Life on the Farm with John Warren

Farmer John Warren

With Thanksgiving just a few gobbles away  and the Farm Bill being bandied about Congress, we thought it would be of interest to our readers to interview a real live farmer. Amazingly (and thankfully), farming is once again a profession people are interested in. With the slow food and farm-to-table movements exploding, more and more people are interested in where exactly their food comes from.

John Warren is originally from Columbia, South Carolina. He moved to New York on an arts scholarship and went to Pratt to study sculpture and architectural restoration. He would leave the city for weekends away and started visiting a friend with a farm. “After ten years, I didn’t feel like I was in rhythm with the city anymore,” Warren told us. “I was more concerned and interested in where my food was coming from so I moved to Rhode Island and did a farming apprenticeship at Blazing Star Farm on Block Island.”

After his farming experience there he knew he wasn’t going back to the city so he ended up moving to Charleston, South Carolina. John headed down there a lot while growing up and the memories of the charming city drew him back.

The first thing he did was to apply for a spot in a farm incubator program with Lowcountry Local First (a non-profit that advocates the benefits of a local living economy by supporting local businesses and farmers). But they still needed another year before the project would be ready to move ahead. That free time  provided an opportunity to work with Joseph Fields farm on John’s Island to get a feel for the farming life. He also took some great classes through Lowcountry Local on farm business and general agriculture. He attended a lot of lectures and group meetings to learn more about the community. “I even worked at a Lemonade stand at the Charleston Farmers’ Market to get to know the farmers, and watched them load in, set up and sell,” Warren explained.

After a year John finally found his plot of land at Dirt Works, the incubator farm. He started farming with his close friend Andrew (although he had just moved to Rhode Island for a lady!) and they came up with the name, logo and business plan. They started growing loads of vegetables but they had no place to sell them, so they smartly started their own CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) with 16 people and did quite well. They named their little farm Spade and Clover Gardens since they don’t work with animals just yet. Since then the land has been thriving, John has become quite the farmer about town, selling to some of Charleston’s best restaurants right out of the back of his truck. His booth overflowing with plump vegetables and colorful wild flowers is one of the most popular at the downtown farmers’ market and he has begun growing plants that are not thought of as typical to the Low Country such as tumeric, ginger and galangal.

We sat down with John and asked him to tell us some of the most important things he has learned about being a farmer:

– People get the idea that farmers are laid back. This is a misbelief. I have worked with some really neurotic farmers (not Joseph!). You get superstitious and neurotic – it’s what happens when your efforts are so dependent on something you can’t control, like the weather.

-There is a big difference between being a hobby farmer and relying on it as your money maker. I always have to remember to make farming something I love – it is hard to balance sometimes. You have to stop and ask, ‘Am I having fun?’. I could always have some other crap cubicle  job and so I always have to remember to be thankful.

-Growing ginger takes a long time! It is not very labor intensive but it takes about nine months from original stock to fully formed ginger.  I was totally curious about how it grows since I use it a lot in my cooking and tea. It seems like something you cannot grow in most places but here in Charleston we have a great climate for it so it seemed like it was appropriate. Meg Moore at Dirt Hugger Farm told me it could grow here so I gave it a shot and it has been a great seller for me.

-I’ve learned some tricks to work through discomfort. Sometimes if I have gnats flying into my eyes and ears while I work, I can’t just keep swatting. So I let it go, put my headphones in and focus on the music. I have to accept that I am not separate from the environment so I just have to let it in!

-It all starts with the soil itself. If you don’t have the nutrients to have healthy soil it’s not going to work. I have respect for all seeds, GMO, heirloom and hybrids. It’s amazing we can grow anything at all really! Some of the soil was extremely good to begin with. They call it Kiawah Gold. Ginger is a heavy feeder so it needs lots of nutrients. For the rest of the plot I have used a lot of fish and mushroom compost.

-You can fertilize with fish guts. Bo Collins runs Sol Haven Farm and goes out twice a week to seafood places around town and brings back garbage cans full of fish guts.  Then there is an arboring service that dumps all of its tree mulch at the farm. Bo mixes the two and lets it sit. The fish decomposes and doesn’t smell bad at all. It works! There is a lot of good stuff released when the fish decompose.

-The plants actually eat animals. We add bone meal and blood meal to the soil and the plants feed off of it and thrive.