When James Helms and Sharon Ray make a trip to the grocery store, they come home with things like toothpaste and toilet paper – not food.
That’s because they raise most of what they eat.
Three years ago, the two started raising organically fed livestock, seeking out the heritage breeds that would have roamed the land of Helms’ ancestors in Lower Richland. “Our turkeys fly ... which your Butterball turkeys don’t do,” he said with a grin.
Helms and Ray are part of a new generation of farmers in Lower Richland, people who cultivate small tracts of land to grow produce and raise livestock mostly for their own use. What they don’t eat, they sell. Many among the county’s estimated 100 working farms are going organic.
In the past five years in Richland County, the USDA’s census of agriculture shows slightly more acreage devoted to farming, which includes timber and pasture land. The numbers appear to reflect success in the nascent effort to preserve traditional farmland and take advantage of the public’s growing interest in local food – despite increasing urbanization in the capital county.
On the six-acre Carolina Bay Farm in Hopkins, turkeys promenade at the end of the dirt driveway off Lower Richland Boulevard. Helms said the birds are naturally curious creatures who make a hollow “thumping” sound with their throats when trying to intimidate their rivals.
Three goats and three sheep, one pregnant, share a pasture. A half-dozen black pigs share another. When Helms drops a pumpkin on the ground to break it open, they come running. There are chickens, quail, guineas and ducks, too.
Ray makes cheese from goat milk and sells eggs, $4 a dozen. The couple market and sell their products by word of mouth and on Facebook. For the most part, customers come to them.
The feed they use is milled in Swansea. Their Kingstree butcher is “a humane processor,” Helms said.
Ray, 50 and an operating-room nurse, uses natural herbs and formulas to tend to the animals when they’re sick. The couple grow fruits and vegetables to eat and plant cover crops to nourish the soil.
“We’re not certified organic, but everything we do out here is organic,” said Helms, 48.
Helms said he’s driven by his love of the land and pride in producing quality food. He recently learned to make sorghum syrup the old-fashioned way, pressing and cooking the cane. “That will be something I do every year, just because it’s enjoyable.”
After three years, the farm is break-even. In another five, Helms hopes to have a DHEC-approved kitchen and fulltime roadside stand or storefront. As it is, both he and Ray have other jobs. A former police officer, he now works three days a week at Anson Mills, grinding grits.
The couple has gotten help with their endeavors: The Good Life Cafe on Main Street tracked them down to offer their fruit and vegetable trimmings for the livestock. The National Resources Conservation Service, a division of the USDA, provided a grant to build fences protecting a Carolina bay at the back of the property.
Helms hopes someday there will be a network of small farmers who can work together to sell their products more easily. “One small farm’s not going to feed everybody, but 10 or 15 small farms can feed the community.”
People he knows grew up in families with small farms and find the lifestyle appealing.
“They had to grow it, can it and get through the winter with it,” he said. “People are starting to realize that food today is not what it was, or should be.”
Exploring old-fashioned ways
Farther down the road in Eastover, Jason Carter has always been open to using new technology on the 400 acres he took over from his father after graduating from high school.
Carter has been recognized as an outstanding young farmer. He was one of the first around here to invest in a $25,000 GPS system that guides his tractor, hands-free, so it drops seeds and applies fertilizer precisely where they’re needed.
But for the past three years, Carter, 38, has been experimenting with some old-fashioned farming methods. He’s using chicken manure and cover crops on the land, allowing him to cut way back on chemical products. The techniques, promoted by the National Resources Conservation Service, are being studied by research scientists at the University of South Carolina.
In the winter, Carter grows a combination of grains and legumes and spreads chicken manure to reduce weeds, promote beneficial insects, retain moisture and recycle nutrients into the soil.
This growing season, the strategies allowed him to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers by 75 percent and cut pesticides in half. His yields remained the same and his production costs were lower, allowing him to weather fluctuations in commodity prices more easily.
“It’s better for the environment, it’s better for the farmer, better for the soil health,” said Carter, standing next to his 10-foot tall John Deere tractor, stored in his shop for the winter, greased and cleaned.
Carter’s farming methods are not organic, but they’re more natural – and that, too, is part of the change coming to agriculture, one of South Carolina’s largest industries.
The Carter homestead is situated halfway between the Congaree and the Wateree rivers, covered in the “rich land” of Lower Richland that has been farmed for generations.
But as the county firms up plans to install public utilities through the countryside and Columbia continues to grow south, many worry the landscape of row crops and old plantations will disappear.
