Columbia, SC — I visited recently with members of the Walther family at their new farm in Aiken County. The farm is impressive.
They cleared an unusable tract of scrub oaks and are turning it into what I am certain will become one of the Southeasts most sustainable green farming operations. State-of-the-art technology will enable them to reduce their impact on the environment and reduce their carbon footprint to become one of the most efficient and environmentally sensitive farming operations Ive seen.
The Walthers, who promote sustainable excellence and innovation as they work to serve their consumers, their community and the environment, are the same people many have demonized, and associated with large corporate farms. Nothing could be further from the truth.
They do sell their commodities to customers who pay competitive prices, like all farmers do, but they are not owned or operated by any large processor. Its a farm of brothers, cousins and parents working to make a living through responsible agricultural practices.
They have left intact large natural buffer zones along the South Fork of the Edisto River, making it nearly impossible to see the river from their cultivated fields. The one place the river is visible is the site of a boat landing on the original property. The Walthers have planted that area in cover crops and plan to plant mature trees this winter to enhance the area that had been open. Hundreds of acres of wildlife plots have been planted, and they have hundreds of acres in conservation easements. They also planted all their cleared acres in cover crops as erosion prevention.
The farm I toured has 2,000 cultivated acres, which are divided into 16 separate fields, each with its own variable-rate, high-efficiency irrigation system. Because of their commitment to the earth and concern for keeping local soils recharged with proper nutrients, the Walthers operate on a three-year crop rotation. They will plant about 1,000 acres in potatoes while also growing other Southern commodities such as corn, soybeans, milo and wheat.
To put this in context, the last farm census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows 312 farms larger than 2,000 acres in South Carolina.
This farm has been maligned by sensational reports, misconceptions and outright falsehoods. Instead, we should be celebrating the arrival of this new agribusiness to our state. The Walthers have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy already, and they have plans to hire 70-80 people in the future. Its a great business venture for Aiken County and for South Carolina, the sort of investment that typically produces positive headlines.
Prior to 2011, there were no laws requiring farms to register or record surface-water withdrawals. Under a relatively new law designed to protect and preserve public waterways in South Carolina, the Walthers were granted a legal registration to use less than 14 percent of the safe yield amount of the river, a generous estimate of the projected amount of water they will actually use. They calculated their request based on worst-case scenarios of no rain during their peak growing seasons of May and June.
They also made their application based on the capacity of their high-tech irrigation systems. They physically cant draw more water from the river than they asked for. Considering the ample rainfall we usually enjoy in South Carolina, as a farmer myself, I am convinced that they will use a whole lot less than the amount for which they are registered.
Unless we return to a time when most people plant and harvest what they eat, we will need to rely on family farmers like the Walthers to provide the food and fiber for the 98.3 percent of us who get our food from the grocery store rather than a garden in the back yard.
Agribusiness is the largest economic sector in South Carolina, generating a $34 billion economic impact and 200,000 jobs. I, for one, welcome this newest agribusiness to the Palmetto State, and I look forward to the Walthers unprecedented stewardship of the environment.
Mr. Winkles is president of the S.C. Farm Bureau Federation; contact him at email@example.com.