Thomas01_sm The Legare family began planting on Johns Island in 1725, and its ancestors began working the same 300-acres of farmland the current generation calls home way back in the 1830s.

But times change, and to survive, even the most traditional of families often have to change with them.

For siblings Thomas Legare Jr., Helen Helen Legare Floyd and Linda Legare-Berry, one of the biggest changes came in the wake of the Post-9/11 economic slump. Legare Farms had switched its emphasis from commodity crops to residential sod and plant production in the 1980s, but as new-home construction stalled in 2001-02, the Legares found themselves in a precarious spot.

“Nine-11 was a big wake-up call for us,” said Thomas Legare Jr. “We realized we had to diversify more than just the sod and the nursery.”

Their search for the right mix of income opportunities eventually led the family to a surprising conclusion: agricultural tourism – corn mazes, pumpkin patches, mud runs, playgrounds and other special events. More than a decade on, their family business is diverse, productive, and forward-looking, a mixture of the traditional and the innovative.

But if you want to know what one thing carried them through the low points, Thomas Legare says it’s the agritourism.

“What I tell people if they do say something is, ‘Look, we do agritourism – and it’s different from what my daddy did, and my granddaddy did and my great-granddaddy did – or we sell out to a developer who wants to annex into the city of Charleston and build 3,000 houses on the property,” Thomas Legare said. “And then the road gets paved and you’ve got 3,000 houses either across the creek from you or next-door to you. Which do you want?” — JIC

JIC: What’s the history of this farm?

TL: They grew sea island cotton here, which was the world’s finest cotton. My grandfather who was born in 1893, he grew it right up until World War I ended, and they had a severe price drop because the army stopped buying cotton to buy uniforms, and about the same time the boll weevil came in.

He grew potatoes up until WWII, and then he lost his labor source. That’s when he really got big into cattle, hogs and grain. We grew grain and hogs up until the late 1970s, and then in the early 1980s we started growing sod.

The sod business is very cyclical. The first year after Hugo, things were really slow, (but) nine, 12 months after Hugo, after people started getting their houses rebuilt, they started putting down sod. The Navy Yard closed in 1993, and that killed the sod industry in Charleston for a while. Right after 9/11, things were slow, and then people started staying home, spending time in the yard, so in 2003, things were pretty good. And then the housing bubble in Charleston took off, and when it burst, it really hurt the sod and nursery business. We saw some of the biggest nurseries in the state go bankrupt, and it’s affected us like everybody else.

JIC: Where would you have been during the Great Recession if you hadn’t taken up agritourism?

TL: We would have probably been in the unemployment line. But we’ve always tried to be diversified and have a lot of eggs in different baskets. Sometimes we have to have a jolt back to reality and change the way we did something.

JIC: After doing your research, how did you get started?

TL: First thing we did was field trips, and then we did a Rent-a-Chick program, where you rent two baby chicks for two weeks for $25. And then we did a sweet corn festival, and we tried that for two, three, four years. Five years I guess it was. We never did get the numbers where we wanted them, so we quit that.

And then in ’03 we started doing the pumpkin patch and maze, and we’ve been doing that 11 years now, and had the busiest year this year we’ve ever had. Last Saturday we had 2,000 and on Sunday we had 1,000, so we had 3,000 people here on the farm on the last weekend in October.

JIC: There’s always the risk that you put on a big party and then nobody shows up. How do you get the word out?

TL: Believe it or not, one of the big things now is social media. When we first started we’d spend money on radio advertising at the end of the year. One year we spent $3,000 on radio advertising. Next year we did nothing, and that $3,000 went in our pockets. We made about the same amount of money, grossed about the same amount, and didn’t have to spend for radio advertising.

Now that social media, Facebook is out there, we use Facebook big-time to invite people.

JIC: How much do you charge?

TL: We charge a dollar for everybody to get in the gate. The maze is $3 for kids, $6 for adults, and then the hay rides are $3 a person. We have a duck race. We have an air cannon that shoots out corn, which is new this year. We used to do a balloon toss, but the balloon slingshots got so expensive, we had to quit. We do a gem mine. We have pony rides.

We’ve just built a little bit over the years, and improvised. People say ‘You don’t look like a farm theme park like some places I’ve been to.’ But we add stuff as we can afford to.

JIC: Do you think the agritourism option is for everyone?


Legare Farms is a true family business. Sisters Helen and Linda are very active in running the farm along with Thomas.

TL: No. I know farmers, some of them I consider very good friends of mine, but they would not be a very good agritourism farmer. My daddy would have liked what we’re doing, but he was not very outgoing. He didn’t talk to people a lot. He would have just sat back and enjoyed himself.

My mama, on the other hand, she would have been perfect to do agritourism. She’d have been at the front gate talking to everybody.

JIC: What else do y’all do?

TL: We do a reenactment. We do that because my sister, Linda, is a reenactor. All the reenanctors are a little bit crazy. I’ve gotten to be good friends with a lot of them, and I’ll tell them right to their faces they’re a little bit crazy.

The Battle of Charleston. It’s a big thing for us in the spring. We do it in March. Last year (2013) it got rained out, and the rain insurance paid off.

