May 2024 Faces

Faces behind the bounty

The unique chemistry of Lowcountry soil yields two very special harvests – the tastiest fruits and vegetables on earth and the fantastic people who bring them to you.

Story by Barry Kaufman+ Photography by Lisa Staff

The Lowcountry has never been called America’s breadbasket. The seeds that grow to amber waves of grain may find better purchase on the fruited plains of the heartland, but there is still magic in our Southern coastal soil. Its sandy acidity may present an insurmountable challenge for some crops, but it provides the ideal chemistry and drainage for some of the juiciest tomatoes known to man, strawberries that burst with sweetness and okra that adds that perfect flavor note to any Southern dish.

But far sweeter than the edible yields of its soil are the people who work it. Their dedication to the land, in an area far more famed for its waters, speaks to a farmer’s soul that only finds purpose when its hands are dirty. These are the folks who coax sustenance from the soil and who bring that bounty to market. Without their efforts, life in the Lowcountry wouldn’t be anywhere near as delicious as it is.

Davey Dempsey

A growing legacy

Davey Dempsey - St. Helena - Dempsey Farms

Long before Sea Island Parkway became the central boulevard for seeing St. Helena Island, bristling with travelers road-tripping between Beaufort and Hunting Island, it was just a simple dirt pathway that bisected the Dempsey Family Farm. Today that farm encompasses 150 or so acres along one side. But back in the day, it was buffeted on both sides by Dempsey land, a plot that seemed to stretch forever.

“The whole Highway 21 frontage was ours. It split us right in half,” said Davey Dempsey. As the third generation of the Dempsey family to work the land here on St. Helena, he remembers a time when the road was seldom traveled. He’s heard his father’s story about seeing his own father meet the Western Union telegram man on that road, right on the field, to learn that Davey’s uncle had been declared missing in action in WWII. He’s watched St. Helena grow around him. And through it all, he’s served as a steward of his family’s own story.

“We’ve been a family farm since 1938. My grandfather started out farming tomatoes for a company called Six Ls (now called Lipman Family Farms). They were packers, so we’d sell them tomatoes to pack and ship. Now they’re the largest tomato growers in the country,” said Davey. “We were in partnership with them until 1996, and we were the last independent grower they had.”

During that same stretch of time, as the farm passed from Davey’s grandfather to his father, the family sold off land as growing operations became more streamlined. “We had about 150 acres just of tomatoes, and as the years progressed, the yields went from maybe 200 boxes per acre up to 2,000,” he said. 

At the same time, the Dempsey family was discovering another lucrative avenue for their produce. During spring months, people come from miles around to pick their own strawberries at Dempsey Farms, plucking the sweet juicy berries right from the soil.

And while this u-pick farm has its fans from across the Lowcountry, perhaps no one is a bigger fan than Davey’s grandson, Greyson, nicknamed Bubby. 

“He loves this place. When children come, he’ll grab a basket and head out into the field with them,” said Dempsey. “Bubby’s the fifth generation to farm right here on this spot.”

Davey’s son and Greyson’s father, Warren, has also stepped up, working the fields and welcoming crowds to pick their own fruit right alongside his father. If you ask him, Davey will proudly show you the photo of four generations of Dempseys walking side-by-side through fields his grandfather sowed for the first time nearly 70 years ago.

“I was in this field working when I was six years old,” said Dempsey. “It’s a different era now, with a different way of doing things. And everyone in the family has their own ideas on how to run the farm. It’s not the easiest to work with each other sometimes, but at the end of the day we all love each other.”

Strawberries in a u-pick basket from Dempsey Farms
Davey Dempsey continues his family’s enduring legacy as farmers on St. Helena Island, dating back to 1938. Despite changes over the years, including selling off land and adapting to new farming practices, Dempsey Farms remains a symbol of tradition and resilience. From growing tomatoes for a major company to establishing a popular u-pick strawberry farm, the Dempseys have stayed rooted in their agricultural heritage.

A day in the life

Most people understand that farming is hard work. There are early mornings and late nights, failed crops and blights. But even when everything is running smoothly, it can be a lot. Take the week that Davey Dempsey had recently.

