In the past four years, out-of-state agribusinesses have purchased nearly 10,000 acres in the Edisto River basin, chopped down forests and established mega vegetable farms that today are sparking concerns about South Carolina’s ability to handle the expansion of industrial-scale agriculture.
The big crop-growing operations sucked up more than 2 billion gallons of water from rivers and aquifers last year, an amount greater than some local utilities used to supply drinking water.
But the industrial farms have created relatively few jobs while depending heavily on natural resources. And they’ve upset many people who say the mega-farms are intrusive, hard-to-live-with neighbors.
Nauseating odors, sputtering wells, bothersome crop dusting planes, polluted creeks and smoky skies are among the complaints about mega vegetable farms. Many people are particularly upset about attempts by mega-farmers to close public roads in eastern Aiken and Barnwell counties.
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“These things are breaking through a new frontier, and we don’t know what all the consequences are going to be,’’ said Wagener Mayor Mike Miller, whose town is near a cluster of industrial-scale farms. “The whole region should pay attention to this.’’
Key questions are whether expansive new row crop farms are more than the region can support and whether South Carolina needs tighter controls over big farms. Last year, groundwater levels dropped sharply near one mega corn farm outside Windsor.
Conflicts in the Edisto basin follow the arrival of a Michigan potato farm corporation late in 2013. Since the first big farm opened on 3,700 acres, out-of-state corporations have converted thousands more acres for agriculture.
All told, companies with roots in Texas, New Mexico, Michigan and Colorado bought land for crop farms in the Edisto basin between Aiken and Columbia. At least 6,000 of the 10,000 acres they purchased have been cleared of trees, according to real estate records and aerial imagery reviewed by The State newspaper.
In some spots, open fields stretch to the horizon, creating the look of a Midwestern landscape instead of a tree-shrouded southern panorama. Irrigation pipes spread across the land, spraying crops with steady streams of water.
The mega-farms “bring nothing to South Carolina; they are only takers,’’ said Gerald Rowe, who lives on a small horse farm near a sprawling corn field.
Two newcomers to South Carolina, Walther Farms of Michigan and the Woody agribusiness group of New Mexico and Texas, are at the center of the debate.
Walther Farms, a national potato grower with fields from Colorado to south Georgia, is a major supplier for the Frito-Lay Co., which operates a potato chip plant in central Georgia and a production facility in Charlotte. Walther employs about eight full-time workers in Aiken and surrounding counties. Much of its crop is harvested mechanically.
“We are the poster child of agriculture; we are sustainable agriculture,’’ said Jeremy Walther, who oversees the company’s potato farming in the Windsor area.
Company officials say they do more for the community than people realize. Among other things, Walther Farms buys supplies locally, and the company has chosen to invest millions of dollars in land needed to grow potatoes, officials said. Jeremy Walther said Walther Farms is careful about how much water it withdraws for irrigation and doesn’t pollute rivers.
The Woody agribusiness group, which is composed of companies overseen by family members, has not returned multiple telephone calls from The State newspaper since February seeking comment. A law firm representing the Woodys declined comment.
Once a major crop producer in New Mexico, the Woodys came to South Carolina two years ago at the Walthers’ invitation. In New Mexico, groundwater supplies had been dwindling and crop farming was becoming more difficult, according to media reports and interviews with New Mexico residents. The Woodys’ businesses also operated in west Texas.
The part of South Carolina where they settled is a sandy landscape of small towns, deep forests, dark rivers and rolling horse farms. Many people who live in the Wagener and Windsor communities can trace their roots to Colonial times. Windsor has become a haven for retirees attracted by horse farms, which have a $100 million economic impact in Aiken County.
It’s also an area that includes the headwaters of the 217,000-acre ACE Basin, a nationally acclaimed nature preserve that runs through the Lowcountry. The Edisto is recognized as the longest blackwater river without a dam in the country.
While crop farms the size of those in the Windsor area can be found in other parts of South Carolina, they are not common. Less than 2 percent of the state’s 25,266 farms are greater than 1,000 acres, according to federal agricultural statistics.
Of the farms that exceed 1,000 acres, many gradually grew from small, locally owned family businesses. The difference in the upper Edisto basin is the arrival of out-of-state corporations that, in some cases, are rapidly converting forested land to huge vegetable farms that rival or exceed others in South Carolina.
The relatively sudden change from forested land to new farms raises questions about lost wildlife, water pollution, depleted water supplies – and a lack of state oversight.
Debbie Dixon has plenty of worries.
The sweet country breeze that made walks a highlight of her morning has soured since farmers cleared land for a huge corn field near her house, the 65-year-old said. Powerful odors now bring the sickening smell of manure to eastern Aiken County, she said.
“I can’t even open my doors and windows any more because I don’t know whether they are putting fertilizers out or not,’’ she said. “You can smell it.’’
One of the worst times she remembers was the day a controlled fire burned on land being cleared for farming, she said.
“The sky was horrendous,’’ she said. “It looked like what I imagine hell would be like. It was black, it was gray, it was orange, it was blue, it was yellow. Oh God, it was awful.’’
Dixon, who has lived in the area since 1992, and her neighbors are among the most vocal critics of mega-farming in eastern Aiken County. They live near a once forested 1,900-acre tract the Woodys purchased in 2015 and converted to an extensive corn farm.
Many are upset about a Woody plan to close public access to Old Bell Road and another country lane nearby. Neighbors say they need the roads to reach a main highway to Aiken. They’ve gone to court in an effort to keep the roads open. The case is now before the S.C. Court of Appeals.
Dixon and Carolyn Barrett, who heads a grassroots citizens group called Save Windsor, said they’re particularly galled by the road closing plan because it serves the interests of an out-of-state agribusiness at their expense.
