He’s the Hub

As a farmer, small-town mayor and proprietor of a farm supply store, Joey Wilson is plugged into what’s happening now and what it’ll take to help his children succeed down the road.

By Des Keller | Photos By Will & Deni McIntyre

In the upstate South Carolina crossroads town of Lowrys, Wilson’s Farm Store is an agrarian hub—a place that, save for some modern tractors and sophisticated animal feed, looks as if it hasn’t changed in years.

Joe Wilson

Joey Wilson

The store was opened in 1988 by Joe Wilson, father of current owner Joey. Built on the site of what was once a cotton gin, the store is now laden with stacks of cattle and horse feed, cubbies of hardware and open wood boxes filled with seeds for giant curly mustard, daikon radish and black-eyed peas.

On the day we visited, Mack Alexander was working the counter as he has for nearly 20 years in his “retirement” job. Richard Land was helping to move pallets stacked with bags of deer corn to the front of the store.

Not 20 yards away, Rob Robinson was under the awning of the old gin itself operating a “nut cracker” on behalf of the dozens of customers who drop off their tens, or even thousands, of pounds of pecans for the process.

“Even as a farmer, Dad always did sell a lot of stuff to the public,” says Joey, 56. “We sold hay, straw, oats and even some produce out the barn door. Opening the store just allowed us to have regular hours.” Hardware, pesticides and feed were added later, along with a spreader truck for fertilizer.

In an era of megastores, Wilson contends that, for most products they sell, their store is very competitive on prices. Besides, he adds, “People still buy from people and they buy from people they like.” Despite the down-home look of the business, “we probably cater a bit more to the commercial farmer.”

Being a Hub, Farmer and Father

In addition to owning the store, Wilson farms 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans, cotton, hay, timber and their newest crop, pecans. The family also has 300 head of stocker cattle and operates a trucking business.

To say Wilson is involved in the community is an understatement. Did we mention he’s also the mayor of Lowrys (pop. 200)?

“It was my turn,” Wilson chuckles.

He’s purchased the long-defunct post office across the highway from the store with the idea of renovating it for new offices—possibly for his 22-year-old son, Griff, who owns and operates a timber-harvesting business.

Griff, a North Carolina State University grad, and second son, Kemp, a junior majoring in ag mechanics and business at Clemson, are championship-caliber competitors in timber sports, using an ax, handsaw or chainsaw in events such as the standing block chop and the underhand chop.

Kemp already farms alfalfa, cotton and peanuts on his own. Daughter, Liza, a freshman ag business major at Clemson, is most interested in marketing and branding. Explains Dad, “She says with a father and two brothers in natural resources, she knows we all need help in those areas.”

Holding His Land

It is with an eye toward the future that Wilson shows us the family’s foray into pecans as a potential long-term profit center. He is walking us through their 60-acre “experimental” pecan grove not far from the store. Black irrigation lines run along the base of the trees, planted in 2010. They harvested their first pecans—a light crop in 2015, because the trees were not fully mature—and were, when Wilson gave the tour, only days away from the beginning of 2016’s harvest.

“With pecans, we are looking for something that will give us enough revenue per acre to be able to keep our land,” says Wilson. “I don’t want my descendants to feel the pressure to sell their land.”

Though Wilson’s location seems quite rural, the price of some land in the area has risen to as high as $7,000 per acre because of development pressures. Today, it’s becoming harder to justify raising row crops.

“We [he and wife, Sanna] feel like we need to produce enough off the land to defend it from outside buyers,” he says. Pecans have the potential to earn considerably more than, say, soybeans or cotton.

The Potential of Pecans

“If you have the time you can make money,” says Wilson. “According to the University of Georgia, the odds of making a profit are about 99%.”

Georgia is the largest producer of pecans in the U.S. Yet, pecans’ long-term viability isn’t well understood in this section of north-central South Carolina, and a farmer will have to wait more than five years before trees begin producing a viable crop. Pecan trees won’t hit profitable production until about 10 years after planting. For instance, at maturity, Wilson’s pecan trees will produce 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of nuts per acre, which would be a big increase from the 200 pounds per acre they produced last year.

In the meantime, a pecan grove will cost $1,200 per acre annually in capital and variable costs, and that’s excluding the cost of the land on which the groves are planted. Fortunately, pecan trees can continue to produce nuts for more than 50 years.

The U.S. produces more than 80% of the world’s pecans, and the Wilsons are growing varieties that appeal to the domestic as well as international market. Sixty percent of their trees produce Caddo pecans, while the other 40% are Sumner nuts. The smaller Caddos produce about 65 nuts per pound while the larger Sumner nuts yield 40 to 45 nuts per pound.

The Caddos are more popular in the U.S., while Sumner pecans have greater demand overseas, particularly in Asia. If all goes well—and it seems to be so far—Wilson says they could expand from their current 60 acres of pecans to several hundred within a few years.

That is, if the crows don’t eat the pecans. While giving us a tour, Wilson is keenly aware of the caws of the big birds nearby. “They are the big enemies of pecan trees. They don’t wait for nuts to fall. They will get in the trees and pick the nuts. It is a race between them and us at harvest.”