CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCBD) – Carrots, Peas, Cucumbers and Kale have a rich history on Savannah Highway. Driving from John’s Island to West Ashley, you may have noticed the large buildings and greenhouses on either side of US-17.

They make up the USDA Vegetable Lab and Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center, dating back nearly 100 years.

Dr. Brian Ward has spent more than half his life working at the site. “When other industries had failed around the turn of the century, we decided to open a vegetable research facility here to support the transitioning growers here in South Carolina,” he explained.

The creation of the facility took an Act of Congress in 1935, an effort to help a farming industry that was struggling during the Great Depression. It called for the creation of nine research laboratories across the United States, and the very first one was built in Charleston County.

Dr. Ward specializes in organic vegetables, and also teaches Clemson University students in the fields along US-17. That research affects all of us every day, through the foods that we eat.

“Our number one industry in South Carolina is agriculture; it is a $42 billion per year industry,” Dr. Ward said.

The financial impact is obvious, but beyond the numbers, these scientists serve as a lifeline for growers across the state, always just a text or call away.

“We act, in essence, almost like a medical university, like MUSC. So, when patients have problems, they contact our extension agents, or contact scientists like me directly, present the problem, and we develop solutions to overcome those problems so that the growers can be successful, sustainable, and profitable.”

Problems like overcoming mold, researching the spores, and as Dr. Anthony Keinath explained, constantly improving the product to be resilient and nutritious.

“There are new varieties, or cultivars, of many popular vegetables that come on to the market every year, it seems like every year, watermelon growers, tomato growers, change what cultivars they grow, because they are always looking for something newer, and better than what they grew last year,” explained Dr. Keinath.

As for the research that has gone into those new cultivars… well, chances are you have probably eaten one of the outcomes:

“A lot of the older cucumber varieties, that people used to grow and eat, were developed right here at the coastal research and education center.”

Beyond the mold and the cultivars, some of the most important work done at the facility goes into researching pesticides. The “Dirty Dozen” fruits and veggies get plenty of bad press for the trace amount of pesticides found on the produce you pick up at the store.

“Now there is a lot of publicity about the dirty dozen fruits and vegetables, that, you know laboratories can find pesticide residue on, I just want to assure people that the level of residue they are finding is not on a level that would be harmful. The risk is marginal, there is probably a greater risk of a food born pathogen from not washing fruit or vegetable than there is of a pesticide residue.” 

One thing is certain, on Savannah Highway, it’s a whole lot of work, that goes into the perfect bite.

“The more that we show our growers that we really, truly care about them, and their mission, to provide sustainable produce and vegetables for our state and other states through exports, they eventually end up trusting us.”