Upstream on the Ashley River is a familiar sight: Middleton Place, a plantation with 65 acres of elaborate gardens, buildings and stables marked with history, plus a modern inn and restaurant. While tourists come to explore the grounds, Jamie Yurgartis farms.
“It’s rare to see around here. I think it’s pretty cool when guests go to the restaurant and realize that they’re getting what’s grown less than a half a mile away,” says Yurgartis, the farm manager at Middleton Place. Yurgatis, who has been working the farm for over three years, oversees the operations of the tiny plot of land as well as its relationship with Middleton Place Restaurant. “The main goal for right now is to grow veggies for the restaurant, to work in close relationship with them to build a seasonal menu based on what we’re growing,” Yurgartis says.
Crunching through the morning grass, Yurgartis fires off a list of current farm crops: “Several varieties of beets and carrots, radishes, turnips, okra, beans, arugula, lettuces, kale. We’re doing a late planting of squash, trying season expansion techniques to see if we can have those throughout the winter.” Much of what goes on within the small farm is trial and error, seeing what can be done to stretch the life of a crop and develop specific menu items for the restaurant.
“We’re working on a Middleton Southern pea mix, which is three varieties that our chef wanted to be represented on the menu that are really great to eat and look really nice when mixed together,” says Yurgatis. “We do those in succession planting so we can have a continuous supply of those for the fall. We also are working on a cucumber trial,” Yurgartis explains, pointing to a corner of the farm where she describes the 16 different cucumber varieties being grown as a test.
Walking alongside Yurgartis are Nia Smith and Michelle Jewell, who both came to work at the farm by way of Lowcountry Local First’s Growing New Farmers program. The program offers first time farmers a chance to gain experience with every aspect of the process, from finding land and drafting business plans to hands-on work in the field. Middleton Place ended up being the host farm for both Smith and Jewell during their time in the program.
“Jamie taught us. I don’t know how she did it with like 15 people coming out and touching her stuff every week, but she did it. I did an extended apprenticeship and kind of like Nia, I just stayed on,” Jewell says.
Collaboration is a key focus for the farm. With limited harvests and occasional unforeseen circumstances (hello, Mother Nature), the farm and restaurant stay in constant communication about what executive chef Chris Lukic would like to use, what can actually be planted, and what is eventually harvested.
“In our cover crop, we had Crimson Clover. Since he’s a chef he thinks of things in a way that we wouldn’t necessarily think of. He pulled the Crimson Clovers, like the actual flowers, and he made a simple syrup out of it for the bar to use, and it was delicious. He’s really passionate that the whole plant is used,” Yurgartis says.
This month’s harvest will not only benefit the restaurant but the farm itself. Middleton’s inaugural Stewards of the Soil Festival, a one-day event featuring local artists and vendors, will kick off the night before with a five-course dinner benefiting the farm. Onsite produce will be creatively incorporated into dishes such as cabbage grit cake and beet and thyme pound cake, by Lukic and guest chef BJ Dennis.
Marshgrass Mamas, an all-female bluegrass band, will perform at the dinner. “Gina Perez is in the band and she’s coming the next morning to teach the indigo dyeing workshop, so it ties in nicely,” says Yurgartis. “The dinner will be a really nice opportunity for us to showcase what we do out here and for people to get an awesome meal.”
During the fest on Saturday, experts in beekeeping, gardening, foraging, and landscaping — among other interests — will showcase their skills during free workshops. “It’s not just us saying here’s how you should do things, we’re saying listen to these people in the community and come and learn and have fun,” says Yurgartis.
Many of the workshops will be hands-on and interactive. For example, “they’re going to do a wild edible walk and go out into the woods and forage and come back, learn how to cook items that are here, [be able to] buy them from Lowcountry Street Grocery, and take a recipe card home,” Jewell explains.
With much of Middleton Farm’s focus being on transparency in the farm-to-table process, Yurgartis hopes people will come away from the festival with a new understanding of how the farm fits into society.
“To me, I think that the educational standpoint is just really important. We have a great opportunity to be able to teach other people how to be able to do this. It’s small scale but you can produce a whole lot off of one acre, and I think to be able to teach the community, to teach kids, to teach up and coming farmers that you can do this is really important to me.”
The Middleton Place Organic Farm benefit dinner takes place Fri. Oct. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at Middleton Place Restaurant followed by the Stewards of the Soil Fall Festival on Sat. Oct. 26 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Middleton Place Organic Farm.