Loose regulations attract megafarms to South Carolina
Mega vegetable farms that have caused a stir in the Edisto River basin arrived in South Carolina with the help of a real estate company that brokered the sale of thousands of acres between Aiken and Columbia to the out-of-state agribusinesses.
National Land Realty brokered sales to the Walther and Woody farm corporations as the companies were seeking new frontiers to grow crops, according to county property records and a local sales representative. National Land Realty first sold property to Walther, a Michigan company, then helped the Woodys of New Mexico and Texas.
All told, the two companies have purchased about 9,200 acres since 2013, according to Aiken and Barnwell county property records. County records indicate the land sold for at least $18 million. That could have earned National Land Realty and its agents nearly $1 million based on a basic 5 percent commission.
Jason Burbage, an executive with National Land Realty, declined to say how much money his company earned off of the Walther arnd Woody transactions, but he said it was not $1 million.
Burbage said the Walthers approached National Land Realty and expressed interest in South Carolina several years ago. He said he was impressed with the company’s representatives.
“They contacted us off of property we had for sale,’’ Burbage said. “Once we started talking to them about what they were looking for, we just kind of went from there.’’
Founded in Greenville a decade ago, National Land Realty sells vacant, rural property across South Carolina and in other parts of the country. The company employs a team of brokers in the Columbia area, but also has agents in the Upstate and in the Midwest.
Mega-farms concern some people in the Windsor and Wagener areas of eastern Aiken County. Critics say the companies provide relatively few jobs while taking up natural resources. Many people have said the farms are disruptive, are sucking up too much groundwater and river water for irrigation, and are trying to take over public roads that people rely on. The farms have cleared about 6,000 acres of land in the past four years, records show.
But Burbage said the Walther and Woody companies have a commitment to efficient irrigation and appear to be well-run. Some of the land cleared in the upper Edisto River basin was hardwoods that contain a diversity of animals, but Burbage said much of the land cleared for farming was covered in pine plantations. Pine plantations generally do not attract the amount of diverse wildlife found in natural forests of hardwoods and pines. Groundwater levels plummeted temporarily near one huge corn farm last summer.
“I can understand where there’s concern because the projects are large and they’re in one block,’’ said Burbage, who chairs the S.C. Wildlife Federation board. “When you convert a couple of thousand acres .... that was pine plantation back into farmland I can completely understand why it raises flags for folks.
“We wouldn’t be involved in it if we felt like it was something that was detrimental to the ecosystem. The reason why I felt this wasn’t a terrible scenario is because these farmers employ some of the most advanced farming techniques.’’
Walther Farms says it located in Aiken County to take advantage of the sandy, well-draining soils, and because the area was strategically located to produce potatoes for market. Walther, a large, family-owned company that grows potatoes for the Frito Lay Co., owns about 13,000 acres across the country, from Colorado to south Georgia. The company was not recruited to South Carolina by state leaders, company executive Jeremy Walther said. The Woodys have not been available for comment, but Jeremy Walther said they sell corn for chicken feed and they rotate crops with his company.
Among the properties acquired by Walther Farms is a 3,312 acre tract that sold as part of a $4.7 million transaction in 2013. Property records show that AgSouth Farm Credit owned the property before Walther bought it. After the land deal, much of the wooded property was cleared and converted into a sprawling potato farm near the South Fork of the Edisto River.
The biggest sale to the Woody agribusiness group was a 1,900-acre transaction near Windsor in February 2015, records show. Members of the Bruce B. Cameron Revocable Trust of Wilmington, N.C., sold the property to four companies affiliated with the Woody group, according to the S.C. Secretary of State’s office and a deed filed in Aiken County. The sales price is listed as $5.7 million.
Not everyone who has dealt with the company wants to sell.
Susan Benhase-Chriswell, whose family owns 80 acres along Old Bell Road in eastern Aiken County, said she was approached by Tyler Stone of National Land Realty about selling after her father died. Records show her property is surrounded by the 1,900 acres the Woodys acquired for their large corn farm. She said Stone was persistent in calling her, but she was not persuaded.
“This was a long-term investment and there is no reason whatsoever to sell it,’’ said Benhase-Chriswell, who lives in Ohio. “I told him we were not making any decision whatsoever about any of the South Carolina property for a long time to come.’’
Tony Howard, a landowner near the North Fork of the Edisto River, said he has been approached by a National Land Realty agent in the past two years about selling his 200 acres. That agent, Edward Weathers, is the son of state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers.
Howard said he did not want to sell.
The younger Weathers was not available for comment. He has been with the company since July 2015, after the Walthers and Woodys made their main purchases, according to the company website and county property records.
Agriculture Commissioner Weathers said he did not recruit the Walther or Woody farm corporations to South Carolina because his focus is bringing in processing plants and packaging facilities, which employ more people.
He said he has done nothing on behalf of his son’s business transactions and noted that the younger Weathers did not work for National Land Realty before the Walthers arrived in South Carolina.
▪ 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.