FEATURE STORY ‌ Keeping It Rural 

The plight of small farmers on Johns Island

click to enlarge cover1.jpg

“This is a nice place you got here,” says Sidi Limehouse (pictured above), a lifetime Johns Island farmer, to the girl behind the register at the Newton Farms grocery store near the entrance of Kiawah Island. “But where’s your farm?” The girl looks puzzled for a minute, then replies, “I think it’s in North Charleston.”

The real farm is buried somewhere beneath the shiny aisles and parking lots that were built on land Sidi used to rent and grow vegetables on. It wasn’t too long ago that upon crossing the Stono River to Johns Island, you were immediately in the country. Second in size on the East Coast only to New York’s Long Island, the island’s rich soil produced some of the nation’s finest tomato crops over the last century.

More recently, as the well-trodden paths to resort communities on Kiawah and Seabrook Islands spurn ornate new neighborhoods, parts of the island have lost their rural flavor. Many new homeowners are drawn by the “country lifestyle” that their very presence threatens. It’s the same old story of subdivisions taking over as a city sprawls, but a few small farmers are hanging tough on Johns Island, determined to keep the agrarian lifestyle alive in Charleston County.

It's a Family Affair

On a sunny autumn morning at the Fields' Family Farm, several miles down River Road from Maybank, Joseph Fields stands on the property where all six of his siblings were born, and still live as neighbors. "I's born and raised on the farm," he says. "It was my grandparents' grandparents' farm."

Except for a short stint as a welder for General Electric and a tour of duty with the military, Fields has spent his life on this land. Growing everything from collard greens to butterbeans, Fields has gained his farm some notice by switching to chemical-free methods that allow him to sell to stores like Whole Foods and Earth Fare. Unlike neighboring farms where out-of-state family members have sold their portion of an heirs property, the Fields survive by living together. Still, Joseph is unsure of his farm's future. Both of his children have taken different professions, and with a waterline and I-526 in the works, he's skeptical about the survival of pastoral life on the island.

Less than a mile down River Road from the Fields' place sits Legare Farms, operated by siblings Helen, Linda, and Thomas. Active members of the Johns Island Preservation Coalition, the family is feeling heat from inheritance taxes that may force them off their land. "My family's been farming on this property since as far as we can tell, 1830, and we've been farming on Johns Island since 1725," says Thomas Legare. "I think we're ninth generation. I was born and raised right here on this property."

click to enlarge Joseph Fields and his six siblings were born and raised on the farm his family has worked for generations – and they're all still living on the property today
  • Joseph Fields and his six siblings were born and raised on the farm his family has worked for generations – and they're all still living on the property today

The Legares' 350-acre sod farm and nursery, owned by their elderly mother, is conservatively appraised at $10 million. When the inheritance tax (commonly known as the death tax) is reinstated in 2012, they'll owe 55 percent of the land's value, or $5.5 million. That's unless their mother dies in 2011, when the tax will be totally repealed for a year. It's a horrible situation for a family to be in. "We always kid our mom that she's got to go in 2011," says Helen Legare. "She doesn't think it's funny, but that's the only way we'll end up holding on to the whole farm." Property values are based on developmental value, and as neighborhoods spring up around them, it becomes that much harder to keep land they've had for centuries.

Briar's Creek Golf Club, ranked the fourth best course in South Carolina by Golf Digest, is a prime example of converting farmland to suburbia. The land the golf course sits on was once a farm owned by the Legare siblings' aunt, whose children had to borrow money to pay inheritance taxes. When they got behind in loan payments, they were forced to sell the land. "We certainly don't have that kind of money," says Helen. "We're going to have to throw the towel in and sell the property and that's going to be the end of it."

"Kind of like a cancer"

"I've been farming out here since about 1960, which is a long time," says Sidi Limehouse, owner of Rosebank Farms. His produce stand has long benefited from its location at the entrance to Kiawah Island, where visitors can stop and purchase produce from eggplant to okra at the cozy roadside market. With the construction of Freshfields Village 300 yards down the road, Rosebank not only got a major competitor, but lost 30 acres of farmland they'd rented from Kiawah. "I expected them to take that away from me because I was sort of jumping in their shit," explains Sidi. "At one time I farmed as much as 700 acres on Johns Island. Now I've got about 60 acres." Even that acreage is rented from several different owners, and individual plots could go any day.

On a slow ride around his fields, Sidi recounts his childhood on Johns Island. "I remember when that road (Betsy Kerrison/Bohicket) was a dirt road. Back then we used to do a lot of deer hunting with dogs. I was just a little fella so they'd stick me in the middle of the road with a 20-gauge shotgun. You knew everybody, and if a car came along they'd stop and talk to you."

click to enlarge Left: the storefront at Newton Farms; Right: Sidi Limehouse, with Dog No. 7, stands on plowed land he no longer farms
  • Left: the storefront at Newton Farms; Right: Sidi Limehouse, with Dog No. 7, stands on plowed land he no longer farms

These days, the four-lane highway is a constant rush of traffic hurrying to and from the resorts. "The whole problem is there's just so many more people," says Sidi. "It's been a progressive thing, kind of like a cancer, you know?"

