Potato farmer: Lots of misunderstanding about large Aiken Co. farm

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Friday, Jan. 31, 2014

WINDSOR, S.C. (WRDW) -- In March, Jeremy Walther will begin planting lots of potatoes. His Aiken County potato farm, Walther Farms, will be the largest in the state.

"I think that folks will see that potatoes aren't a whole lot different than what's grown in the area right now," says Walther. "We are a family farm. The farm started back in the '40s with my grandfather, then my dad and three of my uncles carried on from there, and now there's myself, three of my brothers, and five of my cousins involved."

The farm has stirred controversy, raised eyebrows, and made headlines. Some say the Michigan-based farm has moved to its location outside Windsor to take advantage of South Carolina's weak river laws and drain the nearby South Edisto River dry. The farm, a supplier of potatoes for the Frito-Lay company, originally had plans to pump 9.6 billion gallons of water from the South Edisto River every year. While the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) predicted the withdrawals wouldn't harm the river, many members of the public weren't so sure.

"It's a beautiful river, and we don't want to do anything to jeopardize that," says Walther, who says he and his partners actually came to the site for its rich soil.

After fierce opposition and a lawsuit from an environmental group, the farm decided to strike a compromise.

The farm will reduce the amount it withdraws from the river by 50 percent, it will work with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to install a monitoring station that will track flow rates to "promote responsible water use and awareness," it will drill a backup well on the Aiken County portion of the farm to supplement river water during times of drought, and it will drill wells in the portion of the farm in Barnwell County (known as the Wiley Fork Farm) to avoid pumping the 3 billion gallons of water from the river that DHEC was in the process of considering.

In addition to the farms Edisto River protection plan, the farm also plans to "equip all irrigation systems with the highest efficiency technology minimizing evaporation during watering," "use precision and sustainable agricultural production practices," reduce the risk of nutrient runoff through precise metering, "discontinue the hardwood cutting along the Edisto River," "maintain an erosion control plan," and "plant over 60 acres of food plots on the upland acres that will provide supplemental food sources to wildlife."

This week, environmental group Friends of the Edisto dropped its lawsuit and accepted the compromise plan.

With the fight seemingly over, Walther is focusing on growing potatoes. He says he's happy to live near his Windsor farm. Besides supplying Frito-Lay, he says his farm will also allow families to stop by and pick potatoes. He says his farm will also provide local potatoes to local grocery stores.

However, if he had to start again, Walther says he and his team would do things differently.

"We would have reached out to the community more and tried to inform folks of who we are and what we do," he says. "We could have definitely done a lot better in that area."

When asked about potential run-off of pesticides and chemicals into the Edisto, Walther says potatoes actually require less than peanuts and other produce. He reassures that his farm will be environmentally friendly.

Despite the compromise, a Charleston lawmaker has filed a bill aimed at Walther Farms. It would require a stricter permitting process for large farms like Walther's. Walther says he's a farmer, not a politician, so he'll comply with whatever the law dictates.

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