Cultivating future Lowcountry growers 

Farming's New Wave

Future Farmer Nikki Seibert enjoys the strawberries at Joseph Fields Farm on Johns Island

Kaitlyn Iserman

Future Farmer Nikki Seibert enjoys the strawberries at Joseph Fields Farm on Johns Island

With a nomination for Best Chef: Southeast at the prestigious James Beard Awards this May, one might think that Chef Sean Brock would be content to roll into McCrady's around dinner time and dazzle table after table with his culinary prowess. Resting on his laurels, however, is not his style.

Instead, Brock awakens at dawn for the commute to Thornhill Farm in McClellanville, where he's launched a 3.5-acre "heritage garden" of historic Charleston crops, many of which are near extinction.

After the Civil War, the Lowcountry's rice plantations began shutting down, devoid of their involuntary workforce, and foods associated with rice field crop rotation, like benne, buckwheat, and cowpeas, were the collateral damage. Brock wants to cook with those crops, along with heirloom corns and wheats, but there's just not enough to go around. So before he shows up at McCrady's at lunch time, he spends his mornings sweating in the field, laboring over a harvest that will go straight into a seed bank, rather than his kitchen.

"It's kind of crazy, growing all this stuff and working your butt off and not being able to eat it," says Brock. "But the feeling is just incredible, knowing you're contributing something so significant to agriculture and the history of cooking in this area."

After a couple seasons of seed bank farming, Brock will indeed begin cooking with the traditional grains, as well as sharing them with other farmers and chefs. For now, he's happy to be growing the future with the seeds of the past.

click to enlarge Brock
  • Brock

Farm School

Awareness about eating locally has spread from restaurants to our homes in just a handful of growing seasons. Rita's Roots and Legare Farms launched Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs a few years ago, and they've been followed by a host of others, including Ambrose Family Farm, Rosebank Farms, and Thornhill Farm. Charleston organic pioneer Rita Bachmann of Rita's Roots has since relocated to Virginia this winter.

Jumping in to fill the void left by the visionary young Bachmann, Lowcountry Local First introduced the Growing New Farmers Incubator Pilot program. LLF recognized that the average age of a Lowcountry farmer was nearing 60, and without a fresh crop of farmers, the knowledge of how to toil our sensitive soil would soon become endangered. The nonprofit pooled together local farmers, chefs, and activists, designing an apprenticeship program that would both train new farmers and make purchasing local food easier and more convenient for restaurants and families.

Nikki Seibert, a 27 year old with a master of environmental studies degree from the College of Charleston, began work at three different farms this month. She's left behind a career converting the Sea Island Habitat for Humanity over to green building techniques that's already garnered her the S.C. Sustainability Institute's leadership award. Today, she's one of three full-time apprentices rotating between Thornhill Farms, Joseph Fields Farm (Johns Island), and Rosebank Farms (Johns Island). After seeing a flyer for the internship hanging in Kudu Coffee, she immediately contacted LLF and filed an application.

"I never realized there was an opportunity for organic farming that would let me stay in Charleston," says Seibert. "It's a huge pay cut, but the experience I'll be gaining is invaluable. I get to work with three different local farmers who are all doing it their own way and learning the business model hands on."

Seibert recently moved to Johns Island, and before even putting sheets on her bed, she'd gotten transplanted veggies into the garden around her house. Last year, she founded Bogarden, at the corner of Bogard and Rutledge avenues. Where most folks saw just an empty lot, Seibert saw a chance to grow vegetables in the heart of an urban district, teaching the neighbors about nutrition and permaculture in the process.

What excites Seibert most about the Incubator Pilot is what it might accomplish beyond inspiring new farmers to the profession. The program has the potential to unite the existing farms in a network that can reliably supply kitchens and grocery stores.

The apprentices monitor the progress of the crops on each of the three farms, entering estimated harvest dates and quantities into LLF's online portal every Tuesday. Chefs can then shop for local produce online, selecting what they need from what's in season that week. By pooling together multiple farms, the risks of a crop not being ready in time to supply an order is greatly diminished, eliminating the principal excuse many restaurants and retailers have for purchasing from corporate food suppliers.

"A chef can get a case of radishes from one farmer and two from another. If farmers work together, we can reach a market that's even bigger," explains Elizabeth Beak, LLF's program director of sustainable agriculture. "When I was growing, it was very stressful for me to get orders to the chefs every two weeks, because I was working with nature. We need to respect and balance nature with the market."

Once the program catches on at participating restaurants like Med Bistro, Al Di La, and Glass Onion, Beak hopes it will expand to include grocery stores, high-volume restaurants, and after-school programs. Beginning in May, part-time volunteer interns will begin working at other farms as well, including Middleton Place's gardens and Mepkin Abbey's oyster mushroom operations. This fall, more farms and restaurants will likely be added, and Beak hopes to eventually integrate with college courses that can utilize the apprenticeships for credit.

