The Lowcountry of South Carolina is famous for its cooking - a blend of Native American, Scotch-Irish, Caribbean, and West African influences which came together here in the 18th and 19th centuries. How will this cuisine continue to expand into the 21st century, and what will its new influences be? At Dirtworks Incubator Farm located just south of Charleston in Johns Island, South Carolina, a new crop of pioneering farmers are planting the seeds of traditional Southeast Asian and Caribbean food plants which have not yet been grown commercially here. If the growing conditions of the American South are indeed becoming more subtropical, then say hello to the next stage of Lowcountry fare and farmers at Dirtworks Incubator Farm….
Nikki Siebert works with a dedicated group of new farmers at Dirtworks Incubator Farm on Johns Island to redefine farming and shape the future of food production in the Charleston area. This is no small task, in a place where the chefs are stars and their careers are built on their inventive use of local and seasonal ingredients, and where local land is valued for growing houses rather than food . Dirtworks is a program of Lowcountry Local First (LLF) (www.lowcountrylocalfirst.org), a Charleston-based non-profit organization working to strengthen community support of local independent businesses and farmers as the foundation of a local living economy. LLF’s Eat Local initiative focuses on developing a strong local food system. With the average farmer in South Carolina now 59 years of age, that food system depends on a new generation of farmers.
Seibert, who directs their Sustainable Agriculture Program, Growing New Farmers initiative, and manages Dirtworks Incubator Farm, makes it clear that LLF has identified and is acting to address the need to support new farmers in launching their businesses. New farmers who are determined to find their niche in the local food system tend to be young adults who did not grow up in farming families. LLF designed Dirtworks to offer them the skills and experience they need to be successful, while having affordable, secure access to farmland and shared farm equipment. There are other faces considered new farmers, Seibert says, who could be served by an incubator farm. Middle-aged professionals looking to downshift into more meaningful and rewarding lives. Retirees seeking a connection to the land. Entrepreneurially-minded workers, including farm hands. Even restaurateurs are taking up agriculture, raising everything from arugula to suckling pigs.
Since its inception in 2012 as the first incubator farm in South Carolina, Dirtworks has been a collaborative effort among dedicated community members who shared the vision of Growing New Farmers, particularly the Limehouse family (who run a successful farming/produce business) who have made 10 acres of their Walnut Hill Plantation available for Dirtworks. Along with Sidi Limehouse, a veteran farmer who runs Rosebank Farms CSA (community supported agriculture) next door, the family has actively participated in new farmer training and mentorship at Dirtworks. For a modest $2,000 plot fee, between 4 and 6 farmers each enroll in a 3 year program and have access to up to 1 ½ acres with healthy soils, a tractor donated by a local dealership, a shared washing/packing/storage shed, and access to one of the nation’s top markets for local foods - Charleston. What comes next is up to them.
Spade & Clover Gardens www.facebook.com/SpadeAndClover
John Warren of Spade & Clover Gardens is, in his own words, “an artist-turned-farmer growing food for the body and soul” -- 1 ½ acres of flowers, fruits, vegetables and cover crops using biodiverse, intensive methods. After leaving Brooklyn, Warren learned the basics by working at farms in Rhode Island and, more recently, at an organic farm on Johns Island operated by Joseph Fields, a third-generation farmer and an inspiring voice for the merits of eating local. Warren was called to create a healthier life for himself and nourishment for the Charleston community by launching his business at Dirtworks. Warren’s farm business was the first selected for the incubator by LLF. His choice of the name Spade & Clover includes layers of meaning reflecting his artists’ sensibility -- farming does indeed require a spade to dig the soil, clover as a nitrogen-building cover crop and, like the playing cards these symbols are derived from, farming involves a good bit of luck with the hand you are dealt.
Working with farm assistants, John specializes in heirloom varieties well-adapted to the American South and selected for their supreme taste and unique appearance. He is also pioneering the cultivation of Southeast Asian varieties in the Lowcountry, including plants with edible tubers/rhizomes such as turmerick and ginger, purple and white varieties of sweet potatoes, and Jerusalem artichokes. The beautiful and bountiful produce he grows comes with great attention to the health of the soil and the farm as a living ecosystem. Instead of the herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers used to produce most of the food in America, Warren specializes in companion planting, cover cropping, crop rotation, and working with the mutually beneficial qualities of each plant. He enjoys the challenge of working with local chefs to test new crops to try on their menus.
