19 April 2004

Planting trials indicate crop would be difficult, expensive to grow here

“Got Borage?” bumper stickers were distributed as part of the October 2002 announcement made by start-up pharmaceutical company Pilot Therapeutics to locate its operations in the Orangeburg County/City Industrial Park. The medicinal crop, whose flowers would provide the primary source of medicinal oil used in Pilot Therapeutics’ asthma products, was touted by company and economic development officials as a possible boom for area farmers.

It was said that more than 400 farmers could grow the crop on 30,000 acres if the market-penetration goals for Pilot’s products were realized. Growers were told by Pilot officials they would see a return on investment that was five-to seven-fold higher per acre than for traditional crops, such as soybeans or winter wheat. Orangeburg County farmer Landy Weathers, speaking on behalf of the agricultural community, noted that the group would “stand ready, stand willing to produce this product.”

Many things were said on that October day two years ago, but unsuccessful crop growth and harvest in 2003 trials and unanswered questions surrounding the future of Pilot Therapeutics and its operations here have raised questions about the “Got Borage?” slogan. “Based on what we have seen so far, it is a long shot,” said Jay Chapin, Clemson Extension specialist and leading researcher on the crop at the Blackville Edisto Research Center. “There is nothing wrong with looking at long shots … but we have some consistently serious disease problems with it.”

At the ERC, the crop underwent a planting date study during the winter and spring of 2002-2003. It was planted on selected days for consecutive months in an effort to determine how it responds from growth to harvest.

The results from those planting dates, which were in December, January, February, March and April, revealed the crop consistently had to contend with disease and insect pressure.

“The biggest issues are the threat of disease,” Chapin said. “We can find a way to grow most anything if there is enough money in it. But where you have to fight diseases or insects in cotton and peanuts … they are well adapted to this area … and are a high value crop.”

Borage, on the other hand, has not adapted to the South Carolina climate. It has been successfully grown in North Dakota. But here, the test plantings show the crop would be expensive to grow. There is no labeled or approved herbicide to use on the crop, Chapin said. “We also had some harvest problems,” he said, noting that in test trials when the crop was mowed, rains and seed shattering prevented any successful harvest. Additional crop plantings — this time from September 2003 through January 2004 — have revealed much of the same difficulties. “We wanted to look at it (during different planting dates) to see if we could avoid these disease issues,” Chapin said. “We wanted to escape insect problems and see if it could mature earlier … but we are seeing the same disease.”

All of these crop problems mean that farmers would have extra costs to grow the crop, such as spraying pesticides, which has shifted borage from a high-value crop to a low-value crop.

Chapin said the ERC is in touch with North Carolina State University disease plant pathologists to study these issues, but his assessment on growing the crop here was that the county would be better served by growing the crop elsewhere and transporting it by rail to the Orangeburg plant. “It is not a simple crop to grow and harvest,” he said.

Chapin said the current plot tests at the ERC would be the last in the preliminary crop trial run. Outside of the ERC, farmland tests were attempted in the spring through summer of 2003. About five county farmers each attempted to plant an acre of the crop and none were able to control weeds, get an adequate stand or accrue much in the harvest. And now, the crop is not being grown anywhere in the county.

Pilot Therapeutics’ financial struggles have compounded the local debate about the futility of borage. Troubles surfaced last summer when the cash-strapped company revealed it had laid off most of its workers and curtailed operations.

Pilot, which moved from Winston-Salem, N.C. to Charleston, was offered $5 million in taxpayer funded loans and grants and $10 million in tax credits to come to South Carolina. The headquarters move was also made with the idea that the company would be close to its main plant, which was planned for Orangeburg.

As part of its arrival, the company planned to begin operations in a 100,000-square-foot, $8 million facility in the Orangeburg County/City Industrial Park. Pilot was supposed to bring 80 new jobs over a five-year period. To attract Pilot, the county and city created a handsome incentive package in which park land was sold to Spartanburg-based Johnson Development Associates Inc. for $500,000. Johnson Development Associates was contracted to build the new plant at the industrial park, which is near completion. The firm was in turn to lease the property to Pilot, to whom city and county government allocated the $500,000.

Through its development phase, the company resorted to fund-raising efforts to stay afloat. However, a 30-delay in a $500,000 state grant the company was relying on forced it to cut back test marketing of the asthma treatment and furlough all essential employees. The struggles of both the company and its borage crop have left doubts about the once-hopeful economic impact for county industry and agriculture. Harry Wimberly, an Orangeburg County farmer, councilman and one of the men on the initial front lines of the crop research, described the status of crop growth and testing as “about at a standstill” until more information was discerned about Pilot’s future.

“We are in the wait-and-see mode,” he said.

Source: The Times and Democrat vom 2004-04-13.

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