When you depend on the same piece of land for sustenance most of your life, you tend to grow deeper roots than most. Beth Lee, Mary Connor and Priscilla Coleman were turning clods of earth at Three Sisters Organic Farm long before they called it that, back when they were more concerned with making mud pies than they were with sustainable agriculture.
"When we were growing up, we learned that you can almost survive on this property," said Beth of the 190 acres that comprise Calhoun Plantation, which has been in the family since 1821 when it was purchased by the sisters' great-great-grandfather, James Porcher. "With the river and the garden, the fruit trees and the dairy, we had almost everything we needed."
Unlike most "plantations" in Beaufort County, Calhoun Plantation still retains something of the word's original meaning in the sense that it provides a place for extended family members to live and grow crops. Beth, Mary, their brothers Chuck and Howard and their mother Mary O. Merrick all live on this idyllic dirt road, also the site of a locally famous U-pick daffodil operation that the family has run for the last 15 years. As the venerated matriarch who has lived on Calhoun Plantation almost her entire life, Mary O. Merrick took it upon herself to see that the property remained undeveloped; besides putting 150 acres into the conservation easement, she raised her children to value earth and tide over dollars and cents.
"We were brought up to have a reverence for the land," said Priscilla, who lives in Beaufort but comes to Bluffton several times a week to work at the farm. "We spent a lot of time outdoors and we definitely learned to appreciate good, fresh food."
During their happy childhood days of marsh bogging, sandcastle building and horseback riding, the sisters never imagined they'd one day become agriculturalists.
"Nobody would ever encourage you to be a farmer," said Mary, who saw Three Sisters through the process of becoming organically certified last year. "Plus, we're women. But I love working outside, and it's intellectually as well as physically challenging because there's so much you have to learn. I don't think there's a lot of appreciation for the intellectual side of farming."
Mary is perhaps the most visible of the sisters, appearing every week at the Bluffton Farmer's Market to sell produce, herbs and flowers. Oddly enough, she's the only farmer at the market who's actually from Bluffton, and loyal customers greedily snap up her heirloom tomatoes and brilliant bouquets of cut flowers. "If you want to be a customer of Three Sisters Farm, you have to eat greens, otherwise you're not eligible," jokes Mary, referring to the vast quantities of collards, mustards, kale, and chard that are winter staples. But what she's getting at is the need to eat seasonally; no matter how skilled she and her sisters may be, they can't hand you a carrot in December.
Having said that, she and her sisters produce just about everything you can grow in this climate, and some things you can't: lettuce, arugula, onions, carrots, broccoli, beets, leeks, garlic, twenty variety of potatoes, English peas, snow peas, snap peas, corn, okra, eggplants, cucumbers, green beans, sweet potatoes. well, you get the picture. Plus there are multi-colored eggs laid by a flock of hens started from 13 chicks hatched by Mary's daughter-at that point they all had names. But if you were thinking about buying a dozen, take a number and stand in line.
"The hard part is being able to grow enough to supply demand," said Mary, who credits her husband Barry with being a huge support to the farm. "I feel really good that there's somebody who can offer organic food, and I'm sorry we can't grow more."