The Lowcountry returns to its agricultural roots.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff
It may be hard to look around at the modern Lowcountry and envision it as anything other than a wonderland of golf, tennis and outdoor pursuits. After all, for most of us this has always been an open-air playground, courting visitors from around the globe and providing the ultimate lifestyle for those of us lucky enough to call it home.
But on a long enough timeline, what we think of as the Lowcountry is really just a blip at the end of an unbroken chain of agriculture rolling backwards through the centuries. The native Americans planted their crops here, moving with the seasons. The plantations of the antebellum South built their fortunes on the fertility of the grounds. And for generations after, those who had worked the plantations in bondage found freedom in the self-sufficiency they coaxed from the soil.
There is history in our soil. And here you’ll meet three locals keeping that history alive.
Planting seeds for future farmers
At the core of what farmers do, indeed at the core of what farmers have always done since the dawn of agriculture, is plant seeds. From the first person who dared dream that they could cultivate nature’s bounty to the family farmers who feed us today, it all starts with a seed and faith that what grows from that seed will bear nourishment.
Joe McDormick is a planter of seeds, both in the literal sense – he maintains a small garden at his home with enough greens, corn, peas, squash and okra for the family – and in the figurative sense. He planted the first of those figurative seeds after graduating from Southern University and traveling with the Peace Corps to Brazil to help train leaders and organizers in the then-developing world.
His next plot was seeded in 1964, when he arrived at the Penn Center as an organizer, helping people get registered to vote, driving them to the polls, organizing running water to areas surrounding St. Helena Island and giving area parents options for day care. From these seeds grew a greater sense of community around Penn Center.
But in the 1980s, his literal and figurative seed planting came together. A program called Black Land Services was established to seek answers as to why the black community was losing so much land and what could be done. The answer turned out to be farming.
“We organized co-ops at Penn Center, just trying to keep people involved in farming,” he said. “We figured if we keep people farming, they would keep the land that way. If you stop farming, you stop being able to pay the taxes, and the land ends up being sold. The longer we could keep farming, the more we had a shot at keeping the land.”
What had started with a few farmers selling their wares out of the back of pickup trucks parked in downtown Beaufort, mobilized into a 17-farm strong coalition called the Gullah Farmers Cooperative. “Most of the people were already farming. Some were growing on small farms, but the reason they had small farms was they had nowhere to sell this stuff. We’re just trying to find an outlet for them,” said McDomick.
The cooperative began working with area schools to provide fresh produce, using combined resources to buy machines to wash, chop and package produce. The operation grew and flourished, as most seedlings do, until it needed to be transplanted to a larger spot. This past year, the cooperative was given a new facility that members hope to have operational soon.
“We’re hoping around March or April to be operating out of our own building,” he said. “The idea is to keep farming and growing produce, and provide outlets for farmers to sell their produce when they grow it. And if we can do that, we can keep the land in the family.”
Teaching self-sustainability through fungiculture
If there is one thing that this past year or so has taught us, it’s that there’s nothing like being self-sufficient. As pandemic-related closures shut down production at factory farms, hobbling the nation’s food supply, many of us were given a wake-up call. We’ve become so used to the food we need to live simply being there, waiting for us on the grocery store shelves, that we’ve lost sight of how fragile the system is that supplies it. In waking up to that, we’ve realized the importance of small, local farmers.
It was a lesson that Pamela McClure already knew. Her husband, Chad, had come from a family of avid gardeners, and when the couple lived outside of Augusta, Georgia, they had maintained their own food supply. “We had an acre in the middle of downtown with a mini-farm,” she said. “We grew everything from tomatoes and collards to fruits and vegetables. When you add in the bounty from hunting and fishing, we were self-sustaining.”
Beyond simply living off of the land, McClure wanted to instill that respect for the land in others. “We really wanted to be part of a local food movement and connect people with local farmers, but we worked full time,” she said. “When I became pregnant with my second child, I began exploring different options for how to teach people, especially kids, about where food comes from.”
A job-related move to Beaufort saw the family downsize to a tenth of an acre, which effectively put the kibosh on traditional farming until they found a home with all the farmland they need – in the basement. When the pandemic started throttling food supplies, McClure saw her chance.
“On the national scale, it was pretty scary with food shortages,” she said. “It brought us back to that — how do we teach our boys to be self-sustainable? How do we teach them to love agriculture, aquaponics, hydroponics, urban farming?”
As an answer, she set up a fully functional mushroom-growing operation in her basement. Dubbing her new venture Lowcountry Mushrooms and Microgreens, she set out to teach her sons, Charles and William, the value of being self-sufficient. Three greenhouses now fill her basement, growing everything from oyster mushrooms to more exotic types like chestnut mushrooms in a temperature-controlled clean zone.
“We don’t grow regular button mushrooms. It’s just about bringing in different flavors and textures and hopefully getting people to eat more mushrooms,” she said. “That’s our goal, to get people excited to add this very healthy food to their daily diet. It’s not just portobello and cremini and button. There’s a whole world of fungus.”
Inspiring the next generation of Gullah farmers
There are certain aspects of farming that, at times, seem like a miracle. You place a small seed in the ground, care for it as well as you can, and somehow that one seed becomes a mighty plant with the power to sustain life. Certainly, on an intellectual level we all understand the scientific processes at play, but all of us on some level still view it like some form of magic.
With all due respect to farmers, however, the real magic is what you do with that plant once it’s harvested.
For the Gullah people who have worked this land for centuries, that magic lies in the hearty succulence of okra soup, the creaminess of Carolina gold rice or the blissful tenderness of collards slow cooked in a stew. Theirs is a cultural legacy of transforming the fruits of the earth into transcendent cuisine, and it’s one that B.J. Dennis works every day to carry on.
“I’m trying to Inspire the next generation of Gullah farmers,” he said.
On a practical level, his work as culinary director for Lowcountry Fresh Market and Café in Bluffton gives him direct access to Gullah farmers. He not only provides a valuable venue through which farmers can sell their wares, he also lends them his expertise.
“It’s not just how can I help the farmers in the sense of buying the product, but how can we go to the farmer and start putting products together not just for Lowcountry Fresh Market, but in stores across the region?” he said. “Working with them to help them maximize what they have was big to me, because I’m closer and I can give them my thoughts. ‘You’re giving us vegetables; when are you going to start packaging and distributing across the country?’”
Growing up in Charleston in a Gullah family, Dennis was exposed to his culture’s culinary traditions through his mother’s cooking. “I have two sisters, but Mama told me I was the only one who would ask questions in the kitchen,” he said.
He worked his way through the kitchens of a Charleston culinary scene that was then in its infancy, before taking a sojourn to the Virgin Islands in 2004 that changed everything.
“It was the culture. We have such a similar culture, because it all goes back to the West Indies,” he said. “A lot of the time they would know about us. I’d say I’m from Charleston and they’d say ‘Oh, you’re one of those Gullah people.’”
Working alongside a chef there, Dennis learned more about the culinary roots of Gullah cuisine as they had been translated into the West Indian culture. “They are unapologetic about the culture there. I definitely came back to Charleston with more appreciation for the culture here.”
He came back to a restaurant scene that was just making its mark on the world. “During the four years I was gone, it entered the new golden age of Charleston cuisine before it became PR-driven and overrun by folks from all over,” he said. “You had that one glimmer of time where you had the renaissance in farming and produce and old seeds. I just wanted to represent Gullah culture because it gave Charleston its backbone, even if it never got its just due. I wanted to see that represented through the restaurant scene.”
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