Sidi's burly, bearded appearance is not what you'd expect from a three-term veteran of the statehouse, but he speaks about the future of Johns Island with a contemplative realness that's both honest and heartbreaking. "It looks like farming's going to be history here. I used to farm on James Island, and there's none of that left." Directly behind Freshfields Village is a huge expanse of rich, dark soil, "some of the best farmland in South Carolina," says Sidi. He claims that the 100-acre stretch will be converted to a parking facility for the upcoming PGA tournaments at Kiawah.

Townsend Clarkson, the chief operation office for Kiawah Development Partners, couldn't verify any plans for a long-term parking lot, but he acknowledges the changing landscape and feels that the transformation can be positive. "The only way to stop growth is to stagnate a community," he declares. "If you have reasonable and well-thought out development plans, then you end up having the best of both worlds." Clarkson feels that limiting commercial cores and density are good signs that Johns Island is "doing it right."

Whether the development of Johns Island includes large, "attractive" houses, condominiums, or an interstate exit, the sheer increase in people will make farming more and more difficult. "Maybe there'll be some small plots," says Sidi, "but this is going to turn into another James Island."

Growing for the Future

The recently opened Full Circle Farms is one of those "small plots" that's already proving to be a success story. When Cindy's Seafood Market moved to a new location on Bohicket Road last year, they wanted to expand into offering local, organic produce along with their crabs and shrimp. After clearing two acres of pine forest down dusty Pumpkin Hill Road, they hired Rita Bachman to take the helm. "The only manmade thing when I got out there was a sink," she recounts. "Just dirt." With a small budget for seeds, irrigation, and a tractor, she's been producing USDA certified organic produce since last summer.

After graduating from the College of Charleston in 2004, Bachman worked on farms in the Catskill Mountains of New York and in the central valley of California, learning the ins and outs of producing edible, marketable plants. Her two acres are likely the most diverse on the island, with rows of cabbages and sunflowers sharing space with ornamental flowers and peppers that she sells to restaurants like FIG and McCrady's, in addition to the Seafood and Farmer's Markets. Planting is timed and practical — peas to put nitrogen in the soil, broccoli in the fall because frost makes it sweeter, beehives to pollinate beans.

"I keep everything as local as possible," Bachman explains. "It's logical, it's usually less expensive, it supports the local economy, and it's less fuel polluting." She's serious enough about keeping soil healthy and avoiding pesticides that she's attempted to produce a natural fertilizer out of leftover fish parts from the seafood market. The stinky concoction may not turn out to have a practical application, but it demonstrates her devotion to growing environmentally sustainable food with what's available close to home.

Demand for local, organic food is increasing, providing a niche for small farmers, but the national trend in grocery stores has been towards corporate farms. Joseph Fields sold to local Harris Teeters until a new district manager mandated that all food be shipped through their Charlotte, N.C. warehouse. To sell to a Piggly Wiggly on Johns Island, a farmer would first have to ship through Summerville. The system discourages local products and increases the likelihood of problems like the nationwide spinach/E.coli fiasco. Linda Legare recalls a recent Piggly Wiggly commercial contending that their produce is available within 24 hours of harvesting, while the camera pans over a pineapple field in the background.

click to enlarge Left: Rita Bachman shows off her organic cabbage at full circle farms; Right: Thomas Legare spells disaster "5-2-6"
  • Left: Rita Bachman shows off her organic cabbage at full circle farms; Right: Thomas Legare spells disaster "5-2-6"

Regardless of the plausibility of their claims, stores are recognizing consumers' desire for local food. If small farms continue to go under, the Legares fear that America will become "food-dependent" on other countries, "where they can spray anything they want and labor is cheap." Small farmers already can't compete with corporations in staple products, and are surviving by switching to organics and premium crops.

At Legare Farms, they've embraced "agro-tourism" as an alternate means of income. They began bringing school groups out in 2003, teaching them about growing and pollination, farm animals, and where food comes from. "One of my niece's friends made the comment about chocolate milk coming from brown cows," says Helen Legare. "These days most kids are two or three times removed from farming."

