Farming is Community
Jun 18, 2018
“It’s 44°F.” – Ben Sinderman, 2018 Growing New Farmers Program participant and Vertical Roots / Tiger Corner Farms apprentice comments on the weather at Middleton Place during an oddly cool March, reaffirming his choice of an indoor container farm business as a mentor.
If P. T. Barnum is right, and comfort is the enemy of progress, then the Growing New Farmers Program (GNF) has made great strides. Don’t get me wrong, the program is an outstanding journey within an extraordinary community. We work hard in the classroom at Lowcountry Local First, labor in the fields at Middleton Place, and toil hour after hour at our apprentice farms.
Beyond tutorials on crop rotation and integrated pest management, a surprising value we’ll take from our experience is a sense of community, and how diversified, sustainable agriculture brings us closer—as growers and the people who eat what’s grown. By preserving green space, serving as conservationists, and pumping money into the state’s economy, this isn’t just local farming; this is a movement.
As for grower-to-grower relationships, there’s diligent solidarity. Beyond passion, the takeaway is that Charleston-area farmers work together to cultivate good, safe, wholesome food using techniques that don’t harm the environment. Many of these farmers are GNF alumni, yet others come from different backgrounds. As a whole, these are smart and generous people. They listen. They share. They enlist a this-is-the-way-I-do-things approach accompanied with an open-mindedness to make appropriate changes. It’s refreshingly symbiotic; it’s a community bent on didactic pedagogy.
No one is a greater proponent of this “learned” learning mindset than Jim Martin, the intrepid farmer at Compost in my Shoe. He speaks to a soft balance between trying new crops, while serving existing customers. As for business models, small crop farming is a lot like publishing, which, for over a decade, is the industry I’ve made my living. Publishers have front-list “titles” they’re excited to grow, but it’s good to print something that, without a doubt, readers want.
As we reach our halfway point in the program, it’s clear that farming is, at best, a type of educated trial and error, and nods to how each of us is finding our way in what we’ll grow and how we’ll grow it. Students are instructed on foundational “best” practices and ideal rote habits by Carrie Larson, GNF’s charming, always-adulting program coordinator, and Brian Wheat, the GNF educator, forager, and farmer bringing luffa to the limelight. (Dear readers, luffa isn’t just for scrubbing, it can be eaten; it’s in the cucurbitaceae family with pumpkin and squash.) Both Carrie and Brian are keen subscribers to the idea that, as farmers, we’ll take action “on the fly” in the field.
The apprentice program at GNF is a major component in shortening our learning curve. My apprenticeship is with Carmen Ketron at MUSC Urban Farm. Her approach to farming is like a game of chess, and to accept that some of what’s needed to play is hidden, and all efforts are associative. While it’s nice to think that what we add to the soil is what we’ll take from it, when we make concessions, the end result can easily go sideways. Rather than anticipating moves, good farmers are able to recognize patterns.
At Wishbone Heritage Farms, David Gravelin seems to have mastered this. His is a bucolic, experiential match; no pawns are sacrificed. His efforts are an introduction to what pasture management looks like in action. He plants cover crops to sequester soil-organic carbon using chicken tractors to fertilize. Fellow classmate Becca Davidson beamed the entire time. I’ve never seen a happier face than hers looking at baby geese, and as she weighs homesteading to small-hold farming, it’s clear she’s on the right track.
David will head to Manning soon to help another GNF participant Chip Jones, a retired air traffic controller, who’s farming a third-generation, 100-acre farm on his poultry-slant sheep operation. Chip’s goal is to grow vegetables on a single acre and use the rest as pasture for livestock. And, so it goes, seasoned farmers paying it forward, classmates sharing what they’ve learned.
After our class with Nathan Boggs of Fili-West Farms, I echoed his mantra that I wouldn’t invest in a new tractor until I knew if my farm operation had “grown into it.” A litany from there made it seem as if I’d recently handcrafted a chicken caravan, which is something Nathan has actually done. And, yes, a chicken caravan is a thing. Think #vanlife; think poultry hipster millennials; think of these poultry hipster millennials living out of a 1990 Kombi classic.
