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Sustainable Farming in South Carolina

Story by: Sabrenna Bryant, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist; photos by Sabrenna Bryant and Chanda Cooper

The center pivot irrigation system dramatically reduced water usage.From the very beginning, Aubrey Cooper knew he wanted to protect the natural resources on his farm, making his land as sustainable as possible for years to come.  But he also knew he had challenges ahead.  Located in Camden, SC, Cooper and his family moved to his 162 acre farm in 1990, and slowly worked to rebuild the land, due to severe damage resulting from Hurricane Hugo.  Over the years, Cooper’s efforts enabled cultivation on his land, and he has worked closely with NRCS from the beginning to increase the long-term sustainability of his farm.

“Conservation is a big part of my life, and managing the soil and other natural resources on this land has been a long-term goal”, said Aubrey.

Indeed, Aubrey, along with his wife Janet and children Rhett and Chanda, has worked hand-in-hand with NRCS for many years to lay a road map of the best conservation practices that were right for their farm and their operation goals.  With 70 acres of row crops in agricultural production, one major concern was water quality and the usage of water resources.  The Coopers grow a wide variety of crops, including corn, soybean, wheat, and truck crops/vegetables, and ensuring an adequate water supply with little waste proved difficult. 

Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Cooper was able to address this resource concern with the installation of a center pivot irrigation system, which drastically improved water efficiency.

“I am very conscious about water quality and making wise use of our water resources,” said Aubrey. “Working with NRCS has been instrumental in helping us improve our farm, and [they] have provided many incentives to better utilize our water resources.”

Prior to using the center pivot, the Coopers utilized water hoses and rain bird sprinklers for irrigation.  However, the center pivot has reduce water usage from 60 pounds of pressure, to irrigate crops, down to 28 pounds. The system pumps water from the aquifer and distributes it across the acreage with less runoff, less evaporation, and less wasted water than other irrigation methods.  The irrigation’s timer is manually set, but has an automatic shut-off.

In addition to implementing the irrigation system, the Coopers have adopted other conservation practices to improve their farm, such as their recently constructed seasonal high tunnel.  With financial assistance from NRCS, the Coopers installed the 32x70 foot seasonal high tunnel, along with drip irrigation, to extend their growing season by a total of eight weeks.  The high tunnel has greatly increased vegetable production, which include tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli, cabbage, collards and cut flowers. 

The seasonal high tunnel helped to extend the Coopers growing season by eight weeks.Due to productive growing seasons, the Coopers are able to sell produce at the local farmer’s markets, as well as directly off the farm.  “I would certainly recommend a seasonal high tunnel to anyone growing specialty crops or vegetables,” said Aubrey.

And what could possibly boost production further, even with an extended growing season?  Why, pollinators, of course!  The Coopers have planted a half acre pollinator plot on their farm, and are excitedly expecting an increase in native pollinators and honey bees.  A wide variety of seeds were planted, including partridge pea, purple coneflower, butterfly milkweed, and white prairie clover, to name a few.  Pollinators are crucial for the production of agricultural crops, and nearly 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators to reproduce. 

While the Coopers value the improved efficiency and increased production on their farming operation, they continue to seek innovative conservation practices that will help keep their farm viable years down the road.  They have begun utilizing cover crops on a portion of their farm, in an effort to build soil health.

“The Coopers truly understand the importance of protecting our natural resources, as well as the conservation process”, stated Angel Sams, Kershaw County District Conservationist.  “They are dedicated to implementing practices in a sound matter, and are always willing to try cutting edge technology to improve their farm.”

Indeed, the use and benefits of cover crops are becoming widely known in farming communities for helping to produce healthy soils, and the Coopers, too, are reaping the benefits.  Over the past few years, all 70 acres of their cultivated land has utilized cover crops, usually on a rotational basis.  They have seen many benefits, such as an increase in organic matter, greater weed suppression, reduced erosion, increased pollinators and greater drought tolerance, which has contributed to better crop yields.  The Coopers are sold on cover crops and plan to continue following soil health recommendations in the future.

“We will continue working with NRCS to identify new [conservation] practices we might try, and closely follow the soil health research to determine what types of cover crops to use, different termination methods and timing of plantings,” said Chanda. 

Increased pollinators were one of the benefits the Coopers reaped by using cover crops.When Aubrey moved to his farm 27 years ago, he had a vision of growing his farm, while preserving the natural resources it provided.  Taking a stroll through his farm’s abundant crop fields and rows of fresh, ripe vegetables, all with a scenic 4-acre pond in the background, and it’s easy to see he has succeeded.

​Chanda, who is an Education Program Coordinator for the Richland Soil and Water Conservation District in the neighboring county, feels close ties to their family farm and works closely with her father to ensure the sustainability of their land for the future.  “Growing up on this farm has given me a love of the land and for the wildlife here,” said Chanda.  “My whole family sees that and loves that and we all want to protect it for years to come.”