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April 2008

Quick Bite:
Homegrown Charleston
Written By: 
Patricia Agnew
Photographs By: 
Brie Williams

For many in today’s society, the family table laden with a splendid local harvest has given way to fast food meals readily available on every corner. But the Lowcountry is fortunate to be home to many who believe in seasonal bounty as a sustaining force, and this ever-growing chorus of fresh-food champions is sounding with greater frequency every day. Meet some farmers who have elected to cultivate livelihoods from the land—sharing their passion, their spring crops, and their thoughts about the future of the agrarian lifestyle

Meet some farmers who have elected to cultivate livelihoods from the land—sharing their passion, their spring crops, and their thoughts about the future of the agrarian lifestyle.

Green Grocer Farm Celeste & George Albers

On idyllic Wadmalaw Island, Celeste and George Albers forge a symbiotic relationship with the land in an effort to maintain its natural order

A visit to one of the Albers’ farming operations is an adventure in pastoral meandering along oak-lined roads. Directions to Green Grocer Farm on Rosebank Plantation, including “go left at the John Deere tractor,” lead beside pastures where contented Jersey cows gather and lively Hi-Line brown chickens thrive.

It is here that Celeste finds herself continually reminded that nature is in control, whether over a sick cow or a dry, hot fall that causes Sea Island sweet onions to fail. But she also understands that nature offers sustenance and believes there’s huge opportunity in consumers’ rapidly growing awareness of their foods’ origins. The increasingly frequent failure of food production systems, she feels, prompts more people to seek how and where their food is actually produced.

In addition to growing heirloom corn and Irish potatoes, the Albers’ Green Grocer Farm includes the production of prized eggs, nutritious raw milk, and dry-aged beef. Though organic certification is no longer maintained, organic processes continue to be practiced. Jersey cows born at Rosebank are bottle fed until they can be moved to the Albers’ nearby farm, while chickens roam about dining on insects and whole-grain feed from Mepkin Abbey. Star, the resident Border collie, is amusingly afraid of cows but herds the chickens with pride.

Loyal local chefs line up with fervor for the Albers’ exquisite eggs. The raw milk also sells as fast as it’s bottled. Along with personal delivery, eggs and milk can be purchased at Ted’s Butcherblock and Savory Market, among other stores, and a limited supply of delicious beef will be for sale at the Charleston Farmers Market by June.

Paradoxically, the Albers’ marketing success is also their biggest challenge, as they can’t provide enough product to meet demand. “We have to manage all aspects of the business: production, labor, delivery, and marketing. There’s never enough time!” Celeste laments. Daughter Erin (age 14) is a huge help, participating as a knowledgeable and articulate operations expert and salesperson, although she says she’s not committing to farming. “Erin says we work way too hard!” her mother laughs.

As for the future, they’ll continue to focus on the related concepts of crop rotation, soil analysis and nourishment, and replenishing the earth that sustains their farm. “We’re always trying new things,” Celeste says with a twinkle in her eye, “such as experimenting with strawberries.”

Three J’s/Joseph Fields Farm Helen & Joseph Fields

On their large-scale Sea Island operation, Helen and Joseph Fields work toward organic certification

For the past three years, Helen and Joseph Fields have been pursuing the coveted classification “organically certified” for their sizeable John’s Island farm. While their operation can currently be described as “natural,” meaning their crops are chemically free of pesticides and herbicides, they hope that this year will bring the designation. While the couple hopes to reach organic certification on 20 acres this year and a larger portion next year, Helen stresses that “there’s nothing wrong with conventional vegetables.” She notes that farmers must maintain active pesticide licenses that require training and knowledge about safe amounts that can be used on produce. “We feel very safe in eating any conventional vegetables we grow. If we won’t eat them ourselves, we won’t sell them.” Frequent loyal consumers attest to the goodness of the melons and the sweetness of the Fields’ berries.

With 70 acres planted last year, there’s plenty to sell. The crop list includes beets, broccoli, carrots, strawberries, cantaloupes, onions, zucchini, yellow squash, lettuce, several types of peas—crowder, pinkeye, and English—and even rhubarb. The bounty appears regularly at four area farmers markets, a number of local Charleston restaurants, and, when the harvest permits, the Columbia and Asheville markets as well.

Clearly, this enterprise represents a huge commitment for the Fields. When asked why the family continues to channel such tremendous energy into the bustling enterprise, Helen admits that her passion stems from her love for her husband and his work. “Joseph has the drive, ambition, and motivation for farming, and I can’t let him do it all by himself!” she laughs. Helen also devotes considerable time to community support, working with area farmers through the Sea Island Farmers Cooperative, of which she’s chair, and the South Carolina Association of Farmers and Landowners.

Full Circle Farm Cindy & Henry Sawyer John’s Island At their breezy café, Cindy and Henry Sawyer remain close to nature, offering organic produce from their two-acre farm and fish fresh from the ocean As a purveyor of seafood more than 20 years ago, little did I know that the site we were fortifying with nutrient-rich fish bones would one day become part of our farming operation,” exclaims Henry Sawyer, who with his wife, Cindy, owns Full Circle Farm and Cindy’s Seafood & Country Market. Lunch and dinner here offer savory local seafood and farm-fresh organic produce, plus other area specialties such as Robert Biggerstaff’s deliciously addictive creamed honey.

