“People don’t want to know where I’ve been. They want to know where we’re going,” says AgSouth member Adair McKoy of Edisto, South Carolina, one of only two remaining tomato growers in Charleston County. When he and his wife, Boone, began their operation in 1976, the county supported 76 growers. “It’s all about diversification,” he says. “If you look behind at how things used to be and don’t change, you’re in danger of losing everything.”
The 30 acres of tomatoes their farm grows and packs today is only a part of the family-run farm. McKoy’s farm is a diverse operation that grows 200 acres of vegetables in addition to the tomatoes. Four years ago the family added broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, and garlic. The focus of the operation is not on the past, but on what comes next.
McKoy’s children Katie, Adair, Helen, and Betsy, together with their spouses, are an integral part of the business. The family works together to keep the farm in transition to find niche markets, which Betsy says are what small growers need to do because they can’t compete with larger farms. Betsy says she, her sisters, and brother grew up working on the farm, so there is little problem with transitioning to managing the farm. They learned well. She’s been driving tractors since she was six, and she and Katie say they can’t imagine doing anything else. Katie, Adair, and Betsy graduated from Clemson with degrees in agriculture and returned to the family farm to work, where they put their education to use working on ways to keep the family farm profitable. Right now the farm’s focus is on corn and rye, and the McKoys continue to look for more ways to diversify. A few years ago they began experimenting with peas as a cover crop for the tomatoes.
The peas, used to reduce disease in the tomatoes, began to have a demand of their own and are now sold to hunters as deer food. The ten acres of rye they grow, which started as another cover crop, is a big seller to restaurants in the Charleston area.
Katie says that the Edisto soil produces a sweeter crop with a unique flavor and is particularly fine, which the chefs really love. Katie runs the grist mill. During harvest, she typically runs some 3,000 pounds of corn through the mill, and bags and stockpiles it. The grist mill uses 30-inch stones to grind the corn to make grits, cornmeal, and polenta. The farm sells both white and yellow grits. Polenta is created by grinding the corn to a finer finish and mixing it with the stone ground grits.
You can bet that further changes are around the corner for the farm as the family works to keep it profitable. McKoy has no hesitation about turning the farm over his children when the time is right. He sees a full transition in just a few years. His advice to the next generation of farmers is simple: “Find something that grows, and grow it. And don’t be afraid of change.”
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