John sells his produce at the Charleston Farmers Market, the Sunday Brunch Farmers Market, and the Johns Island Farmers Market, all within 30 minutes of the farm, and to a growing number of local chefs. He keeps a refrigerator in downtown Charleston, allowing him the ability to stage fresh produce for delivery to restaurants at different times during the week. Through Dirtworks, John has the support of apprentice/intern farmers to maintain his crops with labor-intensive weeding and mulching. Dirtworks held a Crop Mob at Spade & Clover Gardens – a growing trend in which a group of new farmers gather to share work, a potluck meal, and a good time at a local farm. Crop Mobs are effective at pooling labor to get work done on a rotating list of farms, reviving the ancient traditions that weave social life and farming together. Even his rusted iron Spade & Clover signs are made by a blacksmith friend in the community. When asked about his next step as the first Dirtworks farmer to move on, John says he plans to farm in the area and continue building a strong customer base. “I don’t need to own land, I just need to find a place to keep producing – that is how I build my value as a farmer…continuing to produce great product”
Sweet Greens Farm www.sweetgreensfarm.com
Sweet Greens is a 1.5 acre vegetable farm at Dirtworks run by Jim Marzluff and Claudia Seixas. They grow healthy, ecologically sound produce – especially greens and Caribbean varieties -- based on practices learned while farming side-by-side with exceptional certified organic farmers over the past six years. Their self-described mission: “to provide the Lowcountry with the best produce possible.”
For Jim, a Charleston native, the move to Johns Island this past spring was a homecoming. He and Claudia (a native New Jerseyan) met at Swarthmore College where they worked together in the campus garden, and fell in love with each other, food, and farming. Their paths led them to more intensive hands-on learning at the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems in Santa Cruz, CA. After earning more experience and skills working on organic farms in central California and Oregon’s Applegate Valley, and Claudia’s sustainable agriculture Fulbright scholarship in northern Brazil, the couple headed to St. Croix for one year to manage Ridge to Reef, the first certified organic farm in the US Virgin Islands. As of this spring they are back stateside, firmly planting roots of all kinds in the sandy loam soil of Johns Island.
In their own words, Sweet Greens Farm is a market-driven business with a goal of promoting healthy food and respecting and improving the soil. In addition to organic practices, Jim and Claudia farm according to personal principles. They strive to make their own tools when possible (such as an essential walk-behind wheel hoe Jim crafted from salvaged materials). They keep their input costs down by using materials on hand such as bamboo from neighboring Rosebank Farm for trellises, and free mulch from the Charleston landfill. Perhaps most importantly for young farmers setting out on their career – they are also committed to respecting their own bodies and minds. Jim explains that they have seen many a beginning farmer going too hard and burning out early, walking away from the way of life they wanted so badly. The couple maintains a balance of indoor and outdoor pursuits, including side jobs such as renovating an old house they currently live in.
While only in their first growing season at Dirtworks, Jim and Claudia have begun working to supply their bountiful produce to local customers, started a CSA with a modest number of shares, and regularly participate in area farmers markets. They are excited to be working with James Island chef Alex Leara at his restaurant, the Lot, and EVO pizza in Charleston.
As Claudia describes it, “we like being pioneers…outsiders, with a different skill set and palette to work from than what others are doing.” Jim nods in agreement. “We are focused on growing what people want rather than changing the food system. Building personal relationships is our first priority – we can do that on a small farm, up to 20 acres, but not 200.”
They pace themselves in summer, avoiding the worst heat of the day while discing and spreading compost on the fields to feed the soil and running long rows of drip tape for efficient irrigation, weeding and harvesting the bounty. Claudia is also an accomplished photographer who has captured the spirit of the Dirtworks community in her group photos and farm shots (www. claudiaseixas.com).
According to Jim, growing food plants in the Lowcountry truly has its own influences with climate and soil conditions compared to other regions. ”You really taste the plant here rather than the soil. The soils don’t hold nutrients, and the heat brings out the volatile oils in the plants.” This makes for tasty greens, he says. In addition, the wet conditions and frequent rainfall in summer can dilute flavors.
Dirtworks is a 10-acre patch of productive fields along a classic Lowcountry farm lane lined by live oaks draped with Spanish moss on Johns Island, a barrier island squarely located in the Lowcountry of the Atlantic Coastal Plain in South Carolina. Several miles to the east are the tidal Stono River and historic Charleston Harbor, with the Atlantic Ocean and Kiawah Island 10 miles to the south. Its sandy soils and native inland maritime forests (live oak, magnolia, red bay, and palmetto) reflect an ancient history of erosion, deposition, evolution, and climate shifts in an environment created over millions of years as the ocean advanced and receded.
