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Martin Eubanks, senior commodity merchandiser for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture in Columbia, SC, told The Produce News that hail this season delayed peach movement by a few days.

"We're getting underway now with the early side of our deal," Mr. Eubanks said May 13. "Peaches will be shipped throughout May into early June. We will have ample volumes to handle normal sales, but growers will likely be somewhat limited with supplies for overly heavy promotions in the early part of the movement. Things are looking real good for June, however, with much better volumes and ample promotional opportunities. We are looking forward to a good season overall."

Mr. Eubanks said that Georgia is indicating a good crop this season, which will help to compensate for South Carolina's lower volumes in the early season.

South Carolina fruit has a key marketing period that fits in nicely with programs from Georgia, California and other states. Peach acreage in the state has increased in recent years. It currently has between 17,000 and 18,000 acres. State growers have become highly advanced in their operations, and food safety is paramount. Most are third-party audited and GAP certified.

On the vegetable side, producers in South Carolina started with squashes, cucumbers, cabbage, green onions and other vegetables and fruits in early May.

"As we move into June, we will have tomatoes, one of our signature crops," said Mr. Eubanks. "The crop looks good so far. Most items are running a few days behind because we had some cooler nights in April, but the following few weeks warmed up and things started picking up."

Mr. Eubanks concurred with growers who say that daytime temperatures are important, but nighttime temperatures are critical to plant growth. "When the thermostat hits 60 degrees and higher, plants start to rock and roll," he said. "We are getting healthy amounts of scattered rainfall, so we're excited about this season."

South Carolina agriculture is experiencing huge diversity in niche crops. Mr. Eubanks said that interest has increased in items such as organic and conventional asparagus, broccoli and other items. Much of the increasing interest, he feels, is due to the growing drive and demand for locally grown products and to transportation costs. Spring and fall crops from South Carolina have evolved into an important program for the eastern United States.

"Growers here continue to diversify their operations," said Mr. Eubanks. "They are producing traditional field crops, but they also find niche items that work well for them. For example, someone in New York may be looking for dandelion, and we have growers that can supply it."

Historically, South Carolina has always had a strong force of minority growers, particularly in the coastal areas. Mr. Eubanks said that many are small farmers who are participating in the state's branding program for both retailers and foodservice. African-Americans have been a major minority in the state's produce trade for a long time, and increasing numbers of Hispanics are entering farming.

"It has been difficult on small growers in past years because of the high cost of insurance, food safety certifications and other major expensive initiatives," he said. "Today, however, more are taking part in cooperatives that help offset these exorbitant expenses."

SCDA's locally grown program, Certified SC Grown, provides point-of- purchase materials and advertising incentives for state-produced items. It also runs a Fresh on the Menu campaign. "We started this from a pilot program and have taken it statewide," said Mr. Eubanks. "Over 200 restaurants are now signed up. At least 25 percent of the restaurant's menu items must be sourced from state producers."

Another SCDA program, titled the Palmettovore campaign, is challenging citizens to eat products grown in the Palmetto state (South Carolina). "We are rolling out a viral campaign using new web features," said Mr. Eubanks. "Its goal is to motivate people to sign up at www.palmettovore.org [currently under construction] and commit to buying local-certified South Carolina- grown products. The program will take advantage of the Internet via web site coverage, Twitter and other new accesses, as well as traditional forms of promotion."

(For more on Carolina produce, see the May 25 issue of The Produce News.)