Our field trips to Limehouse Produce and GrowFood Carolina were exhaustive. Imagine being able to poke around the inside of a pocket watch. With day-to-day operations that are similar and different in both scale and scope, they prove to be just as shrewdly service-bound to their growers as they are to their customers. Each organization’s civic-mindedness is clear, and to offer that level of transparency made all the difference. It was a lesson on how we’re all in this together, and that a farmer being proud of what they’ve grown is all well and good, but if what’s harvested isn’t delivered with the same pride, none of us in the food chain have a chance.
Some of our lessons cross-pollinate. (See what I did there?) Casey Price from Jeremiah Farm and Goat Dairy gave us a cleverly articulated farm lesson in how everyone who eats, also works. She taught us to consider novelty—even if it’s goat yoga, and to recognize that, when it comes to farm life, “Everything is evolving.” She holds taut the idea that getting the general public to visit farmland is one of most meaningful ways we can serve Charleston.
The Green Heart Project is another community-based organization that integrates school farms as outdoor classrooms. Rachel Meeks, a Green Heart Project participant, is already in the trenches of community service, and was recently baptized in the paperwork of crop planning for thirty-two raised beds at six different schools. Others received our indoctrination in keeping farm records at Middleton Place, where the unflappable, gatecrasher-on-a-tractor Jamie Yurgartis embraces every moment to create a learning environment.
Over the past months, we have learned about the politics of farming and are better able to navigate the US Farm Bill, as well as our own state’s “plantation” politics. We’ve learned to exchange the phrase “food desert” with “food apartheid” in order to better and more directly link the access someone has, or doesn’t have to fresh-grown food to socioeconomic factors.
A lot of what we learn is alarming, and each week it’s clear that how we farm matters. As a class, we recently attended Clemson Extension’s field day and toured USDA labs, where scientists are doing valuable research on such heartbreakers as nematodes and white flies. When we learned about food safety I doubt a single one of us, to some degree, wasn’t spooked. As we delved into post-harvest handling, a lettuce-linked E. Coli outbreak drove these USDA directives home.
Brian Ward from Clemson Extension recently taught a class on historic and niche crops. Our undivided attention proved that each of us are hopeless seed nerds. It’s the same whenever Zach Snipes, also with Clemson Extension, is on hand. Out of respect for him, I doubt there’s even one of us in class who uses the word “dirt.” It’s soil, and it’s fascinating, and all of our fingers are dirty with it.
In South Carolina, we have 32,020-square miles of farmland and about 25,000 farms. The ten-acre plot of land near Mepkin Abbey I will farm is a tiny part of the big picture. It’s a steep learning curve, sharp even, for me to get there. I will owe a lot to fellow classmates, especially Erin Fitzgibbins, who asks the questions I might have asked had I paid more attention in seventh grade biology. All the same, I’ve figured out that making a high tunnel is satisfying, that farming goes well beyond putting seeds in soil, and with ever-changing weather and wholesale markets and distribution chains, farming isn’t easy.
Yet, the idea of ploughing, planting, and animal husbandry is less daunting with a local grower community to tap. With Clemson Extension, the SC Farm Bureau, the SC Department of Agriculture, the folks at Lowcountry Local First, and the greater farming community, there are an array of ways to help new farmers navigate their challenges. So, while a lot of what we learn is out of our comfort zone, we’re making progress, and it’s the sort of progress that we, as a Greater Charleston community, needs.
– Ellie Davis
Ellis is a 2018 GNFP participant, writer, small business owner, solo mom, and new farmer at Dog Leg Farm in Goose Creek.
The Growing New Farmers Program is made possible by many community partners and donors, including:
Charleston County Economic Development, SCDA Specialty Crop Grant Block, The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, Pathfinder Foundation, Charleston Soil and Water Conservation, and US Small Business Association.