Walther Farms is breaking its silence and wants Aiken County to know it plans to be a good steward of the Edisto River.
Though there's still some hesitation in the community to trust that the Edisto will be sufficiently preserved and state legislators are working to tighten the laws to protect the rivers, a few organizations have expressed their support of Walther Farms.
Aiken Soil and Water Conservation District, which focuses protecting natural resources on “working and private lands,” visited Walther Farms and have stated that it has followed the law and in some cases, went beyond state law requirements, to establish the farm.
“We are excited to have the Walther farm in Aiken County and hope the citizens in our county will move beyond the water registration issue, which is law, and support this family farm, who will be an asset to our community,” reads a statement from the organization.
The South Carolina Farm Bureau recently launched a website in response to recent news reports regarding Walther Farms that can be found at www.savescfarmers.com. It urges residents to contact their local legislators and ask them “to pick SC farmers over radical environmentalists,” the website reads.
Walther Farms CEO Jason Walther said his family was caught off guard by the community's recent response to the newly established potato farm in the Windsor area. But the family also understands the concerns. Walther Farms officials have been quietly working behind the scenes to propose various compromises to ease the anxiety of surrounding farmers, conservationists and residents who cherish the blackwater river.
“Our company is built off a philosophy that we want to be good neighbors and good stewards of the resources in this community,” Jason Walther said.
Who is Walther Farms?
Walther Farms is based in Michigan and has locations in Nebraska, Colorado, Georgia, Florida and Indiana.
The company branched out into South Carolina in the last year, purchasing a combined 5,200 acres in Aiken and Barnwell counties.
Despite recently being deemed a “corporate farm,” Windsor Farm Manager Jeremy Walther said that's not the case, stating it's a family business. He's a third generation farmer of the company, which was started by his grandfather in 1945 and continued by his father, uncles, brother and cousins.
Out of the several thousand acres the company owns, only about a quarter to a third of the property will be used to grow potatoes, Jeremy said. For example, about 850 acres will be used for potatoes this year.
Jeremy added they are currently working on a plan for the farm's crop rotation. They're considering also growing corn, beans, cotton, wheat and other crops on the property.
Jeremy also pointed out there are a little more than 300 farms in the state that are larger than his own. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, there were 312 farms in South Carolina with 2,000 acres or more.
The investment made by Walther Farms to be located in the Windsor area is approximately $15 million, Jeremy said. At this time, the company will hire eight to 10 full-time employees.
Jeremy added the company plans to conduct some research over the next few years to see if the farm could include a packing shed, which would lead to another 70 to 80 full-time jobs. Jeremy iterated they need assurance it will be a sustainable endeavor before making the investment.
They largely focus on sustainability, Jeremey said. With many of their farms in located in Northern and Western states, they wanted to bring their product to the East Coast to decrease the company's carbon footprint of transporting potatoes to that portion of the country.
That was one reason why Walther Farms located in South Carolina, Jason said.
When residents became aware that this potato farm received approval from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to withdraw up to 805 million gallons of water from the South Edisto monthly for its operations, many grew concerned about the fate of the river.
Walther Farms has proposed reducing that withdrawal by 50 percent, and pulling its second registration for water withdrawal that was awaiting approval.
“The last thing we want to do is damage or jeopardize that river in any way,” Jeremy said. “We want to give the community a chance to see that and let them know that we're willing to do what's right.”
Jeremy said they are also proposing to drill a backup supplemental well on the farm that can be used during drought conditions, which would reduce water usage by 25 percent.
Jeremy said they also use state-of-the-art equipment to monitor soil water availability and water use of the crop.
Walther Farms will reforest the area along the river at the withdrawal point, and Jeremy said quiet trips down the Edisto won't be disturbed by the pump, as it shouldn't make any noise.
Testing of the petiole, or plant stalks, and soil will be conducted weekly to minimize the risk of agricultural nutrient runoff.
The farm also wants to increase conservation easements and plans to discontinue the cutting of hardwood trees along the Edisto River.
Jeremy said they are continuously talking with conservation groups about their proposals and steps they can take to be environmentally friendly.
“We're very excited to be in South Carolina, and it's a beautiful state,” Jeremy said. “We're looking forward to practicing sustainable agriculture. We appreciate folks' concerns, and we're also conscientious of the environment, so we want to do what's right for the environment and the community.”
For more information about Walther Farms, visit www.waltherfarms.com.
Amy Banton is the County reporter for the Aiken Standard. and has been with the publication since May 2010. She is a native of Rustburg, Va. and a graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman's College.