001 and 2016.

Preserving Farmland Amidst Population Growth

The new legislation, combined with a recently established land trust by the South Carolina Farm Bureau, is poised to advance farmland preservation efforts significantly. “The combination of the passage of this legislation and the creation of a farmer-oriented land trust, I think will really step up the activity in the conservation easements that our farmers actually pursue,” Weathers stated.

As South Carolina experiences unprecedented population growth, retaining farmland is critical for maintaining the state’s agricultural output. Agriculture, the state’s largest industry, had a staggering $51.8 billion impact on the South Carolina economy as of 2020, supporting 259,214 jobs and generating $12.3 billion in annual labor income.

“If you look at the decade from 2010 to 2020, we had nearly a 40% increase in economic impact up to now about $52 billion a year come to South Carolina’s economy because our nearly 24,000 farmers grow things that we consume,” Weathers highlighted. “With 23,000 farmers in the state, they produce almost 260,000 jobs to actually get those products from the farm to the final consumer. It points to the partnership of the producer of agriculture and the member of the agribusiness industry.”

Adding Value to Agricultural Commodities

The importance of adding value to agricultural commodities within South Carolina cannot be overstated. Weathers emphasizes the role of value-added processes in strengthening the state’s economy, from major row crops and livestock to agritourism.

“Last year in our state budget, we were able to have appropriated a growing agribusiness development fund and our job is to find places where we can incentivize production of South Carolina crops to add more value here in the state so that our farmers get that benefit,” Weathers said.

One notable example is the investment in beef processing facilities across the state. This initiative aims to process more commodities locally, thereby increasing the economic value generated within South Carolina. “By the time you finish that animal to processing weight, versus having sold it as a feeder calf, you’re adding more value in the state per animal. If we raise our processing capacity and are able to process 4,000 or 5,000 more cows than we were, well multiply that at $2,500 per animal of value, you’re putting some economic growth in the beef industry by letting them raise those animals out,” Weathers explained.

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