“When somebody comes in and totally upsets your whole neighborhood and your whole way of life, it’s discouraging to say the least,’’ Dixon said.
In court documents, the Woodys say it’s in the public interest to close roads. People are speeding down the roads and sometimes stopping to vandalize Woody farm property, according to an abandonment and closure notice from last year.
Other court cases have resulted from tensions between the farms and their neighbors.
In a 2015 trespassing lawsuit, a neighbor complained that a Walther company manager displayed a rifle and chased him in a truck when the neighbor approached him to discuss the company’s activities. He claimed in the suit that the Walthers had cut a road through his land and chopped down some of his trees. Jeremy Walther called the allegations “a crazy story.’’ In court documents, Walther Farms said it cut some timber on a power company’s easement, but did not cut any “merchantable timber.’’ The suit was settled late in 2016.
More recently, disagreements have wound up in criminal court. After a Woody family member complained, the Aiken County Sheriff’s Department arrested a retiree from the Windsor area last month on theft charges.
The retiree, who lived next door to a Woody farm, is accused of stealing wood from a dilapidated farmhouse on the Woody land, according to court records and photographs of the building. The woman had been involved in several disputes with the family before her arrest, according to an Aiken County Sheriff’s Department incident report. She and her attorney declined comment.
Last summer, one neighboring farmer became so upset about crop-dusting that he reported the Woodys to pesticide regulators at Clemson University, records show. Records show the Woodys’ crop-dusting pilot denied spraying any chemicals that would have hurt neighboring land. Clemson closed the case after making the same conclusion.
Barnwell County resident Cole Page said he’s seen runoff pour into a creek on his land from a Woody farm tract. He’s also had words with Walther employees over the company’s effort to close roads he has used. Page filed a report with the Aiken County Sheriff’s office last month about a road being blocked through a mega-farm.
“They seem to have no respect for the individual property owners,’’ said the 69-year-old Page, a retired state highway worker. “I guess where they came from, that this is the way they do business.’’
Despite tensions between mega-farmers and local residents, Barrett said she’s had constructive discussions with Jeremy Walther lately and she’d like to do the same with the Woody family.
“I think it has gone too far to be super friends, but I don’t know why we just couldn’t get along,’’ Barrett said.
How they got here
Lured by what it says were well-draining soils and a good strategic location from which to ship potatoes, Walther began buying land in Aiken and Barnwell counties after searching the Southeast for the best place to expand. By late 2013, the company had purchased more than 5,000 acres for what would become the two largest potato farms in South Carolina.
The company’s arrival met initial resistance from people who said they weren’t informed by state regulators until Walther was ready to start farming. Things settled down, but within a few years, Walther persuaded the Woody agribusiness group to move to the area from the Southwest, a Walther official said.
“We needed a good rotation partner,” Jeremy Walther said. “We scoured the country – we found one of the most sustainable farmers in the nation.”
Farmers rotate crops to limit erosion and to stabilize nutrients in the soil, since different vegetables draw different nutrients from the earth.
Since Walther’s acquisition of 5,200 acres in 2013, the Woodys have acquired another 3,600 acres in the area. A third company, FPI of Colorado, also has bought about 800 acres to lease for farming in the upper Edisto River basin.
Walther’s entry into Aiken and Barnwell counties was made easier by South Carolina’s lack of regulation. The law allows big farms to siphon river water for irrigation with limited review – and without public notice. The state also places no limits on the amount of groundwater companies or others can use from Aiken through Lexington and Richland counties.
The Walther and Woody companies’ irrigation systems collectively have siphoned at least 4.3 billion gallons of river water and ground water since 2015, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control reports. That works out to about 2 billion gallons annually, which is more than some nearby community water systems use to supply drinking water to customers in Aiken County.
Those withdrawals have raised concerns among federal and state scientists, who are studying lower groundwater and river levels near mega-farms. The U.S. Geological Survey last year documented a 22-foot drop in groundwater levels near one Woody corn farm in Windsor. At the same time, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources found that river flows were down during the summer of 2015 near a Walther Farms irrigation pipe in the South Fork of the Edisto River.
These lower levels worry people like Page, the former highway worker from Barnwell County, who said South Carolina needs tighter restrictions on sprawling vegetable farms.
“When you look at the big picture, what are they doing to our groundwater and what are they doing to our rivers?’’ Page asked. “These are questions that our government has not been prepared to answer and doesn’t seem to want to buckle down and do anything about.’’
Jeremy Walther said it’s important to note that his company is using less water from the South Fork of the Edisto River than the state has approved it to use for irrigation. DHEC approved siphoning about 3 billion gallons annually from the river, but records show Walther is taking about 1 billion gallons.
But Rowe, the Windsor area resident who owns a small horse farm, is so concerned with mega vegetable farms that he used a legislative hearing earlier this year about DHEC reform to complain. He wants more state controls on large row crop farms before more arrive in South Carolina. He was among about a dozen people who showed up at the House hearing to complain about large farms.
“There’s more coming in because they know it’s reasonably priced land, sandy soil and all the water you can take – because you have no restrictions,’’ Rowe said.
▪ Out-of-state corporations have bought up 10,000 acres in the Edisto River Basin during the past four years.
▪ About 6,000 acres have been cleared of trees to make way for vegetable farms.
▪ The farms collectively used 2 billion gallons of water last year.
▪ Some nearby residents complain about wells running low or dry.
▪ South Carolina puts almost no limits on the amount of water such farms can withdraw from rivers and groundwater.
Monday: About 6,000 acres of forests have been cleared by out-of-state-operated farms in eastern Aiken and Barnwell counties.
Tuesday: Some residents and researchers worry about a drop in groundwater last summer near the mega-farms
Wednesday: The river flow of the Edisto River dropped last summer near the mega-farms
Thursday: How the mega-farms were able to buy land