Sidi Limehouse
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There was a moment in the winter of 1960 when freshly minted Clemson ag-school graduate Sidi Limehouse looked into taking a job outside of South Carolina.

He had interviews at factories in the Upper Midwest, and they went well enough. But when snow shut down the airport in Chicago for three days, leaving him stranded, Limehouse reconsidered. “I said no, I’m going to go back home and stick with the cows.”

The Johns Island native pretty much stuck close to home after that. At age 75, he’s been farming here for so long it’s hard for him to say exactly how many years. More than 50.

Limehouse’s father owned the 3,000-acre Mullet Hall Plantation on Briar’s Creek and raised cattle and potatoes there. The family had to sell most of that land a few decades back, but Limehouse continues farming plots around the southern part of the island, operates the Rosebank Farms produce stand, and can be spotted cruising around in his pickup accompanied by multiple dogs.

After decades of ups and downs, Limehouse has few illusions about farming. But he also counts himself as “mostly optimistic” about the future of agriculture on Johns Island. — JIC

JIC: Are the people who say there’s no future for agriculture on Johns Island right?

SL: Yes and no. I think it has a future for a few people, because they can find a niche. The local movement is very strong. It’s going to remain strong. People are very concerned about whether their broccoli is grown on Johns Island or in California. We can grow the crops here.

But there’s not going to be any more big farms in Charleston County anymore, except for maybe a few on Edisto. Because the property is just not available.

JIC: There’s an argument that says the inevitable “best and highest use” for land on Johns Island isn’t agriculture, because you can go to places like Orangeburg and there’s all this land that nobody wants for development. Is all farmland alike?

SL: If you were growing cotton and potatoes, or corn, yeah, there’s not a whole lot of difference between the land here and the land in upper-Dorchester, upper-Berkeley County. But when you start growing truck crops, it’s a vast difference.

All of this land, 90 percent of it, is sandy loam, which means it drains well, it holds moisture. It’s just good for truck crops. And that’s why they’ve been grown here, historically, because it was the right place to grow stuff.

And then we have a little bit of advantage temperature-wise, too. They’ve already had a frost, I think, in Summerville. So it’s like we have an extended growing season. And if we get by the frost tonight (Nov. 12), tomorrow night, we could probably go another month.

JIC: What, if anything, can be done to help people who have the desire to farm, but lack the knowledge and experience? Is the way they’re doing things over at the Dirt Works incubator farm a good approach?

SL: I don’t think they quite grasp the training of it, because what they’re doing is kinda throwing these people to the wolves, more or less. If they would pay somebody like me to take these people in, I could train them. There’s like eight or 10 farmers on Johns Island that could train people that want to learn.

The main thing they need to understand is that they can actually make a living off of this, and it’s not sitting behind a desk looking at a computer. It’s a lot more exciting than that, and practical, and you get a lot more out of it.

The thing about being a farmer is it takes so long. If I take a guy that’s intelligent, and motivated, and wanted to do it, and he had the land to farm, and he had a place for the product to go, still he’s going to need $200,000 and equipment. And that’s a big problem. It just takes so much money to get into something like this.

I started into this with a little tractor and a couple little pieces of equipment, and then you move up, you move up, you move up.

And it takes time.

Sustaining06_Vegs_smJIC: Would some kind of equipment cooperative be a good way to help start-up farmers get established?

SL: I think those kinds of things hardly ever work, but I think a couple of guys could get together. I do that now. There’s some pieces of farm equipment that my neighbor has, and some pieces that I have, and we trade out.

If you’re going into farming, it’s just like anything else. Equate it to manufacturing. Say you’re going to make coats. You can set yourself up, but you’d better have an idea where you’re going to sell them before you start making coats.

It’s the same thing with planting a crop. You’ve got to have a home for it before you plant it, because I’ve seen … a guy go out and plant 20 acres of watermelons and all the sudden he’s got three or four truckloads of watermelons, and there’s nobody buying watermelons.

JIC: What could be done to help link farmers to markets then?

SL: I hate to say this, but you’ve got to have a plan. You gotta have a place to sell the stuff. You’ve got to decide what you want to grow, you’ve got to decide what the land you’ve got is best-suited to grow.

I mean, if you’ve got all high land, you can’t grow certain crops. You might be able to grow watermelon and cantelopes, but okra and string beans are out. You’ve just got to know all that stuff.

But the main thing is, you’ve just got to have an overall plan of how you’re going to plant the stuff, how you’re going to harvest it, and any one of those you don’t have covered will kill you.

Let’s say you have five acres of strawberry and they’re ready, and the market’s real good on strawberries, and you know you’re going to make some money, and you’ve got the boxes and everything, but all the sudden you start looking around and saying, ‘Man, I’d better call somebody and get some labor out here. Who is going to pick these damn berries?’

