Jul 7, 2022Jerrold A. Watson & Sons grows organic peaches, vegetables
Jerrold A. Watson & Sons LLC continues a legacy of growing, having passed the century mark in operation. The Monetta, South Carolina, grower, which markets crops under the Watsonia Organics brand, helped create the state’s peach and asparagus industries.
The fourth-generation family operation grows, packs and ships from a catalog of 17 items, all certified through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. The Watsons began growing asparagus in 1918, later expanding to peaches. In the early 1980s, the family diversified its product line with yellow and zucchini squash, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. Other items include cabbage, cucumbers, sweet corn, kale, collards, strawberries, plums and muscadine grapes. Watson harvests kale throughout the year while the other items are harvested in the spring, summer and fall.
The company grows in three neighboring counties in west central South Carolina: Aiken, Lexington and Saluda counties. The Watsons’ farm on “the Ridge,” one of the world’s most famous peach growing areas. While the counties’ climates and soils are similar, the alternate growing areas provide insurance. “Because of insects, we try to spread out,” said Jerrold “Jerry” Watson Jr., co- owner. “We try to plant a little of each crop in each county. When hail comes, it won’t wipe out the whole crop of one commodity. It doesn’t always work that way, as every year and every week is different, anytime you’re dealing with the elements.”
Cooperating with Extension scientists at Clemson University, the University of Georgia and North Carolina State, the Watsons host field trips and plant experimental blocks. The universities help growers monitor insect activity by placing traps in fields, and suggesting beneficial insects as well as positioning weather stations on the farm.
One project places mulch on top of molasses under plastic. The method is designed to help counter nematodes, improve plant structure and help control weeds. In a previous season, the Watsons cooperated with a Clemson trial using bagging to grow peaches and apples. The experiment was so labor intensive, however, it was too costly to be a feasible production method.
The Watsons irrigate through wells and ponds on plastic with drip holes. Pump filters include sanitizing devices that maintain water quality.
“Conservation of water is very critical to us,” Watson said. “We try to minimize our use. We only use what we have to as other states are really suffering with water shortages.”
Cover crops are rotated and planted between rows.
“Most all the vegetables we grow love sand land,” Watson said.
He said universities, which keep growers informed about research, are lifesavers.
“A lot of times, the experiments don’t pay off, but we are always open to new ideas and innovations, to try new things,” Watson said. It’s like throwing darts. If one thing doesn’t work, you must try something else.”
It’s also important for growers to maintain good relationships with seed companies, which can update growers on varieties. Watson said there’s less private research on yellow squash vs. zucchini squash. He said he isn’t sure why, but said zucchini squash is more grower-friendly and yellow squash is more tender. The Watsons grow both because of demand. The Watsons also grow butternut and kabocha hard squash.
Growing organically since 2005, the Watsons faced a myriad of challenges and a learning curve.
“Nothing has any staying power,” Watson said. “We must spray (Organic Materials Review Institute) OMRI- approved fungicides when we get fog, dew, mist or rain. It’s a never-ending saga. We never thought it would be like this when we first got into it.”
There’s also more competition in the organic sector.
In the past, the Watsons grew 1,800 acres of peaches. Because of tough seasons and disappointing markets, it now grows about 380 acres. They have added nectarine and plum acreage.
An escalation of farm inputs is also pressing. Watson noted that some friends in Georgia recently quit farming because “they couldn’t fight the fight anymore.
“We have gotten to the critical stage,” he said. “Everything we do, irrigation equipment, labor, plastic and fertilizers, it’s all going up. The numbers have to be there or you don’t exist.”
In 1918, Joseph H. Watson Sr. planted the first asparagus in South Carolina and founded and managed the Monetta Asparagus Association. Soon after, the region became known as the asparagus capital of the world.
In 1925, asparagus production had shifted from South Carolina to New Jersey. Watson met with area growers and encouraged each to plant 60 acres of peaches each. He did the same, sparking South Carolina’s commercial peach industry.
Mary Watson, Joseph’s wife, ran the farm after her husband died. Her son, Jerrold A. Watson Sr., returned from World War II in 1945, and he worked the farm until his sons, Jerrold “Jerry” Watson Jr. and Joseph “Joe” Watson returned after finishing college.
The family’s fourth generation of Watsons, Jed (Jerry’s son), and Jeph, (Joe’s son), returned to the farm after college. Jed does sales and food safety while Jeph handles the packinghouse.
Jerry Watson said he often thinks about the truth in something his father once told an acquaintance who said he’d like to be a farmer because “everyone has to eat.” Watson advised the man to “grab a life jacket and jump in, because the water’s deep.”
Despite the challenges, Watson maintains an optimistic outlook.
“We are always looking up,” he said. “We don’t look down. Always look up and be thankful. And keep going … That’s the only thing one can do.”
– Doug Ohlemeier, assistant editor; Photos: Jerrold A. Watson & Sons