WASHINGTON, May 2 -- Ben Williamson of Darlington, South Carolina, has been named the winner of American Farmland Trust's 2004 Steward of the Land Award, the largest nationwide award for land conservation and stewardship. The farmer and his family were presented with the $10,000 prize on Sunday night for their lifelong commitment to agricultural conservation and environmental activism.
"For thirty years, Ben Williamson has championed the protection of South Carolina's natural resources-leading by example on his own farm and pushing for sound environmental policies in his community," said American Farmland Trust President Ralph Grossi. "He is a true steward of the land and a great inspiration to farmers across the nation."
A seventh-generation farmer, Williamson raises beef cattle, grows shade and ornamental trees and shrubs, as well as forage crops, including grasses, clover, rye, and wild mustard. Williamson also manages 1,000 acres of timberland for sawtimber, pulpwood, wildlife habitat, hunting, and riparian buffers along Black Creek, a coastal stream running through Darlington County. Williamson maintains wide forested buffers along the banks of Black Creek and his use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has virtually ceased.
"It all started with wanting to keep our local Black Creek clean," Williamson explained. "Since our land drained into the Creek, I made a commitment to reduce the amount of chemicals we used. The interesting thing was that I still got good yields. Then I shifted much of our operation to organics and was able to get premium prices. I found that conservation was a good investment for my operation and for me. Everybody won-the farmer, the consumer, the creek."
Williamson's entrepreneurial spirit motivated him to incorporate organics into many areas of his operation. While other farmers planted conventional tobacco, Williamson converted to organic tobacco and other crops that were non-polluting and profitable. Today, almost all of Williamson's fields are organically certified or certifiable. He raises cattle for pasture-fed beef and devotes two acres to organic elephant garlic. Williamson leases half of his fields to a friend, David White, who grows organic corn, soybeans and grain sorghum, as well as raising free-range chickens and beef cattle.
Williamson's stewardship ethic demonstrates the profitability of using ecologically sound agricultural and silvicultural practices. "I am convinced that agriculture does not have to degrade the environment in order to be profitable," Williamson explained. "In the end, I just believe that conservation is a good investment, financially, for farmers."
In addition to keeping his own land healthy, Williamson has taken the lead in protecting Black Creek and its surrounding areas from pollution. As a founding trustee of the Black Creek Land Trust, he has combined careful study, persuasion, public education, and administrative and judicial action to ward off threats to the Creek. As a result, Black Creek water quality has improved and fish kills, once frequent, have not occurred for over 15 years.
In spite of his heavy workload, Williamson still makes time for civic responsibilities-educating other farmers and the public in matters of agriculture and conservation at the local and state levels. He has served on the board of the Heritage Trust Program, which has permanently protected almost 100,000 acres of special biological and botanical significance in South Carolina. He was a founding member of the Pocket Road Community Association, which successfully blocked a proposed natural gas pipeline that endangered rural lands in Darlington and Florence Counties.
"Ben's life has centered on stewardship," wrote Ben Gregg, a South Carolina Natural Resources Board member who nominated Williamson for the award. "The word perfectly summarizes his dedication to his own farm, to neighboring farms, to the waters of his beloved Darlington County and to South Carolina's natural heritage."
Williamson lives on the farm, Oaklyn, with his wife, Ann, and mother, Sara Dargan Williamson. His daughter, Jennie, and oldest son, Frank, have been active in conservation efforts throughout South Carolina. His son Carroll intends to return to Oaklyn, to farm alongside his father.
The 2004 Steward of the Land Award was presented to Williamson and his family at a private ceremony in Aiken, South Carolina. Williamson will be available on the farm for interviews and photos on Monday, May 3, from 9 a.m. until 12 p.m. Oaklyn is located on Rout 3 in Darlington. Please call ahead to schedule a visit. Phone: 843-393-7306.
American Farmland Trust is a private, nonprofit organization working with communities and individuals to protect the best land, plan for growth with agriculture in mind and keep the land healthy. Through its cutting-edge research and effective programs, AFT has helped ensure that more than a million acres of the nation's best farm and ranch land stay green and productive. AFT's Southeast Regional Office is located in South Carolina. Phone: 336-221-0707. AFT's National Office is located in Washington, D.C. Phone: 202-331-7300. For more information, visit http://www.farmland.org.