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South Carolina Grower Relies on Irrigation to Lessen the Effects of Weather Extremes

For South Carolina grower Alexander “Kemp” McLeod, farming has been a life long passion.

“I’m a fourth generation farmer. I began working on our family farm when I was eight years old,” he said. “I’ve been farming full time now for almost 45 years." 

McLeod’s operation, located near McBee, South Carolina, encompasses 7,500 total acres – 5,000 acres of owned land and 2,500 acres of rented land. He relies on center pivot and drip irrigation to ensure that his fruit, vegetable and row crops can withstand the South’s unpredictable weather.

“We irrigated briefly in the 50’s and 60’s with the fruit, and then began irrigating the high value crops likes vegetables and peaches,” he said. “We first thought that, with the high commodity prices and low input costs, that we didn’t need irrigation and we could weather the storms of low production and drought, but it’s not as foolproof here as it is in the Midwest. The weather over the past four or five years has gotten more erratic and the extremes are really extreme – with heat and drought,”  

McLeod operates nine Zimmatic center pivots - adding 500 irrigated acres since 2015. Despite the weather extremes, he has has been able to produce significant yields, with his irrigated yielding approximately 80 bushels more per acre than his dryland corn.

“We provide the tools and the Lord blesses us,” he said. “I don’t know what’s ahead of us, but I do know that we need to keep ahead of the ever-changing weather, and technology is one way to do that.”

While row crops are important, the foundation of McLeod’s operation is peaches – with 22 varieties on 1,000 acres. In addition to shipping them to grocery stores and produce terminals along the East Coast, he sells them in a successful roadside store that’s frequented by local consumers and tourists.

“We’re very involved in agri-tourism,” he said. “We have festivals each year surrounding the strawberry, peach and pumpkin seasons, and more than 5,000 school children visit the farm throughout the year on field trips. In the Fall we have a corn maze that attracts more than 8,000 visitors.”

Kemp and his wife Gaie also help sponsor the popular “Making it Grow” television program that airs weekly on South Carolina Public Television stations.

His success as a crop and peach farmer, along with his commitment to the agriculture industry, helped him earn recognition as the 2017 South Carolina Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year.

Tony Melton, an Extension agent in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, nominated McLeod for the honor.  

“He’s the best farmer I know,” said Melton, who worked for the McLeods while growing up.

The McLeod’s have four children. Their son, Spencer, returned to the farm full time after college – starting the fifth generation of McLeod family farmers.

“My generation lives to work, which is not always a great attribute. We’re trying to enjoy more family and work time by adding automated functions, precise timing and yield improving practices for each crop,” he said. “We really love farming and all the challenges it brings.”