Legare Farms, a 288-year-old family farm on Johns Island, is not the place it once was — and that's why it's still around.
True, the farm and its small staff still grow produce and raise livestock, but during hard times and a global economic downturn, the Legare family found creative uses for the 300-acre land tract and its natural bounty, from Civil War reenactments to Easter chick rentals to gourmet harvest dinners to summer day camps for grade school children.
"We make more money on agritourism than we do on the agriculture, but the agriculture is what consumes most of our time," says Helen Legare-Floyd, a ninth-generation descendant of 18th-century Johns Island planter Soloman Legare. Legare-Floyd runs the farm with her brother, Thomas Legare, and sister, Linda Legare Berry, together managing a small staff of three employees as they navigate the new realities of 21st-century American agriculture.
In 1725, according to the family, Soloman Legare found fertile soil on Johns Island and started growing potatoes, indigo, and sea island cotton, as well as raising sheep and cattle. In the 1840s, a family friend died without any heirs and left part of Hanscombe Point Plantation to the Legares. The family raised cattle on the land throughout the years but experimented with a lot of different crops. Legare-Floyd says her father grew corn and soybeans for a time, but when profits tanked in the 1980s, he turned his attention to growing sod grass, a business that kept the farm going for decades. When the U.S. economy soured in 2007, the family had to adapt once again.
"We just quit with the nursery," Legare-Floyd says. "You know, you don't have to have nursery plants and sod, but you gotta eat. So we went back to growing some vegetables, and we started trying to market our own beef and then eventually chicken and pork. And then we started with our laying hens, and then we started with the CSA."
Community Supported Agriculture, now a common practice at local farms, was a new concept to Legare-Floyd when she started organizing the program six years ago. The idea was that families could pay a fee for a weekly box of whatever produce was growing on the farm, ensuring fresh vegetables for consumers and steady income for the farmers. Legare-Floyd planned on delivering to 65 customers in the first year, but after the program appeared in a Post and Courier article, she received 300 calls from interested customers and ended up capping membership at 140.
Legare-Floyd stresses the relational part of the program. When her mother died of Alzheimer's disease several years ago, a CSA member stayed at the farmhouse to watch over operations while the family attended the funeral. "They've become our friends, not just people who buy from us," Legare-Floyd says.
Linda Legare Berry runs the agritourism side of the family business. Berry studied theater and recreation at Georgia Southern University, and she brought some fresh ideas back to the farm. Today, the nonprofit Legare Farms Education Foundation schedules field trips during the school year and runs week-long day camps in the summer. School groups come out to learn about farm life and to pick pumpkins at the annual pumpkin patch in the fall. "We would have been out of business long ago if we hadn't started doing the agritourism," Berry says.
There is plenty to keep a child occupied at Legare Farms. Horses roam the property freely, and baby chicks trip over each other in a cage near the entrance. In the middle of a dirt road one hot summer afternoon, a mother pig sprawls out as a dozen squealing piglets suckle greedily at her underside. Cows languish in the shade of some trees beside the road, lowing softly with half-interest as a truck drives past.
And there's plenty for grown-ups to enjoy, too. The farm hosts an annual Fall Harvest Dinner, charging $65 a head for a gourmet meal featuring ingredients grown on the farm. Last year, 11 local chefs prepared courses for the dinner, including Fred Neuville from Fat Hen, Jacques Larson from Wild Olive, Craig Deihl from Cypress, and Nico Romo from Fish.
The farm also runs a butcher's club, like a CSA but for meat. And the farm has long been the home of the Battle of Charleston, a Civil War reenactors' bonanza held in an open field that features parades, drills, artillery demonstrations, and a ladies' social under a big tent. This marks the second year that promoters have held mud runs, the increasingly popular cross-country races in which participants slog through mud and over military-style training obstacles.
