Across South Carolina, the last few weeks have been filled with many stories and comments in print, social media, and even on the church yard about potato farming and water. I have been involved in the Walther farm developments in Aiken County for a while now, and hope some observations will be helpful. Let me start with a couple of obvious ones.
Agriculture is important to South Carolina’s past, its present, and more importantly, its future. Our natural resources of our state are important — for pleasure, for preservation of a great way of life, and for prosperity. Farmers provide food and fiber for South Carolina by the utilization of natural resources combined with labor, capital, management, and a lot of faith.
When an issue or circumstance appears to set agriculture and natural resources at odds, communication is vital and compromise is required to move forward. The Walther farm situation is just that.
It quickly became apparent that the Walther farm surface water withdrawal permit that was granted put agriculture and some natural resource advocates at odds.
Thankfully, years of coalition building between agricultural and environmental leaders provided a means to have effective communications and discuss compromise. When other agriculture leaders and I first sat down with the Walther family, I asked for and got a commitment from them to communicate openly and to be prepared to make compromises in their farm plan.
The Walthers opened their farm to agricultural and environmental leaders to learn first-hand about the actual water usage. I was relieved to learn that the withdrawal from the Edisto River would be about one-third of the permitted, misreported, and much-discussed amount. But in addition, the Walthers are prepared to make significant investments to reduce the use of surface water from the Edisto even more to protect this great resource of ours. They presented these changes to key leaders of the farming and environmental community to fulfill their pledge of open communication and compromise.
About a year ago the Walther family recognized the potential of being a part of South Carolina agriculture. Our soil type is suitable for growing potatoes and the projected harvest in June is a good time for selling the crop.
Obviously, the water supply, both ground and surface, is critical. Based on what I heard from them, the potato market can provide good prospects for the future of South Carolina farming. Growing and processing potatoes in South Carolina can provide new farming options and new jobs.
I welcome the Walther family to South Carolina agriculture based on several important facts. They have demonstrated good faith efforts and a strong desire to be advocates of both agricultural growth and preservation of our natural resources. They are a family working together like many of the 27,000 plus farms in our state.
We are a state filled with family farms of all sizes. And our large farms are, for the most part, simply small farms that grew. Growth through new opportunities for our farmers — large and small — is one of the primary missions of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.
One way to provide opportunities is to bring investments in agriculture like the Walthers’ to add value to South Carolina farm products. Combined agriculture and forestry have an annual economic impact of just under $34 billion, making it our state’s largest industry. Growing this industry to even greater heights is one of the ways to grow our economy, especially in rural counties. We have an aggressive goal for the industry known as “50 by 20” of growing its impact to $50 billion annually by the year 2020.
The Walther episode has reinforced my belief that we can grow our agricultural economy and protect our environment at the same time as long as we keep our lines of communication open and are willing to work toward compromise.
Hugh Weathers is South Carolina’s Commissioner of Agriculture.