The family farm might be facing extinction, but in a sunlit, 10-acre hideaway off of Betsy Kerrison Parkway on Johns Island, Lowcountry Local First is developing its own dirt dynasty. Novice farmers work under the guidance of Sidi Limehouse and Rita Bachmann on land donated by Limehouse’s Walnut Hill Plantation with support from a host of local sponsors. Dirt Works is Phase Two of LLF’s Growing New Farmers Incubator Project and on-the-ground training for farmers with big hearts and small pockets.
“We’ve had over 70 people graduate from our apprentice program in three years,” says LLF Sustainable Agriculture Program Director Nikki Seibert (a Dirt contributor). “The big question was, ‘where do they go?’ They’re becoming farm managers, CSA managers … but they want to do their own thing. That’s the independent spirit of farming.”
LLF graduates were looking for land, resources, and equipment. “It’s really challenging for young farmers,” Seibert continues. “It’s hard to get loans, and many are afraid to borrow until they know what their market is going to be like.”
And so the Dirt Works Incubator Farm was born.
After looking at industry peers, LLF decided upon an incubator farm, which provides low-risk, on-the-job training for farmers interested in entering the market.
“It’s not easy being a farmer,” explains apprentice graduate and incubator farmer Gina Perez of Fiddle Farms. “Every day is a challenge. What you aim to grow might not grow like you expect. It’s tough work. There are a lot of risks, and it can be discouraging.”
With all the hazards Mother Nature presents, Perez is thankful for the shared incubator resources. “You’re going to have things that work and things that don’t … like in life,” she philosophizes. “But it’s nice being able to have access to a tractor and a place to store freshly-picked food. I’m also really grateful to be surrounded by immense farming wisdom. I just soak it all in.”
“Dirt Works is a great opportunity for our farmers to work in a safe environment, where they can perfect their production technique, learn their marketing, and connect with customers,” Seibert adds. “If they make a mistake, they’re not going to lose their business or default on a loan.”
The 10-acre Walnut Hill parcel is divided into one- to two-acre plots for up to six farmers and one acre for apprentices, students, and the public. Plots are leased to Dirt Works farmers for $2,000 a year for up to three years. Leases include the use of a tractor (donated by Steen Enterprises), mainline irrigation, a pump and well, a packing facility, a walk-in cooler, restrooms, and hand tools and storage.
But Dirt Works provides more than the tools of the trade. It’s a community. “Farming is lonely,” says Seibert. “Especially for our apprentices, who are used to being in the company of mentors and other farmers. If something goes wrong and you’re working alone, you have no one to ask.”
Because of Dirt Works’ particular mission to multiply farmers in the Lowcountry, the application process is stringent with a focus on remaining in the Charleston area, according to Seibert. “We want to make sure we have the right fit,” she explains. “Once our farmers learn about farming conditions, soil type, pest control, production methods, and climate here, it wouldn’t make sense for them to leave and go to New York.”
LLF’s three-phase Growing New Farmers Incubator Project began as an effort to meet South Carolina’s farming needs. “In order to address the aging farmer population, the increase in land cost, and the general lack of support for farmers, we knew that we needed to connect people with agriculture and really get that hands-on experience,” Seibert explains. “We want to be a model for other government entities and nonprofits to replicate across the state.”
Phase One of the project is the apprenticeship, which began about three years ago and includes pairing with a mentor farmer and classes in sustainable agriculture and farm business. “In a year, participants can get a taste for what it’s like to farm (working the soil, the land, and the climate), as well as how to run a business, because farming is a business,” Seibert says. “The incubator is that next step, as our farmers refine production practices, improve marketing, and share costs.”
Both the apprenticeship and incubator programs strive for a realistic experience. “There’s a reason the children of farmers don’t want to farm,” Seibert says. “You have to be passionate, because it’s sunup to sundown seven days a week. There’s incredibly high risk but high reward. You have to love being outside in all kinds of weather… you have to love customers…because that’s who is buying from you. The list goes on.”
“It’s tough not having a steady paycheck,” says apprentice graduate and incubator farmer Bo Collins of Sol Haven Farm. “There are hundreds of things I want to do and no time to do them. This business takes perseverance and patience, and I’m thankful for the resources that the incubator provides.”
Four of the six current incubator farmers are LLF apprenticeship graduates; all applicants had to present crop, business, and marketing plans along with their applications. “The people make the project,” Seibert says. “It takes a special person to work with shared resources. Everyone has to play nice and take turns.”
Dirt Works opened last fall, and most farmers didn’t begin working their dirt plots until November or December. All six of them are currently selling to restaurants, local distributors, and directly to consumers. And all six will be represented at the Charleston Farmers Market in April as well.
Phase Three of the project includes identifying land opportunities for growers and working with landowners interested in leasing their land to farms. “We’re looking to match farmer to landowner,” Seibert explains. “As soon as infrastructure is in place at the incubator, we’ll begin working on farm placement.”
From apprenticeship to land match, aspiring growers can go from knowing very little about farming to being in full production in only a few years.
Although the goal is to create new farmers, LLF wants to introduce locals to farming as well, so they can become community leaders, food advocates, and policy makers with an informed understanding of farming.
“It speaks to this next generation of people that want to get back to the land, that want to be empowered to grow their own food and that want to be educated about where their food comes from,” Seibert says about the incubation project. “They’re concerned about it. And even if they don’t grow for sale or production, I think that we’re going to see a shift of growing that backyard market garden … growing enough for yourself and your neighbors.”
The one-acre Teaching Plot and recently constructed teaching pavilion gives visitors a first taste of the farm and includes handicapped-accessible beds, as well as space for local groups like the South Carolina Herbal Society and the Permaculture Guild to showcase their specialties.
The outpouring of community support has been astounding, according to Seibert. In addition to the Limehouse family and Steen, LLF has received donations from the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, USDA Rural Development, Brown-Forman, David Thompson Architect, All Seasons, and WP Law, to name a few.
“This project is really a community project,” Seibert says. “Every other day, we have another business or individual that wants to partner. It’s incredible.”
Community members know a good thing when they see it. Job creation and economic development are heavily tied to LLF’s overall mission. “We want to have a healthy, strong, local economy for businesses and farmers,” Seibert explains.
And Dirt Works provides the foundation for Charleston’s modern farm family.
“Loyalty is one of the biggest ideas I’ve learned about farming in Charleston, and I’m sure it’s similar elsewhere,” Seibert says. “It’s all about the community and people supporting one another. Without that community, farming is a struggle for a lot of people.”
Dirt Works is located on Walnut Hill Road on Johns Island and is open for tours by appointment only. The farm will be open all day on Sat., April 20, in coordination with this year’s Lowcountry Farm Tours and Eat Local Month.