Garden Club Uprising

Farming Consultant Jim Smith has a lot of ground to hoe here in Upstate South Carolina. Tonight, the tall, slender 60-something farming consultant, sat in front of about 15 upper middle class women and tried to explain to them the importance of making sustainable agriculture part of their conversations, if not their gardening habit. Smith has just opened the Upstate School of Sustainable Agriculture here in Greenville County, and when he asked these nice Southern women if they knew what slow food was, only a few raised their hand.

According to Smith, Upstate SC lags in growing local organic produce and livestock. He cited the Asheville, NC area as an example of how behind Greenville is. Smith stated that you don’t have to walk too far in Asheville to find one of the 45 farmer’s markets there to buy local food. Greenville has a paltry two farmers markets, but Smith told the Garden Club that they could change that. His winding conversational talk basically ended up in a pitch for the women of this chapter to step up to the sustainable lifestyle. How? His first two suggestions were to help create CSA’s in their area, or start to grow their own home gardens. His main plea was to take classes at the USSA and get training to help consult with gardeners who wish to go organic.

During his earnest yet wry talk, Smith mentioned that a Methodist Minister in Dacusville, SC had finally ended her sabbatical as a mother. She has chosen to minister to the people via organic farming and is trying to receive funds to begin her programs. One of the attendees brought up another church, St. James Episcopal, that had a veggie garden “busting out the seams” with food to feed the hungry. Smith seemed to understand that mixing religion with going local/organic carried much weight in this mostly Republican part of the USA, and that night’s opening devotional about Adam as the first gardener ever may have rung deep for some of the meeting attendees.

Slow food has crept up on South Carolina. A Charlstonian from the Low Country recently mentioned that more and more restaurants are demanding high quality, local organic food. Tonight, Smith spoke about a five-course meal that just happened on a farm in Greenville. For about $150, the attendees ate local food and drank local wine. “That price sounds about right for a slow food meal,” I replied. Bringing local produce to the people doesn’t necessarily have to be so expensive, but that model persists as the foodies who can afford the high price continue to drive the local food movement.

But not all is lost with high food prices. Mr. Hickey, down on Roe Ford Rd. just outside of Travelers Rest, uses the honor system to sell his harvests. One member of the Garden Club said she recently bought 50 red peppers from Hickey’s unattended stand. Another person said that she got great green beans from there. Their price for all of this? $0.50 a pound. The buyer uses the provided scale and pays into a wooden collection bin (bolted down since the one before that was stolen). Smith was wise to point out that Mr. Hickey has several things going against his operation: age (in his 50s, Mr. Hickey is the average age of an American farmer) and land ownership (Mr. Hickey does not own the land). Smith said that organic farmers are younger, but a whole new wave of interested people, with solid ownership of the land they farm, are needed. One woman mentioned that for every person who moves to Greenville county, 7 acres of land is razed for construction and development. This note suggests that owning good farming land has become difficult as land owners sell to developers for high rates of return.

Some discussion was also had over land develompment and local gardening. One member wisely asked if there was a way to make a developer leave some open land so that the people moving into their subdivision could create a community garden. Smith thought that that was a great idea and wondered if someone could create legislation to force developers to do that. A local organization, Upstate Forever, came up. Their mission is to create more open spaces within the mad rush for development. Maybe they could solve that much needed problem.

All did not seem lost for farming consultant Jim Smith and the USSA in Greenville. Several members of this upscale Garden Club had already taken a class. Others seemed insterested in the upcoming “Greenhouse Use and Management” class. Local organic grower Greenbrier Farms is building a sustainable greenhouse and Smith wants to share it. He also has great manure worms that he’ll be introducing to the greenhouse. For Smith, composting is a dead end. Vermaculture has a future in developing good soil and crops. Rain catchment and more farmers markets seemed to perk up the members. With drought going on three years in this region, gardeners of all srtipes are concerned about water usage.

Walking to his car, Smith did admit that growing food crops is much harder than flowers. He realizes that folks like this Garden Club need to be part of the solution but they might not want to tend the fields in the middle of the brutal South Carolina summers. He was gladdened to see the women’s interest in what he was talking about. Maybe one of them will take the training to be a consultant as well, and that one person will go on to help several dozen gardeners get their home food plots going. Like he said at the beginning of his talk, times are tough but local, organic food is in high demand. Not only is it good business, it is needed badly to help heal the earth and lessen our impact on it.

While eating cake and sipping coffee, the nods of agreement indicate a win win for the women of this local Garden Club chapter. The question remains: will some of them grab their hoe and start to tend their own veggie plots? Can thier religious leaders help kick start this much needed transition? With the ground freshly dug here in Greenville, a farmer like Smith only has to plant a tasty seed to see what happens.