Farm Fresh and Ready to Serve
Off the beaten path, down Highway 174, is a little slice of heaven, and slice of tomato pie. King’s Farm Market, a seventh generation farm, has been part of the Edisto Island community for decades. When owners Rett and Bonnie King married and took over the farm, they began growing corn and soybeans, and raising cattle on the land, different from Rett’s family, who farmed cabbage in the early part of the last century. Bonnie and Rett planted and harvested together; call it a match made in heaven.
Bonnie tells the story of how they accidently started growing cherry tomatoes, in addition to other tomatoes. “The cherry tomato plants somehow got mixed in with our regular order. We hadn’t planned to grow them because they took up more room in the fields, but our customers preferred the smaller tomatoes, so we made room,” she laughs. “We listened to what our customers wanted. That has been our success; we always listen to our customers.”
At that time, the Kings were one of the many farmers on the island, most of whom have since left the farming industry. “We brought our tomatoes to a packing shed. Tomato-growing caught on and growers from Georgia and Florida flooded the market; there was no longer profit in tomatoes. It actually cost us to bring them to market.” Bonnie had to hold a second job with the way the tomato market was at that time. “We realized there was something wrong with that model! Around that same time, my mother-in-law and I had a huge garden here and would pick the garden every other day, and Jamie, our son, would have a table in front of the house and sell the vegetables on the honor system. That’s where the idea for a market first took root, but we didn’t realize it yet. As time went on and people realized there were vegetables growing here, customers decided they preferred to walk into our field and pick the tomatoes themselves—it wasn’t a U-pick. So we had Jamie who was 16 at the time, set up right along the road, instead, to sell tomatoes. Our customers started requesting that we sell the other vegetables at the stand. I figured out how to package and price them, and set up a tent to keep them out of the sun.”
Fortunately, after that season, Bonnie was able to quit her second job and take over selling at the tent. Three years later, with a lot of support from friends, the tent came down, the Market was built and selling their produce still remains their main source of income.
Tomatoes and sweet corn are the King’s biggest seller. The corn is picked throughout the day, only enough to serve their customers, so it is as fresh as possible. They bring a wagon from the fields and park it at the front, full of the harvest for the early customers; when more is needed, the farm workers pick more and bring it to the wagon. “For 15 years we’d only sell our vegetables, then about 12 years ago, a customer said, ‘if you made tomato pie, I’d buy it.’” Bonnie didn’t know how to make tomato pie then, but she quickly learned. Using her daughter and son in-law’s kitchen at The Waterfront Restaurant, also on Edisto Island, she experimented with recipes and turned out a winner. That was the beginning of using the farm’s vegetables to create ready-made delicacies for their customers to enjoy. They’ve had great success with their “fresh from–the-farm–ready–to-eat casseroles.” The demand became greater than they could manage with sharing a kitchen with their children, so they built their own kitchen down the road from the Market.
All of the products are made daily and are only sold on that day. The Kings employ three to four women who do all the cooking, turning the farm’s fresh produce into a variety of casseroles and desserts. From tomato pie to strawberry pie, broccoli casserole to squash casserole, much of what they carry in the Market is fresh from the farm and cooked in their kitchen. Bonnie watches what is selling each day, and calls down to the kitchen as the items get low. They grow only for their Market, except for supplying produce to the Waterfront Restaurant. The restaurant uses as much of the family produce as possible. Fresh is what Rett and Bonnie focus on, and is what’s most important to them.
The future of farming becomes the talking point as I notice a T-shirt that hangs in the Market reading “No Farms, No Food.” Rett speaks passionately about the future of farming: “The loss of good farmland along the coast is impacting our food production. The most fertile soils are along the coast and that’s the most coveted land, and it is being over-developed. At some point, we’re going to have to depend on other people for our food. Fortunately, Edisto has put much of their land into conservation so it’s not highly commercial, therefore land is available to farm on. But many other places lose their land to big development, and they can’t afford to farm.” Bonnie agrees, adding that “it’s hard making a living in farming. It has to be in your blood—you have to love what you do and believe it makes a difference for your community and your neighbors. We believe that with all our heart. And as long as we can pay our bills, and make a living, everybody is happy.”
Rett and Bonnie credit their longevity and success to the locals, although they also have many regulars from Charleston and surrounding towns who come to the island for the weekend, and load up their coolers on the drive back. When asked how they respond to folks who say they’d like to support farmers and local food, but the cost is more at the farm than at the grocery store, Bonnie emphatically states, “Food in stores isn’t fresh, like from the farm. When you get your fruit and vegetables out of the grocery store, you really don’t know how long it’s been there, and may not know where it comes from. You are often getting food from other countries—think about that. When you buy it from the farm, you know where it’s coming from, and the people who are growing it, especially with a family farm.”
“It’s great seeing grocery stores supporting local farms and bringing fresh produce from farms to grocery stores. Still, the freshest is picked and purchased the same day, and that only happens on the farm. If the freshest fruits and vegetables are important to you, visit a local farm and get what’s growing in the field and what’s in season.”
And if it’s King’s Farm Market you visit on a trip to Edisto Island, be sure to grab a tomato pie. It’s the best around.