This humid subtropical climate of this coastal region offers challenges and opportunities for growing northern and southern crops in the heat, humidity and frequent storms of summer, and short, mild winters. Rainfall averages 51 inches per year, with more than half of that amount concentrated in summer storms. On average, this section of coast experiences direct or peripheral tropical storm or hurricane impacts every 3 to 4 years, with direct hurricane conditions every 10 years or so, mainly in summer and early fall. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 devastated the area with winds of up to 140 miles per hour. Johns Island falls within USDA plant hardiness zone 8b, which experiences winter temperature extremes averaging 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit –just enough cold and frost potential to keep it slightly north of the true subtropical conditions down the coast in Georgia and Florida – for now.
Lowcountry farmers have to focus on dealing climate and soil conditions that are conducive to growing abundant crops, but that present their own unique challenges. The relatively moist, temperate climate also means that there is generally no hard winter frost to kill off insects and invasive plants that can become chronic pests for farmers to deal with. Pigweed and nutsedge are particularly aggressive plants in these conditions. Microorganisms called nemotodes are abundant in the soil and are famous for killing root systems. Hungry insects such as stinkbugs move from crop to crop. One of the strongest ways to manage these challenges is by building healthy, living soils to nurture healthy plants. The sandy Coastal Plain soils are naturally depleted and don’t hold nutrients as well as soils with more loam or clay do, so it takes determination and ingenuity for farmers practicing sustainable agriculture in the Lowcountry focus on building soils organic matter and soil nutrients. This includes a broad palette of approaches that support each crop:
- cover cropping with legumes to fix nitrogen and add organic matter to the soil;
- careful selection of companion plants that deter insects or provide nutrients for each other;
- inoculation with soil micorrhizae, natural fungus which assists plant roots in taking up nutrients;
- adding compost from available local materials (fish scraps, horse manure, wood chips, leaves) and spent mushroom compost from PA ;
- and amending the soil with natural fertilizers such as kelp, blood meal, and greensand (natural phosphate from deposits of ancient marine life).
Farmers at Dirtworks learn what approaches work best from each other, from local farmers, and through trial and error. The Dirtworks tractor has no sprayer attachment for herbicides, fungicides, or insecticides, and there is no chemical storage shed marked with scull and crossbones signs. One thing is clear – there is a lot more thought and effort going into those prized naturally-grown vegetables than most customers realize.
It is important to understand how land use patterns in the Charleston area are threatening the very farmland on which the city’s source of “locally grown” foods depends. Johns Island falls within the city limits of Charleston, the fastest growing urban area in South Carolina, with more than 700,000 residents in the region and the highest growth rate in South Carolina. Charleston’s thriving food culture has earned it a growing list of James Beard Award winning chefs (and nominees), and also a 2013 reader’s poll ranking from Conde Nast Traveler magazine as the “best travel destination in the world.” The Holy City benefits from productive agricultural communities in the surrounding rural areas, but the 30 minute drive from downtown Charleston out to the Dirtworks Farm on Johns Island is a tour of real estate signs marking pending development projects. There will be a time, not too far in the future, when most local foods in Charleston will be sourced not within a 30 mile radius of the Holy City, but perhaps a 300 mile radius…inland counties which still rank as some of the poorest in the state if not the nation, where farmland with prime agricultural soils is still abundant, affordable, available, close enough to highways (I-95 and I-26) to make for a reasonably efficient regional supply chain.
When the next big wave of development washes across the landscape, and the next one, and the next one…what “local” farms will be left to grow “local” food? What agricultural communities will they support? And how much higher will land values escalate when the last farms are more in demand for development (even low-density estate lots) far exceeds its agricultural value? Owing to years of hard work and the dedication of many supporters, staff, and conservation-minded landowners, land trusts such as the Low Country Open Land Trust (www.lolt.org) and Edisto Island Open Land Trust (www.edisto.org) have successfully preserved thousands of acres of highly developable, prime farmland in the Charleston area. Yet as demand grows for protected estate settings, even these farmland preservation efforts alone will not be able to retain the affordability of land for economically viable farms. In other parts of the country facing escalating prices of preserved farmland, land trusts are taking additional steps to preserve viable local farms by limiting protected properties to agricultural use and even setting reasonable caps on resale values so farmers can afford them.