Legare-Floyd remembers marveling at first at the fact that people would willingly pay to immerse themselves in pluff mud, then turning her attention to the heaps of ruined tennis shoes left behind in the parking lot. But the money was good, and it helped keep the farm running.
"I get to do something I enjoy, something I love every day," Legare-Floyd says. "I set my own schedule. I get to work with my family, which some days is a pro and some days is a con. The fact is I love this farm. My husband can't understand our attachment to it. It's tough to make people understand that it's a piece of property, but we don't see it as an inanimate object. It's a real living thing to us."
As Legare-Floyd drives her Chevy pickup over rutted paths on the farm, boxes of eggs rattle around in the backseat, waiting to be delivered to a food co-op on Sullivan's Island and the gourmet sandwich shop Butcher & Bee in downtown Charleston. Later in the week, she'll drive to the five local breweries and pick up leftover grain to feed to the livestock, then to the PET dairy plant for old milk to feed the pigs. Moving along the front of the property, she passes an overgrown entrance to the wax myrtle maze, an autumn attraction born of necessity and ingenuity.
"We used to plant the corn maze back here, and one year we had worms so bad that no matter what I sprayed, no matter what we did, we couldn't get rid of the worms. They ate the corn 'til it was about this tall," Legare-Floyd says, holding a hand at waist level. "So we were like, 'OK, now what?'"
The family turned its attention to a dense growth of wax myrtles on the property, and they borrowed a neighbor's Gyro-Trac, a heavy-duty mulcher. Following the driver around with directions, they guided him through the stand of trees as he carved out the new maze. "Turn right, turn right! Stop, stop! Then we did dead ends and we'd back the tractor out. He did a great job," Legare-Floyd says.
Back at the farm office, a small trailer near the farm's entrance, hundreds of yard signs are piled up, each bearing an all-caps message about the future of Johns Island: "THANK YOU JOE QUALEY! NIX I-526!"
The signs refer to a controversial western extension of Interstate 526 that would cut across Johns Island, bringing with it increased traffic and a possible bulldozing of the island's rural character. Qualey, a Charleston County Councilman, opposed the project and stood his ground even as other councilmembers formerly in the Nix 526 camp reversed their votes in December 2012. Helen Legare-Floyd's brother, Thomas Legare, was among the outspoken Johns Island residents who railed against the highway as the issue made its way to council.
It's not that the Legares have reason to romanticize rural life. The first time Legare-Floyd lived in a home with air conditioning and color TV was in 1977, when she left the family farm on Johns Island to study agronomy and horticulture at Clemson University. "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," Legare-Floyd says.
She could have never come back to the farm. She could have stuck with the job she landed after college at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and by now, at age 54, she would be thinking about retirement instead of wading knee-deep in the ever-changing daily operations of a family farm. "There was no doubt I wanted to come home to the farm. Never doubted it," Legare says. "But some days, I just think, 'Gah, what the hell was I thinking?'"
Today, Legare-Floyd and her siblings walk a line between modernity and antiquity, serving as tour guides for an almost bygone way of life while continually living that life. They field all sorts of outlandish propositions for their land these days. A promoter wants to host a spring music festival at Legare Farms, an athletic club wants to host a lacrosse tournament, and another local thinks the family should open a pet cemetery. The siblings will consider all these propositions, but Legare-Floyd says her first love is still the farm life.
"You have your moments when everything's going right and you see a new baby calf or a new litter of pigs, and you have that warm feeling," she says. "And then some days ..." Legare-Floyd recalls one rainy night when a truck driver carrying a load of Legare Farms sod turned his truck over on Main Road, and the family spent half the night shoveling sod in an intersection as police directed traffic around them.
"I was covered in mud from head to toe, and I think I got home about 1 o'clock in the morning," Legare-Floyd says. "And I stepped in the back door and burst into tears, and I said, 'I don't want to do this anymore. I'm never going back to that damn farm again.' And my husband said, 'Well, if that's what you want — but you know good and well you're going back.' And I did."