John Deere vs. the CATerpillar

Although many farmers aren't optimistic about their future on Johns Island, nobody's giving up just yet. Farmers like Joseph Fields and Rita Bachman are flourishing by specializing in organic produce and establishing reliable clientele. In addition to their educational programs, the Legares have taken an active role in the movement to block I-526 from looping over Johns Island. "That'll make us Mt. Pleasant overnight," believes Thomas.

click to enlarge Joseph Fields and Rita Bachman walk along the plentiful rows of leafy greens at Fields' family farm
  • Joseph Fields and Rita Bachman walk along the plentiful rows of leafy greens at Fields' family farm

Land use program director Megan Desrosiers of the Coastal Conservation League explains, "When you build a massive piece of infrastructure to an island like Johns Island that's rural, the development pressures will increase because there's available land and transportation capacity. People moving in are going to look at Johns Island as one of the most proximate places to move because of this new access road."

When people move in, property values go up, and holding on to large parcels becomes even harder. With the passing of the second county amendment on the ballot earlier this month, 95 million dollars has been allocated for greenbelts, 70 percent of which is tentatively designated for rural areas, including the purchase of property development rights. It's not enough money to save a vast area, but it's a precedent. "I'll be the first in line at the door to let them purchase mine," says Thomas Legare.

Land changing hands over generations threatens every farmer on Johns Island, whether it's the distribution of heirs property amongst multiple siblings or the death tax. "I imagine if you took West Ashley now, or Mt. Pleasant, all of those areas were at one point rural and had a lot of farming activity," says Clarkson of Kiawah Development. Perhaps the urbanization of Johns Island is a natural progression of Charleston's growth, just like West Ashley and Mt. Pleasant. Still, is it the bright lights of Sam Rittenberg and Highway 17 that make Charleston special, or is it moss-draped live oaks and the juicy sweetness of a ripe Johns Island tomato?

Stuff Yourself (Locally)
A Sustainable Holiday Menu

It's that wonderful time of year, when having another helping at the dinner table or just one more piece of pie is the biggest decision you have to make. Fortunately, eating to excess can support your community and the wonderful people that make it work. Eating locally produced food supports the economy close to home, and is environmentally preferable to long distance commutes.

This feast will include four delectable courses with all the trimmings, put together from Carolina farms, seafood suppliers, and wineries. –Nick Long

First Course – Wine and Cheese Platter

Muscadine Wine from Irvin-House Vineyards, Wadmalaw Island

• Palmetto (red muscadine-sweet, rich, light-bodied fruity flavor)

• Terra Gold (white muscadine-semi-dry, mellow, white table wine with a light fruitiness)

This small, intimate winery produces some of the country's best muscadine wine and offers tours and tastings to the public.

Goat Cheeses from Split Creek Farms, Anderson, SC

• Garden-Garlic Fromage Blanc (soft and spreadable)

• Pepper and Basil Chevre Logs (made in the French tradition of farmstead goat cheese)

• Hand-rolled Cheese Balls (from their apricot or raspberry Fromage Blanc coated with almonds or pecans)

Second Course – Peel-and-Eat Shrimp

Fresh shrimp from Crosby's Seafood, Charleston

Their shrimp are not only fresh, but they also participate in the Sustainable Seafood Initiative.

Third Course – Simple (yet elegant) Salad

Produce from Kurios Farms, Moncks Corner.

• Black Cherry Tomatoes, Seedless Cucumber, Baby Bibb Lettuce

The baby bibb lettuce is so crisp and buttery that it makes your mouth jump for joy. These three ingredients provide enough flavor that you won't need anything else.

Main Dish – Garlic Smashed Potatoes, Roasted Vegetable Medley, Turkey

Potatoes and vegetables from Full Circle Farms, Johns Island

Smashed doesn't mean creamy, it's a nice way of saying chunky. The vegetables can be anything in season. Right now I prefer squash, zucchini, and beans.

Free-range, organic turkey from Allison Farms, Troy, N.C.

Allison Farms raises some of the tastiest turkeys in the southeast. Place an order at Earth Fare and they'll deliver. It doesn't matter how you cook it; fried, baked, or roasted.

After-dinner Drinks and Coffee

Muscadine Vodka from Firefly, Wadmalaw Island

Pale Ale from Palmetto Brewery, Charleston

Gourmet coffee from Charleston Coffee Roasters, Charleston

This local roaster takes exotic coffee from all over the world and produces the best cup in Charleston. They are open to the public and you can see the whole process first hand.

Full Circle Farms is at the Saturday Farmer's Market in the warmer months. Irvin-House Vineyards, Split Creek Farms, Kurios Farms, Allison Farms, and Charleston Coffee Roasters are all available at Earth Fare or by visiting them directly. Remember, the most important thing this holiday season isn't how much food you eat, but where that food comes from. A feast like this might even get the okay from your mother-in-law!

Nick Long is currently writing a cookbook in his spare time away from his managerial position at Charleston Coffee Roasters and is the former manager of Earth Fare in Mt. Pleasant.

Related Locations


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Classified Listings
Most Viewed

Powered by Foundation   © Copyright 2016, Charleston City Paper   RSS