The diversity of cover crops, southeast Asian and Caribbean Crops, and heirloom vegetables grown by Spade & Clover Gardens and Sweet Greens Farm offers an inspiring glimpse at the future expansion and evolution of sustainable farming and food production in the American South. While both farms practice seed saving as an increasingly important (and, sadly, “radical”) step for maintaining biodiversity of our food system, they turn to catalogs such as Southern Exposure Seed Exchange for a wide selection of southern-adapted, open-pollinated heirloom seeds. They use an on-site greenhouse to start many of the seeds.
- Austrian Winter Pea - legume, a great nitrogen fixer, plentiful tendrils are tasty as microgreens, and plucking them helps to build root structure (and organic matter in the soil)
- Sunn hemp – (aka “fontillaria”), a legume from India which is a popular cover crop in the Caribbean for its rapid growth, drought tolerance, and ability to help flush out nematodes from the soil
- Crotalaria – a tropical legume (aka “rattlebox”) introduced from India as a green manure crop for nitrogen fixing and soil building, used as a leafy vegetable in parts of Mexico and Central America, can become invasive
- Sunflowers – serves as good mulch, pollinator plants, and popular as cut flowers for sale at markets. Good summer green for salads and help to cover the soil
- Japanese Millet -- creates a break between crops, suppresses weeds (allelopathic)
- Buckwheat – quick cover to suppress weeds and nurse other crops, grows in poor soils, abundant roots to keep soil loose, flowers attract pollinators and beneficial insects, brings up phosphorus and releases them through decomposition
- Rye -- reduces soil erosion, habituates microrhyzae fungus which is essential for allowing plant roots to take up nutrients
John Warren at Spade & Clover focuses on root crops, tubers, rhizomes for their potential as niche crops, their ability to be processed and stored for year round use. These include:
- Ginger – this Asian plant sells well as a root and a leaf – much of the ginger flavor is found in the leaf. Used for juices.
- Turmeric – used for juices, popular for health benefits. Leaves can be used for a natural cooking vessel such as tamales. Can store well if cured after the first freeze.
These will be used for juices and teas at a new Charleston restaurant -- The Daily – opening in September by chefs/owners of the popular restaurant Butcher and Bee.
- Jerusalem Artichoke – Native American version of a water chestnut, good as a fast-growing screen, pollinator plant
- Taro root – tuber (Indian)planted as an experiment. It likes wet areas (planted along ditches at end of rows)
- Elephant garlic – John is currently planting an heirloom form of this plant from seed he collected from wild populations growing nearby. Elephant garlic (a form of leek) has been grown by many generations of Lowcountry farmers and gardeners and naturalized generations ago. It still grows wild, often in a “polyculture” of invasive (and edible) kudzu vine.
Among the greens and other vegetables grown at Sweet Greens Farm by Jim and Claudia are:
- Holy basil – a sacred plant in India, grown near homes for good luck, and for stress-reducing teas
- Moringa – this subtropical/tropical tree from India is being trialed at Sweet Greens. Considered as a “supercrop” capable of fighting hunger and malnutrition in the Global South, with abundant and nutritious food from its small leaves (Vitamins A, B, and C, calcium, potassium, protein)
- Amaranth – a popular plant through the Caribbean, known as “calaloo” in Haiti and other island cultures. The leaves are eaten like spinach, the seeds are eaten as a grain
- Herbs – Italian and Thai Basil, Arugula.
They also grow cut flowers for sale at markets – Zinnias, Cockscomb, Sunflowers, Yarrow, Thai Basil Flowers, and plant flowering crops for pollinators as an alternative to GMO plants laced with neonicotinoids believed to be a cause of colony collapse disorder in honeybees.
