At the time, Chris Miller had written two business plans in his life. One had been too weak and the other too enthusiastic. So when North Charleston's Mixson developers asked Miller, a farmer, for a business plan to convert some of their unused land into an urban farm called Sow Seasonal, it was go time. The opportunity was too important.
"I was pounding Red Bull, 5 Hour Energy — I have really bad ADHD, it's hard for me to sit down and do this kind of thing. But I was like, 'I'm not going to miss this opportunity. I've got to get this really right. I've been thinking about this for years, and I'm in a position now to actually do something I believe in,'" says Miller.
That vim and vigor came from growing up in Florida with a single mom. Food was sometimes hard to come by, and what was available was rarely fresh. "Whatever we had, I would just try to make it a little bit better, so I had this relationship with food early on," explains Miller. "We grew up on processed food, fast food, anything that was accessible with calories in order to get me to school, home from school, Boys and Girls Club, whatever."
Food became a constant theme for Miller. His first job was bussing tables at a steakhouse in order to get a little spending money. He watched cooking shows after school and began considering moving to Charleston to attend Johnson and Wales. By age 22 he was managing restaurants, eventually landing in catering management for Salsarita's in Tennessee.
"We grew exponentially in the five years that I was there, but I looked up and realized that if I continued in this direction, that would be it. I know how my heart is, and I started feeling like I wasn't being a responsible vendor of food. I think a lot of people have that moment," says Miller.
That concern led to an escape plan: Miller transferred with the company to Columbia, S.C. and he gave himself a few months to make it to Charleston. It was the spring of 2013 and all he knew was that the Lowcountry had a food tourism industry — he figured he'd find a restaurant working with local farmers and just "figure it out."
One day, on the Salsarita's corkboard, he spotted a flyer for Lowcountry Local First's Farm Apprenticeship Program. "I started calling Nikki [Seibert], like, 'How do I get into this program?' Keeping my fingers crossed," he recalls.
The program hadn't started yet, but he made the move and got a gig at Folly Beach's Grill and Island Bar, which features locally sourced menu items and also hosts the Folly Farmers Market. "I just wanted to exercise, swim, be on the beach for the summer. I knew everything after that was going to start getting pretty intense," says Miller.
He was right. Seibert called at the end of the summer to say the program was starting, and after a couple of meetings, Miller was assigned to apprentice under Compost in My Shoe's Jim Martin, a mentor with the program.
That pilot year was an experiment in its own right — navigating grants and next steps, shuffling responsibilities as the program expanded. The following year Miller was training newer apprentices on teaching plots at Dirt Works, the incubator farm on Johns Island.
"Meanwhile, I was working three other jobs, six-and-a-half days a week, working with my mentor at the same time trying to really obtain that experience I was after. The quote I used a lot was, 'I learned yesterday what I teach you tomorrow,' That's kind of how it was going — I'm cramming, reading, staying up late, working as much as I can and just telling everybody what I've learned and trying to keep that momentum going. It was really difficult."
When the program began to wrap up in November 2014, Miller knew that he was at a crossroads and figured he'd hit the road and work farms around the globe if nothing panned out in Charleston.
It was that fall when he ended up at Mixson and spotted the raised herb beds and signs for a weekly farmers market outside of Basico's. "The first time I talked to Bryan Cates [Basico's chef], it was like an hour and a half of bonding," he says. "It was like, 'I love food!', 'I love food!' It's this whole thing, and he gets it. He really appreciates the nutritional part of cooking and the art of knowing food and where it's coming from. We had a connection, and we had to do something with it. I looked around at all the land, and I went, 'What are you guys doing with all this property? Why can't we start a farm here?' Apparently they had thought about it before, so I told them it should be me."
And that's where the business plan comes into play. The Red Bull paid off. Miller nailed it.
But putting what he had on paper into practice hasn't been easy. To get Mixson's urban farm started, there were soil tests and water quality checks to be done. The trees had to be cleared, and throughout the spring a 40,000-square-foot plot was cut, its soil amended, and seeds put into the ground. But, as long as the weather cooperates, when the farmers market reopens on May 9, Miller expects his Sow Seasonal farm will be hawking its own produce, mostly root crops and leafy greens — think radishes, carrots, and lettuces.
The partnership between Miller and Básico, and to a larger extent, its parent company, Jamestown Properties, is one that he hopes can be recreated. "Farmers need land, farmers also need to not worry so much about startup costs. Jamestown Properties said, 'Here's a piece of land we're not going to use, it's yours.' Básico said 'We'll help you out with some startup costs as long as you give us carte blanche over where you're going and allow us to guide things that we might want in our restaurant,'" says Miller. In exchange for "cilantro and cool peppers," Miller has a built-in client base with Mixson residents, Básico as a big-time collaborator, and manageable overhead costs.
Long-term, Miller hopes that Sow Seasonal can provide and package salad mixes for the Básico Market, create a veggie bin, or even a CSA for residents. And within a couple years he wants to be paying it forward by mentoring rising farmers and consulting with those who want to replicate his success. Miller's goal is to show what a sustainable community looks like, hoping that Mixson residents see value in eating off their own land and creating resources for other people. Goats, a chicken coop? He says it's possible.
Beyond the immaculate walls of the Mixson development, Miller is also hoping to raise awareness for North Charleston's food desert. He's passionate about local food, economic growth, and making sure there are fewer adolescent Chris Millers who stare at empty kitchen cabinets and eat empty calories.
"I hope that somebody sets up competition right down the road — that would be exciting for me," says Miller, "There's a food bank right down the road that could use our access to local food, to healthy food options. There are plenty of people who are working in cooking programs to be competitive in this culinary environment, but they need to be working with interesting foods so that they're not walking into a place never having seen fennel."
So go get dirty. And if you want to compete and need help on that winning business plan, Miller's been there. Stop by the Sow Seasonal farm and let him help you grow.