Since 2005, Full Circle has been certified organic, and the two-acre farm produces corn, tomatoes, carrots, and okra that taste, as Henry says, clean and clear. “This year, we are zeroing in on basic crops that we need at the market,” notes Henry. The Sawyers also grow sunflowers and other flowers and keep their own bees for pollination in order to protect the organic nature of their crops. The couple, passionate about the food they eat, is committed to selling certified organic produce from Full Circle and other growers that are “as close to organic as we can get,” as well as fresh fish that is wild-caught, not farm-raised.

Not surprisingly, their daily challenges include financial ones stemming from their commitment to authenticity and their attempts to educate people about the benefits of organic produce. “Sometimes it’s harder to convince the consumer to pay more for organics when the fruit is dimpled or not the bright color they’re used to seeing in nonorganic produce,” says Henry. In terms of growth areas, the Sawyers are having fun experimenting with the process of freezing organic produce such as green beans in such a way that the flavor is preserved. Free-range pork, chicken, and beef are also on the horizon.

Rosebank Farms Sidi Limehouse

On his childhood property, Sidi Limehouse has cultivated a love for the Lowcountry land and a life from the earth’s rich bounty

Regardless of day or season, visitors heading to Kiawah Island are likely to glimpse proprietor Sidi Lime­house off to the left as they drop by Rosebank Farms on John’s Island just before the Kiawah turnoff. Crops grown here include “everything from A to Z—asparagus to zucchini,” with most of the harvest sold at the bustling farm stand at the edge of the property. Tasty relishes, jams, jellies, chutneys, and lovely fresh cut flowers from the same fields as the fruits and vegetables are also featured at this market. Most is sold here, but overflow harvest is sometimes sent to relatives Jack and Andrea Limehouse to sell to local restaurants, and cut flowers are also delivered to a few houses and restaurants in the city. Seasonal greens, gourds, and pumpkins and fresh seafood provided by local fishermen are also featured in the market. The gathering of just-picked cabbage, collards, mesclun, rape, rutabagas, and spring onions is a delicious tribute to the grower.

According to Sidi, the proximity of competitive upscale retail grocery operations offering one-stop shopping doesn’t bother him at all. He’s happy with the volume of production he now has and wouldn’t change a thing about the size of the farm. He’s also very thankful for his loyal staff, many of whom have been with him for more than a decade. The challenges facing him are not unlike those of other area farmers. Sidi prefers to use organic fertilizers and heirloom varieties whenever possible, and these are more expensive and require different care, such as picking by hand rather than machine. The organic fertilizer, however, protects and enriches the land in such a way that entirely different crops can be successfully grown season after season on the same plots.

Sidi is particularly passionate about hydrangeas, occasionally leading workshops like the one scheduled during the farm’s Hydrangea Festival in June. “If you want to make them fuller or reshape them, you should cut them back before deer season,” he explained during a session this past fall, asking, “Does you know when that is?” and bringing a ready laugh from the earnest group of gardeners. Wandering through the fields, he offers engaging commentary every step of the way, his dog, Number Seven, never far from his side. “You’ve got to try this corn, there’s nothing like it!” he says as he picks an ear and shucks it for tasting.

A quick tour of the property amidst dogs, ducks, and visitors includes a peek at Sidi’s idyllic home at the edge of the marsh, surrounded by rolling fields; huge oaks; richly colored hydrangeas; and his “status symbol,” a stylish old Cadillac that only adds to the property’s appeal. On such a crisp blue day, life is good for this dedicated farmer whose life ebbs and flows with the seasons, the land, and the sea.

Kennerty Farms Karen & Dan Kennerty

From humble hobbyists to large-scale entrepreneurs, Karen and Dan Kennerty have raised a farm—and a family—on Sea Island soil

A regular at area farm­ers markets, Karen Kennerty has brightened her prime space for years with a smile that reflects a love of her work. This spring, the crops she’ll raise will include tender arugula, multicolored carrots, sweet onions, bright peppers, and rich blackberries, as well as flavorful basil and leeks. She and husband Dan have been partners in this agronomic enterprise since the 1980s, when they began raising grape tomatoes and lettuce on Sullivan’s Island with soil fertilized by chickens penned within an old seine net.

While she fondly remembers gardening as a child, Karen admits she didn’t know Dan had any farming knowledge until after they married. In fact, the transition to their current life began when Karen’s job at the Charleston Naval Base ended and she began to investigate other options. She and Dan each have distinct roles on the farm: Karen is chiefly responsible for the Charleston and Mount Pleasant farmers markets, while Dan decides what to grow and researches areas for exploration. The entire family is actively involved in the farm. “Dan does the planning, but I participate in everything else—except driving the tractor,” Karen says. Their children, Daniel and Mariel, also have responsibilities like picking asparagus and planting with their “cruelest parents, who make them do things nobody else has to.”

While the benefits are many and it’s a life she clearly loves, Karen relates their need for more land for a perpetual harvest. The asparagus, for instance, ties up a plot all year yet only has a three-month growth period. Tomatoes and potatoes, on the other hand, are in and out and can be rotated to allow more flexibility.

The Kennertys look toward the future with promise of new crops and expanding markets. They’re currently experimenting with potatoes that thrive under plastic shrouds but don’t need weeding, though they must be planted by hand. For pollination, the Kennertys also keep bees and market the wild honey, whose flavor is determined by nearby tree farms, tomatoes, and dense maritime forest. Local chef Jeremiah Bacon purchases it for his unusual smoked honey ice cream featured at Carolina’s.

When asked if she could have predicted that their family would one day be living on this farm, Karen good-naturedly insists that while it’s fulfilling, theirs is still an unexpected life. “I’m from Missouri,” she laughs, “and I tell Dan that if I’d wanted to be a farmer, I could’ve stayed home!”

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