“If you count all the row crop farmers in Richland County ... I don’t know if there’s still 10 of us left,” Carter said.
And the number of big farms isn’t likely to increase. Growing corn, wheat, soybeans and peanuts is expensive. The margins are small.
Still, Carter expects to stick with it and eventually hand down the family farm to the next generation – no matter how much pressure there may be in the future to sell.
“I don’t care if it’s (worth) $10,000 an acre,” Carter said, surveying the landscape, with a new storage silo and low-growing crops extending right up to neat roadside ditches.
“This farm will never be sold or developed, not in my lifetime,” he said. “I would like to preserve it. I don’t want to see houses out here.
“Just for the love of the land, the work we’ve done out here.”
Diversity holds promise
At 4,500 acres, Kirkman Finlay farms more land in Richland County than anybody.
He got into agriculture 14 years ago, following a trend of S.C. farmers converting cropland to timber production or getting out of the business altogether.
But Finlay grows row crops, many of which are harvested for consumption in South Carolina. Most of his corn, used in chicken feed, is used within 50 miles of Columbia, he said. Peanuts are distributed here as well. Wheat may go into the Adluh Flour milled in downtown Columbia, while soybeans are exported to Asia.
Finlay, 44, who like most large-scale farmers uses chemical fertilizers and pesticides to boost production economically, said he sees promise in the diversity of agriculture in Lower Richland.
There will always be large producers, he said. But he expects to see more small farms growing lucrative organic products.
He expects more fields used for grazing cattle because of a growing demand for beef in China. And there’s a place in Richland County for more “agri-tainment,” he said, where visitors to farms might explore a corn maze or pick fresh berries to take home.
Charles Davis, a Clemson extension agent, and Martin Eubanks, an assistant commissioner at the S.C. Department of Agriculture, see potential as well.
The two are part of a growing corps of advocates for preserving farmland in both government and the private sector. Other agencies include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which supports conservation initiatives; the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, encouraging small farms; and the American Farmland Trust, which helps farmers preserve their land for agriculture through easements.
Observers say efforts have not been well-funded or coordinated.
But a recently formed Midlands Local Food Collaborative, made up of key agricultural agencies, is looking to change that, said Dave Lamie with Clemson’s Sandhills Research Station.
“We’ve got to get to critical mass in these areas, so we are better coordinated and we’re better able to serve what’s a growing segment of the ag industry” – smaller farms with an interest in distributing their products locally.
“People are interested in the ‘farm to fork’ concept,” said Lamie, who established a program for new and beginning farmers that maintains a waiting list.
Concern over farmland preservation builds
In addition to encouraging new, small-scale farmers, one method that’s gaining traction in the preservation of farmland is the agricultural easement, where a farmer places permanent restrictions on the use of his property to guarantee its preservation.
“A lot of people are looking at their farm and want to make sure when their kids gain control – and they’re dead and gone – that they (who inherit the land) can’t chop it up and build houses on it. So they put it in an ag trust,” said Davis, whose work with the Clemson Extension Service keeps him in touch with farmers in Richland and Calhoun counties.
Davis said concern over farmland preservation has been building over the past decade, in part because the people who make a living by farming are getting up in age. The average farmer in S.C. is about 58 years old.
Davis and Eubanks, with the S.C. Department of Agriculture, said young people and retirees exploring a second career in the soil are beginning to get into farming in Lower Richland and across the state.
Most are working 10- to 20-acre tracts, Davis said, allowing them to provide for their own families. And they can sell what they don’t use because of consumer demand for locally grown products.
Eubanks sees many finding a “niche of opportunity” in organically grown fruits and vegetables. And Davis said some are looking to start goat or beef operations.
“You have a generation that is retiring, a generation that has more financial capability than their parents did, that are looking to move back into a connection to the land, back to the family farm,” Davis said.
“The generation that’s retiring now is the flower children. Their psychological bent is maybe a little different from other folks. Some of them have a 401(k) and a retirement plan from where they worked the last 35 years, and they want to feel connected back to the land.
“I’m not saying all these folks are old hippies. There are a lot of young folks in their 20s who have been soured by the executive, 40-hour work week who want to raise their kids in less of a hustle-and-bustle environment.”
In Lower Richland, the return of the small, family farm is a struggling movement, Davis said. It’s not clear whether it’s viable.
But it’s gotten the attention of the agricultural community, which wants to help anyone willing to go that route, he said.
“We’re very intent on preserving farmland. It has a huge value to us in terms of economics and aesthetics.”