- Peanuts – Jim and Claudia are trying out Shronce’s Deep Black (which is close to the traditional ground nut in flavor – used for African soups)
- Asian Cucumbers
- Trinidad Spice Peppers – used in safrito sauce (like a Scotch Bonnet/Habanero without the intense heat). Resists nematodes and leaf spot
- Shishito Pepper (aka “padrones”) – a small, sweet, Japanese pepper. Used for Spanish tapas, picked green, fried on olive oil until black, and eaten with sea salt
- Roselle (Thai Red hibiscus) – grows well, pods (calyxes) are great for citrus-flavored teas, sauces, and jams. The pods can be stored for use year round. High in Vitamin C and traditionally used to treat high blood pressure in African and Asian traditional medicine. Roselle is becoming popular among bartenders who use it for cocktails, and for sweetened Christmas drinks in the Caribbean
- Cranberry Hibiscus (“false roselle”) – a citrusy tasting leaf, part of the okra family, used similarly to the Thai roselle. Can be grown as a hedge. Tolerates poor soils
- Sugarcane – planted as part of Rosebank Farm, this plant has been harvested for years by community members and the Limehouse family, pressed, and boiled into cane syrup as a fall tradition – a true symbol that the spirit of community farming is still alive
- Yard Long Beans – popular, known as Bodhi in Trinidad, the red variety does much better than the green. They can be started in the heat of summer (like cowpeas) and intercropped with lettuce growing in their shade
- Cowpeas – an excellent source of protein in the Global South, with many varieties traditionally grown in the Lowcountry, the Caribbean, and Africa. Red cowpeas are considered the traditional ingredient for Hoppin’ John.
- Sweet Potatoes – widely used in the tropics and Asia, purple and white variety. Small leaves can be eaten like spinach. Hog farmers will buy excess crop as feed for hogs.
- Calabaza squash - (West Indian pumpkin) – a winter squash similar to butternut, still grown widely in the Caribbean and Mexico. Jim and Claudia are growing plants from seeds they brought from Roots Farm in St. Croix.
Both Spade & Clover and Sweet Greens also grow an abundant variety of more traditional vegetables such as Red Russian Kale, Lima Beans, American Cucumbers, Eggplant, Lettuce, Radishes, Turnips, Summer Squash/Zucchini, Nappa Cabbage, Red Cabbage, Green Beans, Melons, Potatoes, Onions, and Garlic. The garlic is bunched and hung from the rafters of the packing shed to be cured, then braided for sale at markets. The cucumbers and radishes are pickled, the cabbage and peppers fermented into Korean-style kimchi for longer shelf life and nutritional value. Charleston Bell peppers, a variety developed by Clemson University, is favored for its resistance to nematodes.
Tomatoes – Johns Island tomatoes are well known, and conventional tomato industry leaders such as DiMare have established operations there with large fields and a packing facility, but most small sustainable growers don’t bother with them due to susceptibility with multiple insects and blights in the coastal environment. Sweet Greens Farm is trying heirloom varieties adapted to the heat and humidity of the South such as German Johnson (developed in the Carolinas) and Black Krim (from Crimea) which get darker with heat.
In his new book, The Third Plate: Field Notes from the Future of Food, Dan Barber, chef/co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in NY points out that all of us -- cooks and eaters -- need to engage in the nuts and bolts of true agricultural sustainability. As described on the book’s jacket, “our “first plate” may have been a meat-centric American diet of the early 20th century. The “second plate” is our current push for the best products that represent farm-to-table freshness and quality. But neither of these truly addresses the whole challenge of how to feed ourselves in the context of a massively expanding global population. Barber’s "third plate" is an integrated system of vegetable, grain, and livestock production that is fully supported—in fact, dictated—by what we choose to cook for dinner. The Third Plate is where good farming and good food intersect.”
At Dirtworks, John Warren’s use of Austrian Winter Pea as a cover crop and sale of shoots as edible greens is a fine example of Third Plate eating. This kind of legume is grown and turned under to add valuable nitrogen and organic matter necessary for building the healthy soils to grow prized crops like eggplant. But all through the spring, the tender shoots and tendrils of that cover crop offer a delicious and nutritious salad green to grace plates in local homes and restaurants – the same homes and restaurants that can later serve eggplant from that field, and whose food scraps could ultimately composted and returned to the soil to nourish the next crop. Eating the pea shoots AND the eggplant and then composting kitchen scraps helps us to move beyond the consumer mentality of the grocery store and to rediscover and support the whole farm and all of its inputs and products as an ecological system of food production. As conscious eaters, we all have ability identify ourselves less as grocery store consumers and more as active partners in the life of the farm.
So, what does the Third Plate look like for the American South? The new farm businesses and new farmers being incubated (and accelerated) at Dirtworks are doing that as well as anywhere – pushing the envelope, working with chefs and market customers to ask what is possible…what crops can be grown here in this temperate coastal South Carolina environment… what potential we have to co-create profitable farms, and a vibrant food economy as we lead Lowcountry cuisine into the 21st century.
Dirtworks Incubator Farm
3955 Betsy Kerrison Parkway
Johns Island, South Carolina