JIC: It seems there’s a disconnect between the people who have the knowledge to succeed at farming here, and the people who want to help people succeed at farming here, but lack the knowledge.

SL: It’s like anything else. You get people who are enthusiastic about certain things, but they don’t quite grasp all of it.

I mean, everybody is for the farmer. They want to see the farm be a success, and they will try to help. But then you’ll see the same people going right over here to Harris-Teeter, because – they would buy from me, but then that’s a little bit inconvenient, because they’re already in there getting rice and sugar. So I see that all the time.

But they’re all for you!

JIC: Do you consider yourself to be a trendy person?

SL: No. I consider to be myself to be a person who is generally ahead of the curve, and not because I try to be, but because that’s where I am.

It’s just like these pumpkins. Clemson doesn’t recommend that you plant pumpkins in the Lowcountry, because of disease. And I understand that.

But this little niche market we have here, I saw a need to have a decent edible pumpkin. Which, you know, you can go to most places and they’ve got pumpkin pie and it’s out of a damned can, and it ain’t pumpkin, it’s just squash with sugar in it.

And I started growing these things and Louise started cooking them, and I said ‘This is delicious!’ So I started promoting those a little bit through Limehouse Produce Company, and all the sudden, all the trendy restaurants in Charleston, they want a pumpkin to cook. So now I’m the only ballgame in town. Which is good.

JIC: The reason I ask is that one of the objections I’ve heard to promoting Johns Island produce by linking farmers directly to Charleston restaurants is that the whole foodie thing is just a trend, and five years from now it will be over and the farms will be back to nothing and the farmers would have been better off just to sell to developers and move on.

SL: I don’t see that. It is a trend, and it’s trendy, but it’s one of those trends that I really believe is going to stick around. Because people are talking about gasoline… and we can grow something on Johns Island, that doesn’t have 2,000 miles on it, which means it costs $1 more a pound.

And as far as Charleston goes, I remember when there were four restaurants. Now there are 400. It’s just a destination place. Maybe some of these fancier places will go by the wayside because of the economy… (but) I think that’s going to be around for a while, the local food.

JIC: Since the 1970s, most people have come to understand that a marsh has value to everyone, even if you don’t live directly on it, or fish out of it, or look out over it every morning at breakfast. So now we protect marshes and forests. Meanwhile up in Vermont, they’ve also taken steps to protect what they call ‘The Working Landscape.’ Is that taking it too far, to compare natural habitat and land that’s worked for agriculture?

SL: No, I don’t think so, and I would like to see that here, a little bit.

You take McLeod Plantation. They’re preserving that because of its historical nature. But it’s also got a little bit of farmland there. Matter of fact, one time I did farm that land, back in the early 1970s.

But just think if they’d preserved part of Bayview Farm, or part of Seaside Farm. Just 50, 60, 100 acres. That to me is not as important as maybe the marsh, but it’s more important than just woodlands or a park. Because it’s part of history. It’s what the land has been used for for 300 years, and all of the sudden people go build houses on it.

JIC: What value is it to someone who lives in the city that there are working farms on Johns Island?

SL: What value is it that somebody saved two acres of marshland?

You’ve got to look at it in that context. It may not be of any value to you that you could perceive, but it’s the overall value of everything, to have diversity.

I don’t particularly like that word. They overdid diversity.

But if you have different things, it’s there, it’s not polluting, it’s probably cleaning a little bit. And who knows what’s going to happen in the future? There’s always been tragedies, and there could be a tragedy where you’re starving, and there’s a little piece of farmland that somebody could plant rutabegas on. They went through that in World War II.

JIC: But it seems like there’s plenty of unused farmland all over the South that hasn’t been in production for years. What makes Johns Island farmland special?

SL: Well, what you’re talking about are field crops: corn, hay, sourgum, peanuts. And the government, because of politics, gets involved. They try to stabilize everything, so they pay people to take it out of production, put it back in production.

But truck crops, they haven’t figured out a way how to do that yet, so they don’t do it. You could see right away that all the (commodity crops) could be stored. Our crops are too volatile.

People often ask me, ‘What help do you get from the government? ‘And I say I do get help from the government, but it’s not monetary help. If I’ve got a question, I call Clemson, and I tell them I’ve got some disease I’ve never seen before, they’ll be right out. But as far as money, no.

JIC: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of farming here?

SL: Oh, I’m optimistic. To an extent. It will probably be cut down some, but I don’t think it’s going to go away. There are enough people who have land here who are interested.

Like I say, the land I farm, I don’t pay any taxes on. People just want to see it in farm land. Of course, if they get some crazy number offer for it, they’re probably going to sell it. That’s just the way it is.

But overall? I’m optimistic that somebody’s going to be here farming.