Working the Land

01 Nov 2012

Holiday gift giving is breaking new ground with Fall Harvest on the Lowcountry farms.

By JASON A. ZWIKER

Thornhill Farm

Maria Baldwin grew up in rural North Carolina, just east of Asheville, surrounded by a large extended family with a knack for subsistence farming. “My childhood experiences and memories are almost entirely related to food,” she says. “In the summer, we planted large family gardens. We would spend the early part of most days under the old oak tree out back, stringing and breaking beans, canning them, canning tomatoes, freezing creamed corn, pickling.”

“We planned holiday meals around what we preserved from the summer garden. That’s a very different idea than what we’re accustomed to now. But it’s actually closer to the original idea of Thanksgiving.”

The echo of early years never really goes away, which is why you won’t see Baldwin filling a shopping cart with processed foods down at the supermarket. Once you lift a perfectly ripened tomato from the vine in the garden you worked with your own hands, and you bite into it while it’s still warm from the sun, there’s no going back.

Today, Baldwin can be found digging in the dirt at Thornhill Farm in McClellanville. Right now is an exciting time– fall harvest – and for her that evokes wonderful memories of family and holiday tables filled with delicious food.

“When it comes to food, I celebrate that which is around us,” she says. When it comes time for exchanging gifts, what better way to celebrate love and friendship than with food? Why not share a local food gift basket that tells a story? “A bowl of pomegranates, local Meyer lemons, a jar of strawberry jam from the spring, and a mason jar of pickled okra from the summer makes a magnificent gift with a red or green checked fabric around the top, tied with a piece of string.”

“Or how about a loaf of spiced apple breakfast bread and local bakery fresh cinnamon rolls, a jar of dried apples or mixed dried fruit, and a bag of local pecans?  If they aren't shelled, then add a simple nut cracker.  If you want to make any food gift even more special, then give it in a beautiful bowl.  I love bowls.  They represent gathering something wonderful together for the table - especially holidays!”

Food is Baldwin’s passion and it shows. A certified master gardener with a degree in environmental biological sciences, she first came to Thornhill Farm many years ago to establish a therapeutic organic garden for developmentally disabled youth. The program has been a resounding success.

“Part of the therapy is being productive,” she says. “The students create gift items from the botanicals they grow in the garden. They make soap, candles, seed paper, and organic potting soil.”

The students learn to build upon success. They become more confident in their abilities and do so while enjoying clean, fresh air and sunshine. And they’re further rewarded by being able to share gifts that they created with their own hands, a big plus during the holiday season.

This wonderful program has also helped Thornhill Farm blossom: a 12 acre certified organic production area, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and Kitchen Table Consultation program are just some of the ways in which the farm contributes to the surrounding community and serves as a model of sustainable local agriculture.

Education – of the community regarding the benefits of local food and of the next generation of farmers – is a key to success for Baldwin. In fact, she discovered farm production manager (and Roots Ice Cream owner and creator) Matt Frye through the internship program. “He’s just a great young man, very dedicated to making the farm run efficiently and progressively.”

“We provide produce to key local restaurants from McClellanville to Charleston,” she says. That has led to many happy creative endeavors – including growing benne with farm-to-table superchef Sean Brock – with some of the finest minds in the local culinary scene. Ever present is the idea that nurturing relationships between growers and chefs is the way to go if a true regional cuisine is the goal. “The idea is to make life easier, not harder.”

She’s also proud to do the good work alongside others who specialize in local South Carolina fare such as Livingston's Bulls Bay Seafood, McCutchen Grass Fed Beef, Keegan-Filion Farms, Limehouse Produce, and Happy Cow Creamery.

 “We’re all kind of connected,” she says. “We rely on each other.” 843-849-0080, www.ourlocalfoods.com.

 Boone Hall Farms

Fall harvest is also stirring up excitement in Mount Pleasant, where Boone Hall Farms is preparing for the holidays.

"We have an abundance of eggplant, collard greens and kale,” says Boone Hall Plantation director of operations Jadie Rayfield. “Pole beans, fall squashes, okra, tomatoes, broccoli and cabbage. We have field peas, a southern favorite, and the first time we’ve planted them is this year. I really enjoy good ole-school cooked collards. These are the vegetables which thrive in cooler weather and thrive when grown in Boone Hall's rich black dirt."

So what food most clearly says holiday in the Lowcountry for Rayfield? “A no-brainer: collards, cooked grandma's way, with baked sweet potatoes, squash for a casserole, and homemade cornbread.”

Boone Hall Farms is the agricultural arm of Boone Hall Plantation, one of the most popular historical attractions in the Charleston area and a home for many of the premier special events held in the Lowcounty each year.

 “But it’s also one of the only still-working plantations,” says Rick Benthall, director of marketing. “It has been continually growing crops for over 320 years. There are not many farms around that have been farming that long.”

 “One of the most unique aspects to Boone Hall Farms is that it’s a farm in the middle of a city.  On one side you have residential subdivisions and, on the other side, shopping centers and businesses. You just don't find many farms like that so close to where people live and work. It's like they have their own special garden in the middle of it all.”

 Folks in the Charleston – Mt. Pleasant area know Boone Hall Farms as the go-to place for local produce, meats, and seafood. If you need some South Carolina fare on the spot, the Boone Hall Farms Market Cafe, located inside the store, has everything from farm fresh meals to soups, sandwiches (including their signature Crab & Pimento Cheese Melt), and wraps.

But it’s the passion of the people involved for local food that makes it work. “I have never witnessed people who are more dedicated and committed to growing great stuff,” Benthall says about Boone Hall owner Willie McRae, Rayfield, and foreman Erik Hernandez. They are tireless dedicated people.”

“Rayfield is also responsible for taking our Farm to Table Cooperative Program to the next level. He’s brought 37 of Charleston's finest restaurants into this program. Now they buy, cook, and serve our fresh produce straight from the fields. 

 Rayfield’s recommendation for a holiday food gift sounds especially sweet to us: “A bottle of red wine (cool season), stone ground grits, sweet potatoes, cheese straws, benne wafers, and some chocolate. Just tell Donna at Boone Hall Market to make you something and she will do things right.”

 And food is only one of the reasons why fall is one of our favorite times of the year to make our way to Boone Hall’s side of town. When the weather is cooler, there’s all the more reason to take our time, enjoying the family fun of picking out pumpkins in October, trimmings for the table in November, and stocking stuffers in December.

 From the produce department to Wine Alley and the Lowcountry Butcher Shoppe, the folks at Boone Hall Farms get that. They love exactly what we love about living la vida local. And we love them right back for that.

 Steve Stone, market manager at Boone Hall (as well as a top-notch chef), is already getting his taste buds ready for collards and fall tomatoes. He knows the best way to get folks swaying to the rhythm of the season.

 “My favorite foods in the fall would be our local oysters, shrimp or BBQ,” he says. “There’s nothing like an oyster roast, shrimp boil, or pig pickin’ to bring family and friends together for a good time.” 843-856-8154, www.boonehallfarms.com.

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