Starting from scratch in the cotton business was a tough row to hoe for St. Matthews, S.C., grower Kendall W. (Kent) Wannamaker. But, today he and his wife, Mary Lil, own and operate a thriving cotton, peanut, and corn farming operation, and he is a recognized leader in the cotton industry.

He also is president and co-owner of Farmers Gin Company LLC at St. Matthews, and is a partner in Carolina Peanut LLC, a peanut buying station at Cameron, S.C.

His accomplishments in cotton production, combined with his stewardship of resources and his leadership in the agricultural community, have earned him the Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award for the Southeast states.

Wannamaker, who grew up in a farming family and graduated from Clemson University with a degree in plant sciences, had planned to return after college and help run the family farming operation begun by his grandparents.

Which is what he did for five years.

Then, in the mid-1980s, his father and uncle decided to retire from farming and put their land in the Conservation Reserve Program, leaving Wannamaker with some life-altering choices to be made.

“It was a difficult decision for my father and my uncle to retire from farming,” he says, “ but at the time, the outlook was grim for the whole farming industry. Our farm had a lot of highly erodible land, and the CRP program looked like the best thing to do at the time.”

Thanks in large part to 30 acres of land given to him by his grandmother, Lucile Wannamaker, he was able to venture into the swine business.

“My grandmother was a legend in her time,” he says. “She had her own farming operation and she recognized early on that I wanted to be involved with farming. We’ve come a long way with our farming operation — but it all started on those 30 acres of land.

“Other than those 30 acres, I didn’t have any land, so in 1985 I began a small scale swine business. That’s about all I could fit on the land.”

Over the next 10 years, he gradually increased his farrow-to-finish operation to 500 sows, one of the state’s largest swine operations. When hog contracting became popular and there were fewer markets for independently raised hogs, Wannamaker realized it was time to diversify.

Row crop farming seemed the logical fit, but it was hard to find good farmland to rent in 1995. He had to forward pay land rent — something not commonly done in the area — just to convince landowners to take a chance on renting him their land.

After three years of farming 300 acres, one of the top growers in the area, J.D. (Pally) Wiles of Ft. Motte, S.C., was looking for someone to rent his land.

“Mr. Pally was willing to give me the opportunity to fulfill my dream of having enough land to justify buying the equipment I needed.”

Since then, Wannamaker has built his farming operation to about 3,000 acres. In most years he grows cotton (more than 1,000 acres annually), peanuts, and corn.

Prior to the end of the federal peanut program in 2002, there had been only a few thousand acres of peanuts grown in South Carolina. When the program ended, Wannamaker and three other farmers had the foresight to renovate an old, rundown soybean processing facility and start a peanut buying station at Cameron, S.C.

Getting into the peanut business in 2003 began a series of what some would consider risky business moves.

Two years later, Wannamaker and another group of farmers purchased a cotton gin, at a time when many wondered how much future cotton had in the Southeast. (Ironically, his family had owned and sold a cotton gin at St. Matthews, and the gin which he currently serves as president was the primary competitor for his family’s gin.)

“When we purchased the gin, it had been closed for four years,” he says. “People thought we were crazy, because there were five established gins in the area. At first we ginned our own cotton, and a very few customers. Over the last seven years, we have increased the business one grower at a time.”

In addition to the risks involved on the business side of cotton, he contends with the yearly risks of growing cotton.

“The improvement in varieties has probably been the biggest change in cotton production during my lifetime in cotton,” he says. “From a base of two or three varieties just a few years back, we now have many options that allow us to fit a specific variety to a specific piece of land.”