“Last night was the first night I’ve slept in my bed for six days,” he said. At 65 and still recuperating from a serious injury incurred from a fall off of a tractor, he still works just as hard at his family farm as he did when he worked this land for his grandfather. 

That particular week saw him burning the midnight oil: keeping deer away from his pepper crop, meeting a truck from a South Georgia blueberry farm at 5 a.m., driving his refrigerated truck up to Columbia to drop off at 3 a.m. and picking up items from a farmer he knows there and taking them to another farmer in Lamar. By the time he returned to his St. Helena farm, the to-do list had already grown. 

“I managed to get a nap in, waiting for the plant man to come with some watermelon plants. Then last night I was back here about 7:30 or 8 p.m. doing a few things I had to finish today. Then I finally got to go home and go to bed,” he said.

Jacky Frazer

The Barefoot Farmer

Jacky Frazer

The stretch of Sea Island Parkway that winds in long, lazy curves toward Hunting Island is filled with authentic sights of rural Lowcountry charm. Few, however, are as iconic as the soaring red letters that welcome visitors to Barefoot Farms on St. Helena Island. The unmistakable image of those words coaxes beachgoers to pull off for a quick visit after a day at Hunting Island, but it’s the delectably fresh produce they find – and the farmer behind it all – that has kept them coming back.

And in case you’re wondering, yes. The name Barefoot Farms is quite literal.

“I’ve been barefoot all my life,” said owner and farmer, Jacky Frazer. “It seemed like a good name.”

It’s apt, considering that being barefoot is just one thing he’s done all his life. The other is farming. Growing up in Allendale as one of 12 kids, he worked the fields of his father’s farm, growing cotton and soybeans and learning first-hand the hard work and toil it takes to make a living off the land. 

“I didn’t intend to do it this long,” he said with a laugh. “My dad always told me to get away from the farm. He worked hard all his life, and he knew it was a hard living.”

Jacky’s chance to get away from the farm came when he graduated from high school and was faced with a decision. “I had a choice between going to school or going to Vietnam,” he said. He opted for school and would become part of the last graduating class from South Carolina State University’s Department of Agriculture Program. “Of course, Vietnam was still waiting when I graduated. I got drafted, but the war was winding down, so my number wasn’t called.”

He returned to farming for a time, carrying on the family legacy, but eventually he would grant his father’s wish and leave Allendale. 

“I had quit farming up there and came down here because some friends had invited me shrimping,” he said. “I was getting ready to go get another job but thought the weather was nice here. So I planted some watermelons, and I’ve been doing that ever since.”

Thirty years later, those watermelons have been joined on 50-plus acres by strawberries, squash, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, Gullah melon, Geechee melon, okra, peas, beans and cantaloupe. A few years into the venture, when Frazier couldn’t find a market for his crop, he started selling it on the side of the road. Luckily, that road was just then in the process of becoming the busiest on St. Helena, shepherding visitors to the tranquil shores of Hunting Island.

“I only intended to grow some watermelon and maybe a few other crops, and then I got stuck,” he said. “But it’s not a bad place to be stuck. Except when the sand gnats are bad.”

Barefoot Farms on St. Helena Island
Jacky Frazer, the owner of Barefoot Farms on St. Helena Island, traces his agricultural roots back to his childhood on a farm in Allendale. Although he planned to step away from farming after high school, his passion reignited following his college years. Seeking a milder climate, Frazer relocated his farming endeavors near the beach, initially cultivating watermelons. Over time, he diversified his crops and, facing a scarcity of local markets, began selling his produce directly by the roadside. Today Barefoot Farms is a popular stop for travelers heading to Hunting Island.

Oh deer

St. Helena Island boasts some of the finest farmland in Beaufort County. If you don’t believe that, simply ask the farmers. Or ask their customers, who travel for miles from Savannah and even Atlanta to sample the island’s famous fare.

Of course, the sincerest endorsement would come from the biggest fans of St. Helena Island’s bounty – the deer. Not that their love for farms is reciprocated by the farmers themselves.

