As far as Charleston’s small farms go, Spade & Clover is among the smallest and most specialized. Tucked away on a mostly empty swath of Johns Island, between the combined saving graces of two brick churches and a fried seafood joint, the farm is an unexpected source of spice and inspiration for some of Charleston’s top restaurants.
“This is the best market you could ever hope for,” says John Warren, founder and master planner of Spade & Clover. Warren started the farm in 2013 with a vision of small-scale farming with support from Lowcountry Local First’s Dirtworks Incubator Program.
You can see why he’d say that. Husk, FIG, The Ordinary, McCrady’s, Xiao Bao Biscuit, Edmund’s Oast, Butcher and Bee …. the list of the farm’s regulars reads like a bucket list of Charleston’s headlining spots. One thing that Warren’s little farm brings to these big names: the unusual.
Charleston’s climate, Warren explains, is ideally suited to growing the colorful and flavor-packed varieties that thrive in Southeast Asia’s tropical climes. They’re not for every tastebud or farmer, but for Warren and his team, a small and unconventional harvest is the most rewarding.
When we visit the farm this fall with Xiao Bao Biscuit chef/owner Joshua Walker, Spade & Clover’s rows are full of black, red, and white turmeric; ginger; sunchokes; and peppers, despite Hurricane Dorian’s visit a week before. For better or worse, the same tropical weather that brought Dorian to Warren’s doorstep inspires much of his farming here — the turmeric didn’t seem to mind the extra rain and muggy air.
“The goal is really not to go driving all over Charleston,” he says. “We’d rather grow a diversity of things and then deliver to the restaurants we really like.”
Talking to Walker and Warren side-by-side on the farm, it’s easy to see why these two creators click.
“It’s like a family,” says Walker of his staff at XBB, and the same is true at Spade & Clover. Rather than rotate through seasonal workers, Warren has elected to bring on a few independent contractors and operate the farm more like a co-op, where the workers can pick, deliver, and expand the company by building relationships with local restaurants.
“The dream has evolved a bit,” he says of his original micro-farm plan. Now, the best way to grow without losing that independent soul is creating a culture where workers have a stake in the farm and can make a fair — even substantial — wage working there.
“That’s how I see the business growing, as a more cooperative kind of thing, where I stick to what I’m good at, which is tractor work and farming,” says Warren. “Then people who are self-starters and want to do their own thing can make good money … It’s good for them and good for me.”
All this is good for us, too.
“Just the other day we were talking about what’s going on for fall and when he [Warren] lists off everything he’s got going on,” says Walker, overlooking the rows of peppers, “it’s cool because we can start thinking about menu decisions.” For instance, “There was a fish curry dish we were having and 90 percent of the potatoes for it were from here, and when the potatoes were done it wasn’t like we wanted to buy commodity potatoes, so we switched the dish.”
“My favorite experiences at restaurants are definitely when I have something new and something memorable,” says Walker, explain ing both his rotating menu and affinity for the harvests from Spade & Clover before diving into the intricacies of dry masala-style curry versus Thai-style paste curry.
“Hopefully we have enough trust with our clientele that they’re like, ‘I don’t know what this is, but I trust you so let’s do it,'” says Walker.
Warren might say the same thing. “Honestly, I tend to grow what I want … and sometimes I miss my mark.” He points to a row of jalapeño peppers. “Like those, this time around, the market for them wasn’t there. I couldn’t keep up with lower prices from bigger farms.”
It was lovebug season during our visit, with little pairs landing on our legs like 3-D polka-dots as we walked through rows of waist-high curcuma longa. Three Spade & Clover workers were flying through the crop of peppers, throwing them into big round baskets and joking about who’s the fastest pepper picker.
The only traffic was the truck used to haul the harvest back for washing and sorting — and the occasional tractor. The cocktails and table service of McCrady’s, FIG, and XBB seemed very far away.
Sure, Warren says, he visits these places sometimes and enjoys a nice dinner made with crops he planned, seeded, grew, and harvested, but the thought of what those Austrian winter peas will become on the plate at Maison, Chubby Fish, Babas, Tu, or Kwei Fei rarely crosses his mind.
Come winter, he’ll be busy enough planting onions, garlic, leeks, fava beans, cover crops, cabbage, cauliflower, radishes, carrots, beets, turnips, kale, chard, radicchio, different chicories, and arugula.
“I am growing this stuff, but once it’s in the ground, I don’t really have ownership of it any more,” says Warren. “Especially with the way the farm operates … I think about the quality of what I’m growing, the quality of the soil, and the environment of the farm and how it supports me, spiritually and otherwise.”
Once the crops leave the farm, it’s Walker and his fellow chefs who get to explore how it supports them.
“They’ve hired me out to grow it,” says Warren, “and then it’s theirs.”