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Saving Lowcountry farmland

Conservation of family farms important to Beaufort County

Story by Edward Thomas  +  Photography by Michael Hrizuk

Lifetime Bluffton resident Mary Olive Pinckney Merrick, who died in 2014, would have been 100 years old this year. Yet her tangible legacy, today known as Three Sisters Farm overlooking the Okatie River, will last for countless generations forward, thanks to her abiding affection for her land and the help of land conservation initiatives by the Beaufort County Open Land Trust .

Mary O, as Ms. Merrick was lovingly known, recognized the immeasurable value of what she had been bequeathed by her parents, and the responsibility that accompanied it.

Mary’s great-grandparents purchased approximately 100 acres of farmland in 1848. The acreage was blessed with fertile soil and a magnificent view across the tidal waterway. Rice, corn, lettuce, tomatoes and other crops thrived in the nutrient-rich loam fed by the tides.

However, 150 years later the pleasantness of the land in Southern Beaufort County had been discovered by newcomers from the Northeast and Midwest. Waterfront property started being sold for premium prices, as posh developments sprang up along U.S. 278, and pressure began being applied on local landowners. The Merrick family’s acreage with its scenic river views was strategically situated between Rose Hill Plantation to the east and Berkeley Hall to the west. It was especially appealing to developers who saw a potential bonanza in the property. Yet, Mary was determined not to sell. 

She later recalled: “After much thought and consultation with my children, we decided we wanted to preserve the land as we had inherited it. We didn’t feel it was our privilege to do anything else. And, we’re very happy we did.”

As a result, Mary became one of the first landowners in Beaufort County to participate in the Rural and Critical Land Program by granting a conservation easement to the Open Land Trust and thereby selling the future development rights to the county for preservation purposes.

Three Sisters Farm was one of the first to participate in the Rural and Critical Land Program by granting a conservation easement to the Open Land Trust.

Today, Three Sisters Farm is overseen by Mary’s three daughters, Mary Connor, Priscilla Coleman and Beth Lee. The farm produces a variety of certified organic vegetables plus berries, herbs, flowers, sweet potatoes and mushrooms. A select group of local restaurants are regular customers, and the family operates booths at local farmers markets. Additionally, Mary’s son, Chuck Merrick, and his wife, Diane, opened U Pick Daffodils in 2017 on their acreage. It has become a popular place to visit in early Spring.

Voters tend to agree that open space and working farmlands contribute to the quality of life and sense of place, factors that have helped stimulate overall growth in our region over the past two decades. During that period, voters have strongly endorsed four bond referendums that help farms and other open space to be protected. But, in some ways it is a two-edged sword since it limits supply. As demand for houses grows, land prices rise. 

Beaufort County Councilwoman Alice Howard has been a staunch supporter of the bond referendums and conservation easements for farming. “Protecting our splendid farmland with easements is an important tool that allows farmers to operate successfully,” says Howard. 

Working lands certainly contribute to Beaufort County’s historical identity, but also to its present day economy. “They supply jobs, provide locally sourced produce and support certain quality-of-life factors such as sense of place,” says Kate Schaefer, the land trust’s director of land protection. “It’s part of our cultural identity that makes this area a unique draw for residents and visitors alike.”

Three Sisters Farm is one of several farms in the surrounding area that have benefited from protections created by conservation easements, which are legal agreements that permanently protect farmland that grows crops ranging from peanuts to cotton and flowers. 

Protecting farmland with easements is an important tool that helps small farmers operate successfully across the Lowcountry.

The land trust, which began more than four decades ago to preserve scenic vistas in the City of Beaufort, has expanded its mission to become a regional clearinghouse and title-holding entity for farmers who want to retain ownership by donating perpetual conservation easements.

A more recent beneficiary of the program has been blueberry growers. The popular berry has become a major cash crop in coastal South Carolina because of its antioxidant attributes that have been praised worldwide by health experts in recent years. Coosaw Farms, with locations on St. Helena Island and Allendale County, is well known for the quality of its blueberries. The nutrient-rich soil of its 149-acre St. Helena farm, protected by meandering tidal creeks and marshes, produces some of the best blueberries anywhere.

“Our work is never done when it comes to protecting valuable farmland,” Schaefer said. LL