“Last year was the worst. The deer ate 75 percent of my crops,” said Jacky Frazier. “So this year we built fences around all of our fields.”

Does that stop them?

“It slows them down,” Frazier said with a laugh.

It’s a common refrain among the island’s farmers who have seen ravenous deer populations descending on their fields. It’s anyone’s guess as to why the deer population has swelled, but Frazier has his theories.

“Some of the larger tomato farms put up 8-foot fences, so the deer just migrated to where they could find food,” he said. “And in general, they have less habitat.”

Kim Viljac

The heart behind Bluffton’s market magic

Kim Viljac - Bluffton SC

Sometimes the true magic of a fresh piece of produce is in what you do with it. That ripe, juicy tomato is a testament to the farmer’s skill in raising crops, but the culinarian who turns it into a rich sauce or a topping for a crisp salad makes it art. That’s part of the joy of a farmer’s market – the farmer daring you to match their dedication to your own by transforming their wares with your own epicurean skill. 

But sometimes the joy of a farmer’s market comes from the sense of community it engenders. You don’t just pull a tomato out of a supermarket bin, you get to meet the person who plucked it from the vine, greeting them as a neighbor. You realize, with every ingredient you gather for the night’s meal, how rich and diverse our community is.

And sometimes the joy of a farmer’s market comes from getting your kid’s picture taken with the Easter Bunny.  

At the Bluffton Farmer’s Market, you’ll find Kim Viljac behind all of this joy. In the case of the Easter Bunny, quite literally. Don’t tell the kids, but that mythical friendly bunny was really just the hard-working executive director of the market.

“It was cool yesterday, thankfully,” she said, the day after a market spent dressed in full bunny suit.  She added with a laugh, “But the sun came out just as a I got a baby on my lap.” 

Obviously, there’s more to the job of executive director than just filling the Easter Bunny’s suit (although Viljac also has a whole cornucopia of outfits, from tomatoes to pea pods). But it speaks to the bottom line of her job description – doing whatever needs to be done. 

“Starting out as the market manager, I assumed a lot of roles over the years. I became executive director because I was already doing a lot of our grant writing,” she said. “There are a lot of things behind the scenes.”

So much, in fact, that the one easiest day of her week is that magical Thursday when Martin Family Park comes alive with the hum of community, the colorful bounty of farm-fresh produce and the joy that Viljac works so hard to create. 

“It’s a place you can go by yourself and run into a half dozen family members or friends. And our vendors become close friends with our customers,” she said. “People know what they like, and they know who to get it from.”

It’s a lot of work behind the scenes to create those joys we as a community share on Thursdays. But there is also a lot of joy behind the scenes as well.

“I love the way we are able to support the agriculture of our local farms and the work we do with nonprofits from Backpack Buddies to Bluffton Self Help,” she said. Those in need can always count on the Farmers Market of Bluffton. That’s true whether they need fresh food to feed their family or they simply need a weekly reminder of how special our community is.

Basket of farm fresh strawberries
Kim Viljac serves as the executive director of the Bluffton Farmer’s Market, held every Thursday at Martin Family Park in Bluffton. The market operates from noon to 4 p.m. from September through May, and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. during June, July and August. When she’s not busy building partnerships with local farmers, businesses and nonprofit organizations, Viljac spends her free time exploring the region’s picturesque rivers, beaches, marshes and sandbars with family and friends.

More than just shopping

There’s a common complaint you’ll hear among people who have completely missed the point of a farmer’s market: the price.

“I’ve had people point out that it’s more expensive than what they’d pay at Publix,” noted Bluffton Farmers Market executive director, Kim Viljac. “I just tell them. ‘This was picked this morning. It hasn’t been on a semi truck for a week.”

That premium doesn’t just pay for the freshest produce you can get without getting your hands dirty. It also supports a growing agricultural community that enriches the soil of our community in every sense of the phrase. 

“Seeing family farmers being able to sustain their own living, and knowing that we are able to support them by giving them a customer base, is my favorite part of the job,” said Viljac. “It’s lovely to see their dreams take off.”

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