It's a picturesque drive out to visit Celeste and George Albers and their daughter Erin at Green Grocer Farms on Johns Island. Leaving the city and winding through the majestic live oaks brings to mind a simpler time — one seemingly endangered by modern progress. While many decry the encroachment, detractors of progress can sometimes be shortsighted, for within the transformation lurks new opportunity.
Wedged between the battling conservationists and developers — between the expanses of protected forests, the monstrous outlays of industrial agribusiness, and the ever-expanding sprawl of suburbia — are small family farmers, methodically working the land. Walking among the fields with Celeste Albers or Ted Chewning, another local grower, it is easy to imagine that these people have always been here — a mythic lineage of extended local families that have passed down the ancient knowledge of wringing sustenance from the soil, and yet many are not native to the farm. They come from other walks of life and distant places, drawn to the Lowcountry and its environs by a singular call. They are people of the earth, and Charleston provides the perfect place in which to practice their craft.
The Albers follow traditional agricultural tenets. A visit to their vegetable farm, where they grow various crops like onions, potatoes, and carrots, reveals anything but conventional practices. "The whole basis is to farm from nature and maintain a healthy soil," Celeste replies when asked what makes their farming distinctive. "You are not feeding the plant, you are feeding the soil and it will reward you with a healthy plant."
Their system employs a rotation of cover crops, seasonal vegetables, and a band of traveling poultry that enrich the land without the need for artificial nutrients; chickens provide weed control, natural fertilizer, and profitable egg production. Riding along in roving shacks, they move daily across the fields so that each sunrise offers fresh forage. This symbiotic practice results in superior eggs and vegetables, produced without the antibiotics and genetic modification of large-scale production.
But the Albers are not tree-hugging hippies living under the salad bar at Earth Fare. They roll with a Bush-Cheney sticker affixed to their truck and see no merit in hauling chicken feed halfway across the state so that their products can be officially labeled "organic." Doing so would require using massive amounts of petroleum. Celeste works from a philosophy of moral practicality: "As long as it's good quality and it's fresh, we use it, because it promotes the local community." Hence, her chicken feed comes from right down the road, ground fresh to order by Brother Joseph at Mepkin Abbey. This reveals something about the small family farmer that the large, competitive agribusinesses cannot accomplish. Smallholders create a community of growers that depend on each other for knowledge and support, mutual stewards of the soil.
This emphasis on the quality of the earth drives every action on the sustainable family farm. Ted Chewning, whose "Sweet Bay Acres" farm lies northwest of Summerville on Highway 61, raises heirloom turkeys and chickens, but his pigs provide the backbone to a sustainable system of agriculture. The pigs move from field to field where they not only produce a profusion of rich manure, but churn the ground itself, providing a natural till.
These are no ordinary swine. Chewning handpicks his animals, paying special attention to muscular structure. He talks about a pig's rear end the way some people describe Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Each pig receives personalized attention. Chewning gets in the field and plays with them on a daily basis, feeling that the decreased stress and greater quality of life for the pig result in a finer meat product. When the animals have prepared the field, he plants heirloom vegetables and grains, old varieties that produce a superior flavor. To prevent weeds in his row crops, small boxes, each containing a single chicken, migrate through the rows, eliminating weeds and fertilizing the crop simultaneously. To improve this operation, Chewning is currently attempting to build a box strong enough to carry a small pig.
The heirloom vegetables at Sweet Bay are no ordinary specimens, either. Chewning grows a special "Virginia gourd seed" corn that approaches 17 feet in height. He works closely with the Clemson Extension Service to recover methods and crops left behind in the wake of industrial production. A stand of sorghum provides millet for his poultry to eat and sweet stalks, which he converts into handcrafted syrup. The quality produce that goes to local restaurants and farmer's markets and into the handcrafted goodies produced on the farms themselves testify to the ingenuity and skill of local farmers who care about the people they serve.
Perhaps these value-added products are the most exciting prospect of all. The Albers purchased a milk cow and plan to begin commercial cheese production. From the taste of their experiments, I would say that they are off to a good start. Ted Chewning is curing his own hams, turning those lovely porcine rears into prime smoked meat.
Local artisanal products provide the best of flavor, in the peak of the season, without the costly waste of transportation — which consumes both flavor and natural resources. So while the city encroaches on outlying lands traditionally reserved for farming, the commercial growth of the center creates new opportunities and brings promise with its problems. The restaurant industry in Charleston is booming, and the best chefs want the best ingredients: fresh, local, and untainted by pesticide and chemical additive. They demand a product that the industrial complex cannot produce; much of the best food in Charleston begins at these small, local farms. While this bounty may be primarily available to the restaurant industry today, their demand creates the basis for consumer access in the future — a market that benefits from the growth of the city. You want fresh cheese from the farm down the road, produced from milk collected by the person standing behind the counter? It is an ideal situation, one created by the culinary demand of a growing city.
This Sunday Carolina's Restaurant will host a fundraiser to benefit the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, which brings together 850 farmers, gardeners, consumers, and sustainable businesses in North and South Carolina dedicated to expanding local and organic agriculture. Chef Tin Dizdarevic will partner with growers such as Green Grocer Farms on Johns Island, Sweet Bay Acres in Summerville, and Aziz Mustafa's organic farm in Sumter to provide the ingredients for the evening's menu. The nine-course dinner will highlight how delicious food can be made with local products. CFSA farmers will be present to talk with attendees about the lives of Lowcountry farmers. Sun. May 21, $100. Carolina's Restaurant, 724-3800.