Wayne Furtick never thought much about environmental causes until hearing that a mega potato farm wanted to siphon billions of gallons of water from his community’s beloved river.
So late last year, the 73-year-old Springfield cattle farmer began speaking against the water withdrawal plan, worried that a Michigan agribusiness could drain the river while irrigating potato fields.
Now, Furtick and his neighbors are under attack as part of a campaign to discredit potato farm critics, who are being called “radical environmentalists’’ with extreme political agendas.
The S.C. Farm Bureau, the state’s most powerful agriculture organization, launched a website and media campaign this week that says extremists are unfairly targeting Walther Farms, a potato growing corporation with operations across the country.
To Furtick and neighbors worried about the Edisto River’s South Fork, the campaign is both amusing and infuriating. Many are conservative, lifelong residents of the Edisto River basin who contend they’re just trying to protect the narrow South Fork from the potato farm’s irrigation plan.
“I don’t think we are radical,’’ said Furtick, an Edisto basin native with a slow drawl. “Most of the people opposed to this are good farmers and regular country people. They’re people who farm close to the river and enjoy time on the river.’’
Critics of the water withdrawals flooded social media this week with comments blasting the state Farm Bureau for launching the advertising effort. Some threatened to cancel Farm Bureau insurance policies. Others said the bureau was trying to marginalize those with concerns.
From Wednesday night through Friday morning, a section of the Farm Bureau’s own Facebook page contained more than three dozen comments criticizing the agriculture group and its campaign.
“Guess who won’t be keeping my business?’’ Lynn Williams Zimmerman, a 44-year-old Pelion accountant, wrote on the bureau’s Facebook page. “I will not support the name-calling of my state’s citizens or your backroom, secret deals. Get ready for a mass-exodus from many, many of your ’radical’ members!”
Those commenting this week were so vehement in their criticism that the bureau began responding to the posts, saying it wants to clear up misinformation about Walther Farms.
Many Wagener-area residents who oppose the withdrawals said they don’t take issue with Walther, whose operation would be the largest potato farm in South Carolina. But they are upset that state law isn’t strong enough to better restrict massive water withdrawals by large farms.
The 2010 law allowed Walther to locate in South Carolina without any public notice or in-depth study of how the withdrawals would affect wildlife on the South Fork of the Edisto, an area that contains the headwaters of the ACE Basin nature preserve.
State regulators said the initial withdrawals, to be more than 6 billion gallons of water annually, would not hurt the river, but others say the South Fork is too small and shallow to withstand the siphoning. Friends of the Edisto, a river protection group, has challenged the state approval in court and is now negotiating with Walther Farms on a possible compromise that would reduce the withdrawals.
Walther’s potato farming operation would be in Aiken and Barnwell counties, about an hour’s drive southwest of Columbia.
Walther officials have provided few details about their operation, but a Farm Bureau spokesman said only about 1,000 acres of the 5,200-acre site will be in potatoes at any one time. Other parts of the land will be used to grow other crops, spokesman Reggie Hall said. The Walther farm is composed of one 3,700-acre tract and another of more than 2,000 acres. Hall said about 43 percent of the property will remain in a conservation status, with forested buffer zones along the river.
The Farm Bureau campaign, posted on a website called savescfarmers.com, is an attempt to fight a bill introduced Thursday that would more tightly control large river withdrawals by farms. The bill by Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, is in reaction to the Walther Farms plan, but would extend to other agricultural withdrawals. The Farm Bureau and the influential state Chamber of Commerce oppose the bill, arguing that South Carolina shouldn’t rush to change a law in response to one situation. Current law grants many exemptions to farms that other businesses don’t enjoy.
Hall said the website and campaign were intended to raise awareness. Walther Farms followed the state law, which Hall said is only just now being implemented. The law passed in 2010, but did not take effect until last year.
“I don’t see (the campaign) as attacking, I see it as presenting the truth – getting the other side of the story out there,’’ Hall said. “It was designed to get people’s attention so that everybody will slow down long enough and talk through this issue before we see knee-jerk reactions in the law.’’
Hall declined to say how much the Farm Bureau spent on the campaign, but he confirmed that Push Advocacy had been retained to assist the bureau. Push Advocacy is a public and governmental affairs firm and sister company to Push Digital, whose principals include Joel Sawyer, the onetime spokesman for Republican Gov. Mark Sanford while he was in office.
Sawyer refused comment when contacted Friday morning by The State newspaper. But he spent part of the afternoon sending out tweets criticizing the newspaper’s coverage of the potato farm controversy and the journalist following the story.
The Farm Bureau, which represents farmers and agribusinesses, has a powerful lobby at the State House and has been adept at swaying lawmakers through the years. In 2012, the organization spent about $190,000 trying to influence the Legislature on various issues – an amount that ranked 10th of more than 500 groups, government agencies and businesses lobbying in Columbia, according to the State Ethics Commission.
The savescfarmers.com webpage urges people to tell lawmakers they should favor farmers over radical environmentalists. It warns that, if successful, radicals will severely damage South Carolina’s ability to grow crops. The website says the effort is sponsored by the S.C. Farm Bureau.
“Extremists are attacking the Walther family farm in Aiken County to push their radical agenda,’’ according to one section of the web page, which says environmentalists are “waging war” on farming. “They are spreading misinformation about the farm and its water usage to scare South Carolinians and elected officials into cutting off its water supply.’’
The website does not identify who the bureau considers extremists, but it says “the radicals have an agenda they want passed in South Carolina.’’
Environmental groups, sometimes labeled as extremists by business organizations, say they have not led the charge against Walther’s withdrawals. Ben Gregg, director of the politically moderate S.C. Wildlife Federation, said citizens are driving the fight against the Walther Farms withdrawal plan.
Wayne Bell, who also criticized the Farm Bureau in a Facebook post, said there’s little doubt that many locals who live near the potato site are upset at the amount of the proposed withdrawals. But they’re also upset about the Farm Bureau’s campaign, said Bell, who grew up in the Edisto River basin.
The Farm Bureau “should have thought this campaign through before they jumped in the middle of it,’’ Bell, 68, told The State newspaper. “Now, they are in the middle of something and they don’t know how to get out of it.’’
He said a Jan. 7 meeting that drew some 350 people to discuss the withdrawals was full of people he would never call extreme environmentalists. Those included Murphy Lybrand, a Wagener goat farmer and commercial fisherman.
“I’m concerned about the air and water,’’ Lybrand, 48, said. “I don’t consider myself a radical environmentalist against agriculture.’’
The withdrawals and the Farm Bureau’s campaign concern farmers downstream, like Furtick, as well as those who fish and kayak in the Edisto River basin. Furtick said his neighbors’ concerns seem to have struck a nerve with the Farm Bureau.
“When people start calling people names, they usually are trying to hide something,’’ Furtick said.