by Julie Gyselinck
Agriculture on Edisto: A profile of the island’s abundance and a way of life
Edisto is and has been largely an agricultural island since the arrival of the first Native Americans thousands of years ago. Harvesting shellfish and seafood from the abundant rivers and streams, the only remaining traces of their culture are the shell mounds visible in the State Park, and a shell ring located off Botany Island in the North Edisto River. The European settlement of the island brought rice, the fabled Sea Island Cotton, and farming as we currently know it. The farming and fishing families on Edisto today still raise cattle, grow a wide variety of produce, and harvest shellfish, each following in their ancestors’ footsteps. Explore Edisto spent time with three of the families who still work the land and waterways to experience how it’s done today. These three families are just a small portion of the population of working families and farms on Edisto.
Jamie King, Herds and Heifers
Upon hearing the rumbling of his pickup slowly driving up the dirt road, twenty shaggy heads perk up from their grazing. The mixed herd of cows, mostly black and white but a few with interesting colors and varying shapes, hustle into motion. Darting for a front position, the females bump and knock into each other, tongues lolling out with each excited bellow. They show as much eagerness for Jamie King getting out of his truck as a family dog greeting its owner.
Jamie King, you could say, has had his hands in the farming and ranching business since he was born. His family’s King’s Farm Market on Highway 174 is wildly popular with the tourists and the locals for fresh produce, flowers, boiled peanuts and local beef. Dividing his time between the market and farm, Jamie is keeping the art of cattle ranching, that he learned from his grandfather and father, alive and well. Jamie currently cares for 54 head of cattle, including the baby Brahma bull, Radar, who is just short of the cutest thing on Edisto.
Ranching isn’t the romantic notion of Hollywood movies; it is exhausting work that goes far beyond just keeping a herd of cows alive on 200 acres. For Jamie and his wife, Tapley, who teaches Special Education at the local high school, raising cattle is a family affair and everyone pitches in. Jamie adamantly insists he couldn’t get it all done without his the help of his wife and his father, Rhett King. Each year they grow and harvest hay to feed the cattle in the winter time; about 300 bales were put up last year. This year they had just cut the hay when massive rains came, ruining the whole harvest. While the business has its difficulties and dangers, Jamie can’t imagine doing anything else. The cows mature to around 900 pounds, and baby Radar will be close to 2000 pounds when he grows up.
Grass-fed beef like Jamie’s is highly sought at market as the public becomes more attuned to the quality of their diet and food selections. The beef sold at King’s Farm Market is 100 percent local from the start; Jamie even uses a local butcher based in Ravenel to cut and package the meat.
As Jamie checks on his herd, he is accompanied by his devoted border collie, Sophie. She looks as lovingly at Jamie as the herd does. The kindness and care given to the animals is apparent when witnessing Jamie with them. It seems to be a trait passed down. Jamie points to one particularly loud cow that is insistent on getting all of the attention. She doesn’t have a tag on her ear, as Rhett King won’t allow it. Her name is Bell, and her outgoing personality and deafening set of pipes has made her a family favorite. Jamie laughs at her while she licks the bucket in his hands clean. As the sun sets at the farm, Sophie and her owner climb back into the truck. The cows watch as they pull away. Generations of farming and ranching by the King family has generated more than just great produce and meat. This family clearly knows how to raise everything right.
Agriculture Today & the Farming of Edisto
Few dirt roads are as iconic and recognizable as the beautifully oak tree lined Edingsville Beach Rd. Situated about a quarter of a mile down you will find the George & Pinks Farm Market, owned and operated by the Brown family. The Browns farm has been cultivated for over 50 years. Today most of the farming is done by George’s son Robert Brown. With the help of George and the rest of the family together they cultivate over twenty-five acres all year long.
The location of George & Pink’s Farmers Market has been a location to buy, sell or trade produce and wares longer than anyone in the Brown family can remember. Long before the dirt floor store was built the location was dominated by a giant tree locals called the Sugar Stone Tree, which had metal bins and baskets attached to it and scattered around. Here locals would bring their produce to sell or trade for something they didn’t grow.
Today Robert practices a skilled taught to him by his father George, whose family before him farmed and so on. A practice and skills passed down in the same family for hundreds of years, Robert loves farming despite it’s difficult times. He acknowledges it has changed a lot since he first started helping his father as a boy. Now there are book-keeping, licenses for herbicides and pest control as well as finding new ways to protect and grow crops without chemicals. He still honors the age old tradition of crop rotation for healthy soil management, and grows a large variety throughout the year. Collard Greens and strawberries are grown through the fall and winter; and tomatoes, watermelons, squash, corn, and beans in the spring and summer time.
In the past Robert sold to various markets and vendors, but today he farms only to supply the market and family and friends with produce. Robert professes his love of the art of farming, watching the crops grow and knowing the hard work that he and his father’s hands put into it produced something wonderful.
Fontaine’s Oysters and Edisto Harvest
On an oyster bank parked in a side creek, not too far from Edisto Beach, Ashley Fontaine and longtime friend Jimmy Skinner are picking through oysters, filling their multicolored baskets with clusters they will take back and sell at Edisto Seafood. Oyster harvesting is hard work. Harvesters are bent over in slippery terrain covered in sharp oyster clusters; one bad fall would result in a multitude of deep cuts full of pluff mud.
Dressed in protective chaps, boots and gloves, Ashley and Jimmy sort through the banks looking for clusters that fit the Department of Natural Resource’s guidelines for oyster harvesting: one oyster on each cluster harvested must be at least three inches long. Ashley and Jimmy are required by the DNR to reseed oysters based on the size of their culture area. They go a step beyond the government requirements and reseed throughout the whole oyster season. Their dedication to protect, preserve and restore the natural resources around them is something instilled in them since youth. Ashley and his brother Barry Fontaine both come from a long line of fishermen on Edisto. They both started harvesting with their father at age 12; Jimmy started tagging along when he was 14. Ashley has turned oyster harvesting into a thriving part of the family business that helps them get through the winter months. Ashley and Jimmy begin gathering oysters when the season opens in the late fall to supply Edisto with fresh local oysters. They take their duty to preserve Edisto’s fish and shellfish habitat very seriously. Their entire livelihoods come from these waters. If they don’t replenish and protect it, who will?
With their baskets full of bivalves, they load into their flat-bottom boat and head back to the fish house. There they will spend hours pressure cleaning the oysters before bagging them up and tagging them for sale. Edisto Seafood is well known for offering some of the best oysters to their customers. All of the oysters they sell are harvested by Ashley and Jimmy, right here on Edisto. So come in and buy a bushel or just a few pounds and try a little of their Edisto harvest.