Five generations of organic growing.
Story by Robyn Passante + Photography by Michael Hrizuk
Sisters Mary Connor, Priscilla Coleman and Beth Lee have only been farming commercially for a decade, but their organic Three Sisters Farm in Pinckney Colony is an endeavor that’s 170 years and five generations in the making.
When their mother, Mary O. Merrick, placed a conservation easement on the family’s 150-acre Calhoun Plantation in 2004, it was both a nod to the environmentalist’s long-held priorities and an unspoken family commitment.
“It’s the original family home-place,” says Connor of the picturesque plot along the Colleton River that was purchased by Merrick’s great-grandfather James Porcher in 1848. “And since she happened to be the person who inherited it, I think she felt an obligation to her family to keep it in its original state.”
The sisters describe their childhood as one that was connected to the soil beneath their feet and the water beside their property. “Our dad always had a beautiful garden,” Connor says. “And my mom grew up on the farm, so she knew how to cook and can and jelly.”
But once grown, they chose college and careers that put them behind desks and in classrooms. Connor was an engineer; Coleman was an art teacher; Lee and her husband owned an architectural firm. A decade ago, however, their roots called them home – literally and figuratively – and the land that had over the decades cultivated vegetables, daffodils and a dairy farm was brought back to life through the hard work and big dreams of the siblings.
When asked whose idea it was to start farming the land, Connor says, a bit sheepishly, “I guess I’ll own up to that” before Coleman interrupts: “I’ll take credit, she can own up, and we just dragged Beth along.”
Many in the Lowcountry are familiar with part of the property, as it’s been the site of delightful U Pick Daffodils fields for decades. One of their brothers owns and maintains most of the land where the daffodils grow. In addition to their own daffodils, the sisters cultivate 60 to 100 different varieties of flowers throughout the year, which are sold at farmer’s markets and arranged for weddings and other special occasions.
The trio also cares for 100 chickens, and grows about 100 varieties of organic vegetables, fruit and herbs throughout the year, which means something is always being planted while something else is being picked.
When they decided to start farming, going the extra steps to make their produce USDA certified organic was a priority, both for personal and professional reasons.
“We didn’t want pesticides on our food or on our land,” Coleman says.
“We just never would have farmed that way,” Connor concurs. Plus when they opened for business 10 years ago, it was much harder to find organic produce in Beaufort County, particularly in their area of greater Bluffton.
Today, though there are more grocery stores and, thus, organic options around here, Coleman says she enjoys selling their produce and other goods at the farmer’s markets, where she can converse with customers.
“They’re very appreciative that we have these veggies and flowers and herbs for them to buy fresh,” she says. “They understand the difference in what they get from us versus what they get from the grocery store.”
The sisters split responsibilities according to their interests and strengths.
“I would say Mary’s in charge of the vegetables and I’m in charge of the flowers and Beth is in charge of the eggs,” Coleman says.
Connor does much of the business side of things, contacting restaurants about buying their products and managing the money. Several area eateries, including Red Fish, The Cottage and The Juice Hive, regularly serve their organic produce.
In addition, they use their family’s acreage to dabble in whatever interests them. The farm is licensed to forage for wild mushrooms. They planted indigo to try to experiment on how to make a better dye. And they started growing sugar cane last year and turning it into syrup.
“We have garden ADD,” they chime in unison. But they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“At the end of the day I think ‘We fed people. And we didn’t just feed people, we fed people food that’s really good for them,” Connor says. “And that’s a satisfaction that a lot of people don’t get with a lot of jobs.”
It’s a noble profession and a family tradition that left their mother, who died in 2014, quite proud.
“She always bragged about us. She’d tell people ‘My daughters have an organic farm.’”