Kemp McLeod named 2017 South Carolina Farmer of the Year
Alexander “Kemp” McLeod of McBee, S.C., is a hard-working farmer who raises 22 peach varieties, strawberries, pumpkins and row crops. He operates a successful roadside store along a busy four-lane highway where he sells his fruit and where visitors enjoy an outstanding agritourism experience.
A farmer for 44 years, his farm encompasses 7,500 acres, 2,500 acres of rented land and 5,000 acres of owned land.
As a result of his success as a peach and crop farmer, McLeod has been selected as the state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other individuals as finalists for the overall award that will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 17 at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
He also grows seed crops, including rye, browntop millet and sericea lespedeza. In past years, he grew bicolor lespedeza seed.
McLeod’s peaches on 1,000 acres yield 500 bushels per acre. Strawberries from 50 acres yield 30,000 pounds per acre. His dryland corn on 600 acres yields about 100 bushel per acre while irrigated corn on 500 acres yields about 180 bushels per acre. His soybeans on 2,000 acres produce about 40 bushels per acre and his wheat on 1,200 acres produces about 80 bushels per acre. He estimates his rye seed yields from 1,000 acres at 30 bushels per acre.
He also grows about 15 acres of blackberries. McLeod has added 500 acres of irrigation for his row crops since 2015.
His peaches produce high yields. He pioneered in drip irrigation of peaches. He has 45 wind machines he operates when there is a freeze threat. Air circulation can reduce freeze damage to young peach fruit. Row covers help prevent strawberry freeze damage, while improving early maturity, yields and quality.
He also uses New Zealand-developed hail cannons that send sonic waves into low hanging clouds to disrupt hail development. McLeod can’t prove the hail cannons work, but uses them because he suffered severe fruit losses from hail in the past.
One of the peach varieties McLeod grows is named Cary Mac and it was developed on his farm. Cary Mac is a mutation of the Loring variety and is about a week earlier and has more color than the yellow Loring peach.
McLeod packs his peaches, strawberries and blackberries and ships them to grocery chains and produce terminals throughout the East Coast. He markets these crops through Richter and Company, a brokerage firm based in Charlotte, N.C.
At his roadside store south of McBee on State Highway 151, McLeod also offers a museum featuring old cars, antique tractors and home appliances. Visitors can view these antiques free of charge. The site also features Big’s restaurant operated by McLeod’s sister, Beth Watford. She named Big’s after one of her cats.
“McLeod Farms is highly involved in agritourism,” says McLeod. “We have festivals each year surrounding the strawberry, peach and pumpkin seasons. Over 5,000 school children visit the farm throughout the year for field trips. During the fall, our McLeod Farms corn maze attracts more than 8,000 visitors. Visitors can also go to the field and pick their own strawberries and pumpkins.”
McLeod actually sells from three locations, the roadside market south of McBee, a packinghouse north of McBee and at the Farmer’s Market in Florence, S.C.
During the 1990’s, he launched an online gift pack business for shipping peaches directly to customers. The third party Primus organization verifies the safety of his peach and strawberry fruit crops.
He graduated from Clemson University in 1976 with a degree in agronomy, and returned to the farm to join his father and expand their operation.
McLeod was a commissioner of the Chesterfield County Conservation District and was named Outstanding Conservation Farmer in the county. He is a member of the McBee Town Council and has been on the Chesterfield County Economic Development Board.
On the state level, he has been a member of the S.C. Farm Bureau’s Fruit and Vegetable Committee. He received the John W. Parris Agriculture Leadership Award. He served as president of the S.C. Peach Council. He received the honorary state FFA degree in 2004. His farm was recognized as a Century Farm for operating more than 100 years. He also received the Order of Palmetto honoring his contributions to the state of South Carolina.
He is a contributor to the Harvest Hope organization that collects food for the needy. He’s also an alumnus of the Alpha Gamma Rho agricultural college fraternity.
Nationally, he received an honorary American Farmer FFA degree and has been a member of the National Peach Council.
