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15 Minutes with Jim Martin

15 Minutes with Jim Martin
April 2016
Speaking with Jim Martin of Compost in My Shoe

You may not have the pleasure of traipsing through Jim Martin’s gorgeous vegetable garden on John’s Island, but no worries—he’ll brings the freshest of edibles to you through a year-round CSA farm share. We caught up with the hardworking man behind Compost in My Shoe

CM: How long have you had your hands in the dirt?
I’ve been doing horticulture for 30 years. I have a degree in it from Clemson University; I’ve worked at botanical gardens all over the state; and my full-time job is with the Charleston Parks Conservancy, where we’re working to revitalize Charleston’s urban parks and green spaces.

CM: What inspired you to start farming?
My husband, David Vagasky, and I built a garden on our half-acre property on James Island, and things were growing so well. When Lowcountry Local First launched Dirt Works, an incubator farm program on John’s Island, we jumped at the opportunity. I’ve been there since 2012. You lease land and have access to other things farmers need, like water, a cooler, and a packing shed. They also have an apprentice program, so I spend a lot of time educating newer farmers. It’s not the norm to go into farming at age 52, but eventually, I see this as a career change.

CM: Why call it “Compost in My Shoe”?
The name comes from living between two worlds: office and garden. There are days when I’m wearing really nice shoes because of a business meeting, but then I’ll have to pick up compost for the weekend—which inevitably gets in my shoe. It’s a metaphor for what we all have to do, which is nurture the soil that feeds us.  

CM: You wear a lot of hats.
I’ve always juggled many interests at once—photography, garden design, and beekeeping. I’ve also studied the floral arts extensively; this September, I’m traveling to Belgium to finish the European Masters Certification Program I started in 2011.

CM: Walk us through a typical week.
I work seven days a week. I’m at the farm or in my greenhouse each morning from 5 to 8:30, then I head to my “real job” at the Parks Conservancy. On CSA days, I’m at the farm early to harvest and deliver to our various pickup sites. On weekends, I’m at the farm or the greenhouse and working with apprentices. My husband’s a chef, and we sponsor a team with MUSC’s Healthy Charleston Challenge. We work out with the crew and host dinners at the house to teach people how to cook healthy and local.

CM: Why buy local?
: Certain grocery-chain vegetables can travel 2,000 miles and take three weeks to get there. But through our CSA, for example, vegetables and herbs are harvested and distributed either the same day or next day. Fresher means more nutrients in the plant. Plus, we’re right there to answer questions, help provide recipes, or let people tour the farm to witness our organic practices firsthand.

CM: Do you accept special orders from any local chefs?
Yes, especially Josh Keeler at Two Boroughs Larder. He really understands the connection between farmer and chef. We sit down every six months and talk about trends and interests. I’ve grown five different types of radicchio this past year, and he’s worked with all of them.

CM: What challenges have you faced?
Sometimes Mother Nature’s in a bad mood. In the last year, we’ve had floods, temperatures that have dipped to 17 degrees four months in a row, and a balmy December. We lost crops. But you can’t control the weather—you have to move on.

CM: Speaking of moving...will you?
Dirt Works incubates new farmers, so we are looking for a new location. We plan to do ag-based tourism, host farm-to-table dinners, teach beekeeping classes, and invite kids to experience it all. The trouble is finding affordable land that’s close to town and where someone doesn’t want to build a condominium.

CM: What else is on your horizon?
We’re starting to plant more floral crops. “Buy local” shouldn’t just apply to food.