LOWRYS -- A turkey farmer's plans to expand his Lowrys-area operation have upset some neighbors, who fear more birds will bring worse smells than those they've endured for 12 years.
But Gary Watson, the 60-year-old farmer, said his business smells just like it should.
"This is a farm," he said. "This is what we do on a farm. Sometimes, farms smell like farms. I can't help that."
Watson is seeking a permit from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control that would allow him to build two barns, though he said he only wants one.
His son, Matt, graduated from Winthrop University in May and plans to manage the new facility.
The 350-acre farm already has three bird barns. Those buildings hold a combined flock of 17,000 tom turkeys, Watson said, and three flocks pass through the farm every year. Watson began raising the birds in 1996 after being frustrated by growing weather-dependent crops such as corn and soybeans.
"The birds don't care if it rains or not," he said.
The farm was the subject of controversy when it was being built. Neighbors then said they didn't know about the operation until they noticed the construction site.
Because the county had no zoning guidelines then, no public hearings were required.
Watson now receives birds that are five weeks old and raises them until they're 18 to 20 weeks. All the turkeys eventually will become lunchmeat. He said this is his livelihood.
"I understand why they like it out here," he said, referring to area residents. "But understand what we do in the country."
Neighbors such as Jessie Peay, who has lived on the same land for 29 years, say there's a difference between Watson's operation and a family farm.
"This is an industry," said Peay, who pastors Mount Carmel AME Zion Church in Lancaster. "It's not a mom-and-pop type farm. It's an industry that has a corporate-type environment."
When turkeys first came to Watson's land, Peay said the birds' stench immediately dominated the area, and the farm attracted numerous flies.
He remembers cooking under his carport soon after the birds arrived and watching flies cover the walls.
"I wasn't prepared for that," he said.
Peay said the farm's smell is sometimes so strong that his family will run from the car to the house to avoid the foul fumes.
Peay has thought about moving, but he finds it difficult leaving his longtime home. And, he said, no one will want to buy his home with the turkey farm there.
Another group opposed to the farm is St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church. The historic black church sits on the York County side of the county line. One of the barns is visible from the front yard of the church, which dates back to 1886.
Bobby Featherstone, who pastors the 280-member congregation, said worshipers long have complained about the smell and flies he says are generated by the farm.
Featherstone said he has asked local and state officials for help stopping the expansion and has received the support of Western York County NAACP president Steve Love.
If this were a more affluent community, Featherstone said, the farm "wouldn't be an issue at all."
Featherstone doesn't fault Watson for trying to make a living, but he said those around him shouldn't have to put up with nuisances because of that.
"There has to be a voice of opposition," he said. "If it means galvanizing the community, then that's what we have to do."
DHEC has received about 180 letters from people opposed to Watson's planned expansion, DHEC spokesman Thom Berry said. Most of the letters contain the same wording but have been signed by different people.
Watson contends his farm follows DHEC guidelines. He admits the smells get stronger when he cleans his barns, although he said that's just part of the business.
He also said he uses fly traps to control those pests.
People want to eat turkey and they want to pay a decent price for it, Watson said, and he said farms such as his must exist unless people want their food grown in a foreign country.
"You gotta grow 'em somewhere," Watson said. "If you can't put a (turkey farm) in the middle of 350 acres, where do you put it?"
The state Board of Health and Environmental Control likely will decide later this month if it will hear the appeals made to Watson's permit, DHEC's Berry said. If the board chooses to hear the matter, a date would be scheduled.
If the board decides not to hear the case, he said, then it could be appealed to the S.C. Administrative Law Court.