I had an opportunity recently that few people have had – I visited for several hours with family members of Walther Farms in Aiken County near the town of Windsor. The fourth-generation family farmers hosted a number of folks from the agriculture community to answer our questions and to show us what they have been up to on the tract of land they purchased last February.
Let me say, it’s impressive, in every way. One big advantage this family has is to start their farming operation in South Carolina with a blank pallet. They have cleared what was an unusable tract of scrub oaks and are turning it into what will become one of the Southeast’s most sustainable, “green” farming operations. They are integrating state-of-the-art technology to reduce their impact on the environment and to reduce their carbon footprint to become one of the most efficient and environmentally sensitive farming operations I’ve seen.
Every decision the Walther family has made is based on their business plan founded on their mission to promote sustainable excellence and innovation as they work to serve their consumers, their community, and the environment. And, they are just that – a family farm. Many have painted them with a negative brush associated with large “corporate farms.” Nothing could be further from the truth. While they do sell their commodities to customers who pay competitive prices, like all farmers do, they are not owned or operated by any large processor. It’s a farm of brothers, cousins, and parents working to make a living through responsible agricultural practices.
After touring their farm, I was surprised that I could not see the river from their fields because of the vast buffer zones of trees they left intact to keep that treasured waterway pristine. The one place where the river is visible is where an existing boat landing was. Now, the Walthers have planted that area in cover crops with plans to plant mature trees this winter to enhance the area from its original open state.
They have planted hundreds of acres of wildlife plots to help care for and nurture local species on their property. They have hundreds of acres in committed conservation easements. And, they have planted all the acres they have cleared and tilled in various cover crops to protect the land from erosion.
While it’s true that one farm has 2,000 cultivated acres – large by South Carolina standards – that plot is divided into 16 separate fields, each with its own variable rate high-efficiency irrigation system. Because of their commitment to the earth and concern over keeping the local soils recharged with the proper nutrients, the Walthers operate on a three year crop rotation. They will plant about 1,000 acres in potatoes while also growing other commodities like corn, soybeans, milo, and wheat. A big deal has been made about the size of this farm, yet the last USDA farm census indicates there are 312 South Carolina farms larger than 2,000 acres in South Carolina.
I find it interesting that this farm has been so maligned by sensational reports, misconceptions, and outright falsehoods. We should be celebrating the arrival of this new business to our state. Already they have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy and they have long range plans to hire upwards of 70-80 people in the future. Announcements like that typically make positive headlines. It’s a great venture for Aiken County and for South Carolina.
The Walthers landed here as a result of an Eastern Seaboard search to find sandy soils, adequate water, and a climate conducive to farming their staple commodity, potatoes. They also came to South Carolina at the request of their customers, grocery chains and processors, who have taken a recent interest in promoting a smaller carbon footprint of food distribution and delivery.
While just a few short years ago, there were no laws in place requiring farms to register or record water withdrawals from public bodies of water, the Walthers have complied with the relatively new surface water withdrawal registration law. They have been granted their registration to use up to about 14 percent of the “safe yield” amount of water allowed by law. By their own admission, this amount is a generous estimate of the projected amount of water they will use. They made their request based on worst case scenarios of no rain water during their peak growing seasons of May and June. They also made their calculations based on the capacity of their high-tech irrigation systems, which means they physically can’t draw more water than they asked for. Considering the ample rainfall we usually enjoy in SC, I am convinced that they will use a whole lot less than the amount for which they are registered.
As much as we support the small and beginning farmer — unless we return to a time when most of the population plants and harvests what they eat — we will need to rely on farmers like the Walthers to provide the food and fiber for the 98.3% of us who get our food from the grocery store — not from a garden in the back yard.
Agribusiness is South Carolina’s largest economic sector in South Carolina generating a $34 billion positive impact for the economy and 200,000 jobs in the state. I, for one, welcome this newest agribusiness to the Palmetto State and look forward to the Walthers unprecedented stewardship of the environment.
David Winkles is serving his ninth two-year term as Farm Bureau president. He is a family farmer from Oswego in Sumter County. His farm produces soybeans, corn, wheat, and timber. Over the years, he’s been very active in agricultural organizations, including Farm Bureau, the Palmetto Agribusiness Council, the United Soybean Board, the South Carolina Soybean Board, and Clemson Extension Service programs.