Whether or not the interns stay in the fields after their year-long commitment, Beak hopes they'll produce the next wave of school gardens, organic caterers, and urban farmers.

click to enlarge LLF apprentice Tecoria Jones hopes to one day sell her crops at a local produce market - KAITLYN ISERMAN
  • Kaitlyn Iserman
  • LLF apprentice Tecoria Jones hopes to one day sell her crops at a local produce market

Tecoria Jones is a 34-year-old single mother of four girls who currently works on Joseph Fields Farm along River Road. She's a one-day-a-week LLF apprentice who grew up playing in her grandfather's tobacco farm in the Upstate.

"I remember expressing, 'I want to be a farmer,' and they'd say, 'Well, the food is in the grocery store now.' That's the easy way out, but as food gets more and more adulterated and sickness and obesity get more prevalent, you can't really ignore that any longer," says Jones. "We've got to step up to it."

Once she finishes the Incubator Pilot, Jones envisions converting one of Johns Island's vacant buildings into a local produce market where she and other farmers can sell their crops all week long. For her, the biggest draw to the apprenticeship is the entrepreneurial class where she's learning the business of local food.

"That's an opportunity to get your bearings, get your hands dirty first and know what you're going to be doing and get a business plan together," says Jones. "It goes back to the old 'teach a man to fish' saying. If you teach a woman to farm, especially a woman with four daughters, she's going to teach them as well."

Food from Our Backyards

Way on down Harts Bluff Road, flocks of funny looking chickens scurry around at Wadmalaw Island Farms. Fat Hen Chef Fred Neuville raises heirloom varieties and serves them 20 minutes down the road at his Maybank Highway restaurant.

"The only way I can describe the taste of those chickens is, 'fresh,'" says Neuville.

The farm is also the home of another program in its infancy, Farm Kids. The nonprofit aims to connect island children with their food sources, says co-founder Beth Harley.

"They'll have the opportunity to collect eggs, see chickens being born in the hatchery, work in the garden, play with piglets, and make candles in a working honey house," says Harley. "There's been a whole lot of nothing going on out there, so we might as well grow something yummy."

Neuville donated a full buffet for the nonprofit's recent fundraiser at Johnson's Baby Grand dance club on Wadmalaw. He receives a majority of his produce and meat from local suppliers and likes that his farm will soon be educating kids on the skills needed to be sustainable. Although he's not amongst the initial restaurants in LLF's Incubator, he plans to sign on when they expand in the fall.

"It is so important to know how and where your food is grown," says Neuville. "[The Incubator Pilot] brings everybody together under one roof, and it opens the door to so many other restaurants. What a wonderful thing to be putting money back into the local economy, and in essence, becoming self-sufficient."

LLF apprentice Seibert likes that the program replaces competition between local farmers with cooperation, both in the market and in growing techniques.

click to enlarge Fred Neuville not only works at the Fat Hen, he raises them - KAITLYN ISERMAN
  • Kaitlyn Iserman
  • Fred Neuville not only works at the Fat Hen, he raises them

"We're learning three different ways to farm," she says. "Everyone's got their own soil, their own climate, their own business plan."

Seibert predicts a role for herself as an activist for legislation that benefits farmers and is focusing on learning how to market local and organic foods, despite their added expense.

"Now is the time in South Carolina to really get your hands in and stake a claim in farming," she says. "It's a big, uphill battle, not necessarily against conventional farming, but learning how to overcome the barrier of educating people on the cost and value of organic and local farming."

At Thornhill Farm, which provides about 150 CSA shares a season, head farmer Maria Baldwin would like to see the size of their farmed acreage doubled. But she's short on human resources; land issues become a moot point if their aren't enough knowledgeable people to work what's there, she says. Handling fickle soil, unpredictable rain cycles, and pests without using heavy chemicals are skills that require time in the earth to develop. Thornhill Farm constantly turns down requests from restaurants to provide produce, a clear sign that the market is ready for growth.

We just need more farmers. And despite all the romanticism about getting dirt under your fingernails and connecting with food at its source, it takes a special dedication to devote yourself to farm life. Fortunately, there are people like LLF's apprentices and Chef Brock, eager to soak up the knowledge of the last generation's farmers before it disappears forever.

"There are moments where you're like, 'What the hell am I doing?,' when you thought it was as easy as putting a seed in the ground and you're a farmer," says Brock, who lost 700 beet plants in his first season when he misestimated the depth to plant the seeds. "It's 110 degrees, and you're standing in the middle of a field, and you don't even have the energy to get to the truck to lie down. But then you load that truck up, overflowing with squash and zucchini and eggplant and tomatoes, and pull up at the restaurant. It's changed my life, and it's really changed my cooking."


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