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There was a time in Jack Keener's life when high-schoolers sought work at farms packing sheds instead of pizza shops, but since then a long list of factors have marginalized the agricultural industry in Beaufort County.
Today, Keener, who heads the Beaufort County Farm Bureau's board of directors, is more likely to talk about landowners' rights -- especially the ones that affect the selling price of land -- before livestock.
Despite the long decline, county planners and state officials are pushing for a revival in farming they say can improve quality of life by preserving open space and creating economic opportunities, though some are unconvinced the downward trend can be reversed.
At a Beaufort County Planning Commission meeting last week, planning director Tony Criscitiello told the commission that the county's 10-year comprehensive plan due out by the year's end aims to weave agriculture back into rural life.
The Northern Beaufort County Regional Plan, a related long-term planning document released earlier this year, addresses the role agriculture should have in the future of rural northern Beaufort County.
The predominant zoning designation allows for one home per three acres, a density that "may result in low-density suburban sprawl and fragmented open space," according to the plan. The plan is meant to guide growth through 2025 and is the product of the governments of Beaufort County, City of Beaufort, Port Royal and Yemassee.
"A more desired development pattern would consist of higher density hamlets and villages surrounded by large tracts of agricultural land and open space," the report continues. The plan calls for about 60 percent of northern Beaufort County to remain rural.
Criscitiello said a program where rural landowners could sell their development rights as credits that can be applied in dense pockets of development could facilitate that vision. The program would result in no net change in homes permitted, but more open space and less sprawl.
Larry McKenzie, assistant to the president of the South Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, agreed that farming and quality of life were connected.
"You've got that natural tie there that's becoming more and more desirable," he said. "(Tourists and retirees) are looking for that open space, that lifestyle, living in an area with lots of open space, greenery. That's the type of lifestyle agriculture brings."
County Councilwoman Laura Von Harten described rural land as a "gold mine" for people willing to work hard and make the land productive.
"Rural does not mean worthless," she told the planning commission.
Claude McLeod, a member of county farm bureau board and part-owner of the 1,005-acre McLeod Farm in Seabrook, was skeptical.
"I think they're dreaming," he said. McLeod created a firestorm of local unrest last year when he petitioned Beaufort to annex his land for the development of thousands of homes. The farm has not been annexed, and the County Council announced an $8.5 million deal in August to preserve 375 acres of the farm.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture, there were 116 farms with 44,373 acres in the county in 2002, but only 47 of those farms actually harvested anything on only 3,368 acres.
"We only have a handful of farmers that are making a living for their family off their farm," said Keener, the county farm bureau leader.
On the economic side, traditional farming doesn't create high-paying jobs, though McKenzie and Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce President Carlotta Ungaro pointed out that processing farm produce adds value and provides better paying jobs.
Additionally, the South Carolina Department of Agriculture recently launched a marketing campaign promoting locally grown produce, which Keener conceded could breathe some life into the industry for small farmers.
Horticulture, a non-traditional subset of farming, could be especially attractive in Beaufort County because of the demand for sod at golf courses and landscaping in general, McKenzie said. The field has experienced exponential growth in the last five to 10 years, McKenzie said, making it the state's fastest growing industry.
Or, as Keener put it, "There's more money spent on people's lawns than we could produce in eggs and chickens."
And a palm tree fetches a lot more at the market than a tomato.