Potato grower regrets lack of public notice

sfretwell@thestate.comJanuary 27, 2014 

Crews work on the piping system necessary to siphon up to 9.6 billion gallons of water needed annually to irrigate the mega potato farm. A mega potato farm planned for Aiken County, has citizens in the area worried it could deplete the South Fork of the Edisto River. Doug Busbee of Wagoner has spent years traveling up and down the Edisto River and is visibly upset by the disruption in the ecosystem.

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An executive with a Michigan agribusiness said Monday his company should have done more to tell the public about its sprawling potato-growing operation near Wagener, a community worried that the farm will take too much water from a narrow river.

“We tried to meet different people in the community but, obviously, there are some people that we never met that we would have liked to,” said Jason Walther, of Walther Farms. “We’re doing that now. I wish it would have been a few months ago.”

Walther, whose family owns Walther Farms of Three Rivers, Mich., said the big potato farm won’t hurt the Edisto River’s South Fork, through water withdrawals, fertilizer application or pesticide use.

In his first interview with The State, Walther said the company never has encountered a dust-up like the one that erupted in South Carolina late last fall after people learned the potato farm would siphon as much as 9.6 billion gallons of water annually from the Edisto River’s South Fork, which flows into the ACE Basin nature preserve.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control failed to notify the public before approving Walther Farm’s irrigation plan last spring. Upon learning about the farm some six months later, many residents of the Edisto River basin complained bitterly that Walther’s plan could lower water levels in the South Fork, even though DHEC said it would not. They also ripped DHEC for not telling the public about siphoning water from the shallow river.

Friends of the Edisto, a river protection group, was so incensed that it challenged DHEC’s approval in court. Walther Farms offered to compromise and a settlement is expected, perhaps as early as Tuesday, The State learned late Monday.

Walther Farms is a national potato-growing company with operations in states from Colorado to Florida. Its farms are found on about 13,000 acres across the nation.

The new South Carolina operation, being launched on 5,200 acres in Aiken and Barnwell counties southwest of Columbia, would dwarf any other growing operation in the Palmetto State, where spud farms historically have not been common. It is comparable in size to one Walther runs in south Georgia, Jason Walther said.

Walther Farms operation would produce up to 100,000 potatoes per acre on about 1,000 acres of crop fields, Walther told The State. But Walther said the Edisto basin farm would be smaller than some his company operates, including in Michigan.

He declined to weigh in on the increasingly testy debate about whether to tighten state regulation of farms that want to irrigate with river water — a debate that includes a call to notify the public of large agricultural withdrawal plans. But he said the company will take pains to save the river from overuse.

Walther said his company has offered to cut in half the river withdrawals from one of two sites that make up the farm, a 3,700-acre tract near Windsor. It would eliminate river withdrawals from a second tract of 1,500 acres downriver, relying on groundwater except for times of emergency. That would drop the proposed river withdrawals from about 9.6 billion gallons per year to about 3 billion gallons per year.

The company will apply pesticides by aerial spraying six to eight times during the growing season, but he said the company is maintaining wide forested buffers to protect the river from pesticide or fertilizer runoff.

“I want the community to know that we will not be doing anything different than any other farm in relation to pesticides or fertilizer in South Carolina,’’ he said.

While Walther said his company has had disputes with neighbors in other parts of the country about potato farming, sometimes over groundwater use, the South Carolina uproar has been a new experience.

“Have we ever had a flare-up like this? No,” he said. “Nothing to the nature like we’ve seen here.”

Walther’s comments Monday came on the same day that Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the likely Democratic candidate for governor, met with Wagener-area residents and criticized Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration for making the Walther withdrawal decision “behind closed doors.’’ A Haley spokesman denied the allegations, saying the administration has been transparent.

Many critics of Walther Farms’ withdrawal plan say they don’t blame the company, but are incensed that South Carolina law doesn’t better protect rivers from major withdrawals by farms. Unlike other businesses, agriculture is exempt from many of the restrictions in South Carolina’s surface water withdrawal law. Farms, for instance, don’t need permits that require tighter oversight. Instead, they must only register the water use and get a basic approval from state regulators.

In an attempt to fight a proposal to crack down on agricultural withdrawals, the S.C. Farm Bureau debuted a website last week attacking opponents of Walther Farms’ irrigation plan — a website that produced a torrent of criticism from residents of the Edisto River basin. But Walther said the company had nothing to do with the Farm Bureau effort.

“We have not been involved with any websites of the Farm Bureau,” he said.

Walther also revealed that:

• The company has not bought more land for farms in South Carolina, but is focused on the two tracts that make up the 5,200 acres along the South Fork.

• Walther came to South Carolina, in part, because it needs another potato farm between Georgia and a farm it runs in Indiana.

• The company will supply whole potatoes for grocery stores, as well as potatoes for chips. It is dealing with about 10 companies, but he declined to name them.

• About 3,000 acres of the 5,200 acre site in South Carolina will be used for farming potatoes and other crops, such as corn and grains. About 1,000 acres will be reserved for potatoes.

• Potatoes need less water than corn, but more than wheat or soybeans.

• Walther began farming on about 400 acres last year in South Carolina on land it rented. It does not plan to farm that land this year as it moves to the property it purchased.

Staff Writer Adam Beam contributed to this story

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