The Ben Williamson Family
A Legacy of Agriculture
Ben Williamson has farmed in Darlington County, located in South Carolina’s northern coastal plain, since 1964. He grew up on the family farm, Oaklyn, where he lives with his wife, Ann, and mother, Sara Dargan Williamson. His youngest son, Carroll, intends to return to Oaklyn and farm along side his father. His daughter, Jennie, and oldest son, Frank, have been active in conservation efforts in South Carolina.
Williamson manages and tends about half of Oaklyn, comprising approximately 500 acres of cleared land and 1,000 acres of timber and riparian buffer along Black Creek, a coastal stream running through Darlington County. The farm thrives on diversity. His primary crop is the nursery of shade and ornamental tress and shrubs. Other crops currently include organic elephant garlic, a herd of 60 organically raised brood cows, as well as clover, rye, vetch, ryegrass and wild mustard.
The Williamsons lease just over half of their fields to a friend, who has been raising cattle and free-range chicken and planting corn and soybeans for nearly ten years. All of the fields have been certified organic or are certifiable, except for the 45 acres planted in nursery trees.
Innovation and Conservation on the Farm
While conventionally grown tobacco was still in its heyday, Williamson was trying to make Oaklyn a non-polluting, sustainable operation. He transitioned away from the chemical-intensive crops of the region to organic tobacco. Despite its high labor requirements, organic tobacco proved more profitable, and the income enabled him to try new crops and move toward horticulture.
In the management of Oaklyn, Williamson and his family exceed best management practices by maintaining wide forested buffers along the banks of Black Creek, with no logging activities within several hundred feet of the run of the stream. The use of mineral fertilizers and chemical pesticides has virtually ceased. Williamson’s woodlands are managed for sawtimber, pulpwood, wildlife habitat and hunting, paying particular attention to wildlife diversity, natural regeneration and nurturing uneven-age standards.
The farm continues to develop with better information, more experience, different markets and input from employees and other family members. Williamson’s stewardship ethic demonstrates the profitability of using ecologically sound agricultural and silvicultural practices.
Leadership and Policy Activism
Williamson has put his money where his mouth is, buying property bordering Black Creek and abutting Oaklyn. He and his family have put the ancestral home and all of Oaklyn on the National Register of Historic Places and erected a Historic Marker to educate passers-by. The two miles of Oaklyn adjacent to a paved highway have been designated a Local Scenic Byway and has been adopted by the Williamson family for the Keep America Beautiful litter clean up program.
Since the mid-1960s, Williamson has taken the lead in protecting Black Creek, a stream dear to his heart. In addition to being a founding trustee if the Black Creek Land Trust, he has combined careful study, persuasion, public education and administrative and judicial action to save Black Creek and its surrounding areas. As a result, Black Creek water quality has improved and fish kills, once frequent, have not occurred for over 15 years.
In spite of the heavy workload that all farmers endure, Williamson still makes time for civic responsibilities—educating and informing other farmers and the public in matters of agriculture and conservation at the local and state levels. From serving 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, to serving as a founding member of the Pocket Road Community Association that successfully opposed a proposed major natural gas pipeline in Darlington County, Williamson has led by example. He has shown his neighbors, friends and the entire state of South Carolina, that one man—one family—can make a difference.