And we do mud runs. We do the Mega Mud Run Challenge. A guy rents our property, a local guy, he does one in the spring, one in the fall. And we had Dirty Girl, which is a national company that came in there and they do a women-only mud run. And then we’re going to be doing a foam fest, which is a foam run in May.

We’ll be doing some music concerts. And we do a lot of parties. We do a lot of parties in the Hispanic Community, because we work with a lot of Hispanics, and they do a lot of christenings, birthday parties, quinceañeras, the 15th birthday party. That’s huge business in the Charleston area.

And then we’re starting to do skeet shoots, which we want to do for corporate groups, businesses and birthday parties. And we do farm-themed birthday parties here for kids to adults.

JIC: How have you had to change?

TL: We’ve had to become web-savvy. I’m not the Web guy. Helen does that, and we have a friend who started doing that for us, because it takes a lot of time to do the web. It takes a lot of time to do Facebook.

Thing about Facebook is you need to monitor it closely, because anybody can make smart-ass comments and a lot of times you’ve got to go in there and take them off if somebody’s bad-mouthing you, or reply to the people.

We say to people, when we’re going out on the hayride, ‘If you see something that you like, tell everybody. If you see something you don’t like, let one of us know and give us the opportunity to fix something before you go posting it on Facebook.’

With the agritourism business, you never know when somebody’s going to pick up the phone and call you up. We get people calling us all the time wanting to do stuff, and a lot of stuff we turn down. But you never know when somebody’s going to pick up the phone and say ‘I was out there for the pumpkin patch and I want to do a music festival.’ or ‘I ran the mud run and I’ve got an idea for some other kind of run.’

JIC: Is there room for growth?

TL: Our biggest competition (with the corn maze) is Boone Hall, and then there’s one up in Monck’s Corner. I think we’ve pretty well got the area segmented up. If someone were to put another corn maze in Mount Pleasant or Summerville, I think they’d hurt the ones up there. If someone did another pumpkin patch over this way, Johns Island or Wadmalaw, I think it would hurt both of our businesses.

JIC: That said, would you encourage other Johns Island farmers to consider agritourism as an option?


A wide range of events bring many friends, family and visitors together at the farm.

TL: I fully encourage people to start doing some kind of agritourism event. I think (there’s a lot of opportunities around) weddings and parties. Charleston is the No. 1 destination in the world for weddings right now.

There’s a lot of venues on this island, and we need to all work together. If somebody wants a farm-themed wedding and they go to one of the other places and they’re not right, they can send them our way, or we can send them their way. It’s a lot of opportunities out there.

JIC: What kinds of permits do you need?

TL: Charleston County’s Comprehensive Plan was enacted in 2000, and it limits what you can do on your property. You can do a farm-related event, like a pumpkin patch, or that type of thing. When you start getting into some of the other events, it’s kind of a gray area, as the planning director told me. Charleston County didn’t really know – and they have an ag-issues advisory committee that I serve on – how to handle it.

To do an event that’s non-agricultural-related, you’ve got to have a permit from the county. You’ve got to get a letter from the sheriff’s department, EMS, fire department. You’ve got to have letters from the Port-a-Potties, your garbage people, everything. It’s a nightmare. They charge $50 to do it, and then I charge $100 to somebody for the permit when we do an event out here because it takes me so much time to get it.

Well, I went to the county and said ‘We need a permanent permit.’ So they came up with this program where people like us and the Charleston Tea Plantation and anybody else that’s doing some events can apply one time, pay $250, get a permit, and then all you need to do is notify.

The county has issued one to one other person here on Johns Island, and they put a lot of conditions on it, and we’re trying to work with them. We went to the zoning board of appeals and we’re going to have to work a lot of the kinks out. And that’s going to be one of the biggest things I think to make it easier for people on John’s Island to do events.

Right now the way the law reads, if I have (an event) with more than 50 people at it, I’ve got to go get a permit. If I have a birthday party with more than 50 people, I gotta go get a permit. And one of the stipulations they wanted to put on us was they didn’t want us to have (a non-agricultural-related event) permit with more than 500 people. I’m like, ‘I have an event like the pumpkin patch, where I’ve got 2,000 people on a Saturday that I don’t have to get a permit for.’ That’s ridiculous.

JIC: Should the state be doing something different?

TL: The state legislature needs to put more money into funding some position with Clemson and the Department of Agriculture and get an agritourism director… to promote agritourism in South Carolina.

The local Convention and Visitors Bureau can do a lot more. It’s some gawd-awful, ridiculous amount of people that come to Charleston every year, and not everybody going to Kiawah and Seabrook wants to play golf and tennis. Not everybody wants to see every historic house on downtown Charleston. They want to do something different.

JIC: Is there a public value in keeping local farms in production?

TL: So we’re missing the boat. If we just build houses all over Johns Island and turn it into Mount Pleasant, you know, what have we accomplished?

James Island has some great historic sites on it, (and) it’s got one farm left on it. But we’ve destroyed James Island. We’ve destroyed Mount Pleasant. We’ve destroyed West Ashley.

I mean, if they build houses all around Middleton and Magnolia, nobody’s going to want to go to them anymore. And that’s what we’ve got to realize. We just can’t become Suburban USA and build a Wal-Mart and a Home Depot on the island. Because then people won’t want to come here anymore.