His wife Gaie helps to supervise field trips to the farm by school groups. She helped to welcome about 3,400 students to the farm during this year’s strawberry season, and says that 5,000 to 6,000 students visit the farm each year. She is also busy in the late summer and early fall when she welcomes school children to the farm during pumpkin season.
Kemp and Gaie have been active in McBee Presbyterian Church. She is on the United Way Allocations Committee for Chesterfield County. She is a member of the Pee Dee Agritourism Committee and has been a member of State S.C. Agritourism Association.
McLeod Farms also helps to sponsor the popular “Making it Grow” television program that airs weekly on S.C. Public Television stations. This program features gardening and home horticulture information along with features on innovative South Carolina farmers. Gaie has been a frequent guest on the program.
Their son Spencer, who earned a degree in ag mechanization from Clemson and later earned a Master’s of Business Administration degree from Clemson, is back working full time on the farm.
Spencer has taken the lead in developing computerized technology for the farm such as wi-fi, apps for remote management, and making sure that all electronic devices used on the farms can be interconnected. He is especially good at tracking inventory and making sure he has records showing that fruit handling complies with safety standards and good agricultural practices. Spencer is also working on a system to better track labor and equipment costs to specific commodities produced on the farm.
Kemp is a member of the fourth generation of his family to farm in this location, and son Spencer is the fifth generation to farm
Kemp and Gaie have three other children, daughter Amanda Odegard, son Alexander McLeod III, and a daughter Rachel McCormick. Amanda is an English teacher. Alexander works as an electrical engineer in Greenville, S.C., while Rachel lives in Nashville, Tenn., and operates a day care facility.
Brian Callahan with the Clemson Extension Service coordinates the Farmer of the Year award in South Carolina. McLeod was nominated for the honor by Tony Melton, a Clemson Extension horticulture agent in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina.
“He is the best farmer I know,” says Melton.
Melton worked as a youth for the McLeods on their farm, and used the money he earned there to attend Clemson University. The McLeods honored Melton’s horticultural career by helping to fund a Clemson scholarship in Melton’s name.
As the South Carolina state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, McLeod will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply, a smoker-grill from Hays LTI and a Henry Golden Boy “American Farmer Tribute Edition” rifle from Reinke Irrigation.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 28th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,080,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from South Carolina include: Earl Thrailkill of Fort Lawn, 1990; Charles Snowden of Hemingway, 1991; Robert E. Connelly, Sr. of Ulmer, 1992; Henry Elliott, Sr. of Andrews, 1993; Ron Stephenson of Chester, 1994; Greg Hyman of Conway, 1995; Randy Lovett of Nichols, 1996; David Drew of Mullins, 1997; Jerry Edge of Conway, 1998; Blake McIntyre, III of Marion, 1999; Raymond Galloway of Darlington, 2000; W. R. Simpson of Manning, 2001; Gill Rogers of Hartsville, 2002; Harold Pitts of Newberry, 2003; Earl Thrailkill of Fort Lawn, 2004; Chalmers Carr of Ridge Spring, 2005; Steve Gamble of Sardinia, 2006; William Johnson of Conway, 2007; Kent Wannamaker of St. Matthews, 2008; Thomas DuRant of Gable, 2009; Marty Easler of Greeleyville, 2010; Kevin Elliott of Nichols, 2011; Monty Rast of Cameron, 2012; James Cooley of Chesnee, 2013; Walter Dantzler of Santee, 2014; Tom Trantham of Pelzer, 2015; and Kerry Owen of Pickens, 2016.
South Carolina has had two overall winners, Ron Stephenson of Chester in 1994 and James Cooley of Chesnee in 2013.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit McLeod’s farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 7-11. The judges this year include farmer Thomas Porter, Jr., of Concord, N.C., who was the overall winner in 2011; Charles Snipes, retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist from Greenville, Miss.; and beef cattle rancher Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, Fla., who was the overall winner in 2009.