Farmers seek to preserve heritage, grow family business

Willard Parker never named his son Ace.

When Parker’s boy entered the world 44 years ago, someone botched the birth certificate. It was supposed to say Asa, a family name that dates back to the pioneering ancestor who rafted down the Waccamaw River and built the family’s homestead near present-day Longs.

“How it got A-C-E on it, we don’t know.” Willard Parker, 73, said. “It was found [later]. ... We said, ‘Well, it don’t really matter now.’”

In some ways, the change seems appropriate. Farming has long endured seasons of transition and a new Parker generation is adjusting to the times. They no longer grow the tobacco, soybeans and corn that for decades made their livelihood. The family’s herd of beef cattle has dwindled to about 60 head from the more than 200 they once raised. Ace Parker, who as a boy pulled 14-hour days in the fields, now makes most of his money selling real estate.

Still, the father and son remain dedicated to preserving their property’s heritage, at least in some way. They hope to host weddings, corporate breakfasts and other events on their land, capitalizing on the scenic fields and forests without significantly altering the landscape. The Parker homestead recently earned the distinction of South Carolina Century Farm, meaning they have documents showing the farm has been owned by their family for more than 100 years. Horry County leaders plan to place the farm on the local historic register this week. These designations make the evolution of the farm easier.

“It allows it to just stay pretty much in the same state that it was,” Ace Parker said. “It won’t have to be commercialized as much. … We didn’t want to change a whole lot. We didn’t want to bring a bunch of pavement in here and make a big parking lot. What’s the old song? They paved paradise to make a parking lot. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

Just how many old family farms still harvest crops and raise livestock in Horry County?

Getting an exact number isn’t a simple task.

“You’d really have to dig into ag census files and property data or farm service agency data to figure out whether or not it’s a farm that’s remained under operation in continual family ownership,” said Blake Lanford, a local agent with Clemson Extension Service. “A lot of times, that’s just not data that we have.”

Throughout the county, a dozen farms have registered with the Century Farm program, though there are others that qualify. They just haven’t gone through the application process.

“I imagine there’s a lot more out there than you realize,” Lanford said.

County officials want to reach those farmers, said Mary Catherine Hyman, a senior planner with Horry County Government. Hyman serves as the liaison to the county’s Board of Architectural Review, a group that leads the county’s historic preservation efforts. Local officials want to document where these old farms are, Hyman said, as well as provide business opportunities for interested landowners. She helped the Parkers navigate the reams of paperwork necessary for their farm’s recognitions.

“If someone were to come in here today and wanted to build a new building to have weddings and special events and that sort of thing, they’d have to go through our department to make sure that they have all the parking and the landscaping and met all those requirements,” she said. “But if it’s a historic property that’s wanting to have things like that, they kind of can get around it.”

Juddering through the coastal grasses in Willard Parker’s dusty F-150, the men talk about their plans.

“I just see the potential here,” Ace Parker said. “So many people come to this area, we can continue to market this thing in a way that shows the heritage of our family as well as the farm.”

They envision building an event center and an open air chapel connected by dirt paths. Visitors would be able to see the family’s Angus bulls and marsh horses, which come from the islands off the North Carolina coast.

“You’re looking at true history,” Ace Parker said of the animals of Spanish descent. “They’re not big horses. They’re small. They’re little ponies. As they get on better grass, they tend to get a little bit bigger. They’re about a hand bigger than what they would be if they were on the island. But you talk about a tough animal. Imagine getting on those islands and having no fresh water and no food really and surviving for hundreds of years. They’re hearty.”

The connection to the horses goes back to Willard Parker’s father, who installed electrical wiring at many homes along the North Carolina coast. In the summer of 1953, he returned to the area and found a horse for his son.

“I bought you a damn marsh horse,” his father told him. “A good horse.”

On July 4, 1953, the family pulled a rickety trailer behind their Studebaker en route to North Carolina. They returned with the horse. Willard Parker has raised them ever since.

“When I grew up, I loved a horse,” he said. “Still do. And they were so different, and so tough. I just always kept them. And I admired them. … They are not like an American saddle horse. They’re more intelligent.”

Although the Parkers own more than 200 acres in the Longs area, the tracts are a far cry from the 1,000-acre expanse the family managed in the 1800s.

According to family lore, the Parkers emigrated from England in the late 18th century and settled in an area of North Carolina known as Green Swamp. The family wanted to move south, so in the early 1800s they loaded up their relatives and possessions and headed down the Waccamaw to Red Bluff.

Wade Hampton Parker got out on one side of the river. His brother, Asa Demalion, exited on the other. Their descendants still call those areas home.

The Parkers’ ownership records go back to 1863. For years, their land stretched from the river to S.C. 905.

“At one time, there was really nothing out here but us,” Ace Parker said. “For about a quarter of a mile, half a mile, there wasn’t even another house.”

Most of the 19th century buildings have been torn down, though the old home of Aunt Essie still stands. A sprawling oak tree anchors the front yard. A few family members have taken wedding photos there.

The Century Farm idea came about because the Parkers wanted to continue making money from the farm without adhering to all the regulations for modern commercial buildings.

“I don’t want to come here and pave 10 acres of this,” Ace Parker said. “We’ve got wide open grass. It’s a dustless surface. My argument was that, ‘Why can’t I park on the grass, just like I can park on pavement?”

Statewide, some 500 properties have been named Century Farms since the program was launched in the mid-1970s, said Les McCall, director of the Bart Garrison Agricultural Museum of South Carolina and coordinator of the Century Farm program.

McCall said about 300 of those farmers have notified his office that the same families are still running them. He’s also noticed a spike in Century Farm applications over the last three years, with the number almost doubling. He attributes the increase to better promotion of the program, but he sees other factors, too.

“There seems to be a surge in interest in farms and farming in S.C. in recent years,” he said. “Young folks are taking serious consideration of family farms, where 10 years ago that would have likely not crossed their minds. Small farms are coming back in the state, and the fact that many of these Century Farms aren't part of the program until a younger generation finds out about us and applies shows me that it’s often the new blood that is searching for ways to make their farms stand out, and our program is a good opportunity to do that. So I think the climate is perfect right now to grow a program like this.”

More farmers are also trying to tap into agritourism, a term that refers to rural business ventures such as corn mazes, pick-your-own produce, farm-to-table dinners and other activities and events that bring the non-farming public to the growers.

“Most of our farmers are very proud to be part of the program, and display our nice, large sign out by the road with their farm market signs,” McCall said. “The sign is an eye-catcher, and carries with it a notion of ‘ultra-SC grown,’ which can be very useful to agritourism. If a tourist realizes that this farm is not only visitable, but has been established in the state for over a century, it makes stopping there that much more likely, as it has a historic site feel to it as well.”

With the Century Farm honor, a spot on the historic register and a plan for growth, the Parkers hope to position their farm for the future, preserving the land for at least another generation.

Ace Parker has a 7-year-old son and he bears the Parker surname. The boy has another tie to the past, too.

His first name is Asa.

Contact CHARLES D. PERRY at 626-0218 or on Twitter @TSN_CharlesPerr.

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