Carol and Ben Williams have been spreading the green gospel from their Georgetown County farm, one item at a time.
Alvilda Meyers worked to get the organic certification for her blueberry farm.
Together, the trio reflects the movement toward healthy eating, with an emphasis on sustainable and organic agriculture.
The Williamses were among the first Georgetown County farmers to transition from conventional agriculture to sustainable farming, but it took them about 30 years from when Carol first broached the idea.
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“We were in Houston, and I turned to Ben and said, ‘You know, I would really, really like to open an organic food store in Georgetown.’ And we both laughed,” Carol Williams recalled. “He said that it would be 25 years before the area could support that.”
Ben Williams wasn’t far off. It wasn’t until roughly 2010 that organic farming gained a toehold in the area, mostly because it was Ben and Carol’s toes.
Carol Williams’ idea may have been put on hold, but the couple got a second nudge toward sustainable farming 20 years later when the duo and their daughter, Ashley, were spending a couple of days at an Atlanta-area boutique hotel while Ashley interviewed for veterinary school. The hotel featured a farm-to-table restaurant, and Carol wanted to visit the farm, to pick up ideas for her own efforts.
We were in Houston, and I turned to Ben and said, ‘You know, I would really, really like to open an organic food store in Georgetown.’ And we both laughed. He said that it would be 25 years before the area could support that.
“So I asked the staff where it was, how to find it. They answered, ‘Colorado’.”
That was not what Carol Williams expected to hear.
“Fruits and vegetables lose about 80 percent of their nutrients within three days of being picked,” she said.
She didn’t want that to happen to her crops, so when circumstances in 2009 gave Ben the opportunity to farm full time – he had always had at least one other job in addition to the farm – Carol gave her OK with one caveat – that they try sustainable farming.
Miller went organic almost from the day she bought Winyah Blueberry Farm. It took her about six months to gain the designation from Clemson Extension, which certifies agriculture concerns as organic providing they meet federal guidelines, complete the paperwork, host scheduled visits and pay the fees. Organic growers must renew their certification annually.
The Williams family opted to use organic products but to eschew the paperwork and time it would have taken to gain the certification. Whether certified organic or called sustainable, however, growers such as the Williamses and Miller ensure that their food offerings are chemical free.
“I can taste the difference,” Miller said, sitting in her farm office just before the end of South Carolina’s blueberry season in late July. “You don’t get a chemical aftertaste.”
Carol Williams says she can taste and see the difference. “If someone has a squash as big as your leg, it’s unlikely it was nature alone that made it,” she says. “We grow using only what nature intended.”
She’ll question growers too, listening hard to their answers. “You can tell whether they grow their own, how they grow it,” she said.
She’s the outgoing partner; Ben is quieter. But both are equally committed to sustainable farming and spreading the gospel of green through organizations and farmers markets.
Although they had been farming for years, the sustainable efforts was an education, and the couple relied some on trial and error in the early going.
One of their earliest crops were pumpkins.
“We planted them and they were doing well,” Carol said. “Then when we were doing some research online, we discovered that pumpkins were a difficult crop to grow in South Carolina.”
Along with the pumpkins came animals to pet and hayrides. But that turned out to be labor intensive and other organizations – some with a whole lot more people to help – picked up on the idea and ran with it.
Another innovative idea was tours for school groups.
“We wanted to impress on kids where their food came from,” Carol said. “What really floats my boat is growing healthy organic foods, good food, different food, food that can be grown fresh into the hands of the public in Georgetown and the surrounding area.”
Carol does that every week, selling her greens, plus milk, eggs and cheese from the farm at the Waccamaw Cooperative farmers marker along the South Strand. She can be found in Surfside Beach and Georgetown or Conway, while Ben, whom Carol calls “the Farmer” holds court in The Market Common and Georgetown.
This year, Carol has introduced limited delivery service and as Meyers has done since she bought Winyah Farm, working to place Millgrove Farms’ greens in various restaurants. Still on the agenda is finding a place to sell her products after the markets close in October.
“We’ve got an extended growing season in South Carolina, so we want to take advantage of that,” Carol said.
The slower fall does has one advantage: It lets the couple find the seeds that will turn into next year’s offerings. While the locals are staring to ask for organic products, it’s still an uphill battle for the local producers.
For instance, the closest place to find organic manure that the Williamses needed for their field was in Delaware.
For now, the effort is paying off. After all, it’s a labor of love.