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Darel Watts is a third generation farmer at Sugarfoot Organic Farms, a family micro-farm in South Carolina. His goal is to follow in the footsteps of his parents and grandparents, creating a working farm that is 100% organic, sustainable and humane in order to produce and share all-natural produce.
For Darel, the choice to continue in this vein wasn’t a difficult one. ”I grew up here on this land and we always had at least a very large garden,” he says. “Mostly pasture for horses, but my parents and grandparents grew lots of collards and mustard greens and turnips in the winter, plus green beans, butterbeans, okra, sugar cane, corn, squash, and peppers in the summer. Sweet potatoes, too. Typical Southern fare.”
But to go from this history to making a living as an organic farmer wasn’t something that happened overnight. “As a young adult, I had a desire to be as self-sufficient as possible. While the turns my life took seldom let me do so in an agricultural sense, my thoughts did often turn to gardening and homesteading,” Darel says. “Having read Francis Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet in the early ’80s, I was constantly aware of the industrialization of our food systems and adjusted my life to opt out of that as much as I could, cutting out meat entirely in 1985.”
“About a decade ago, life slowed down a bit for me and I was able to start digging in the dirt again. I became a Master Gardener and tended a tiny area around my apartment. I began my move back to my childhood home in 2008 and knew immediately that I’d be farming. It may not be what I always knew I would do, but I know it’s what I want to always do.”
With this decision comes a very specific way of doing what he “wants to always do”: the organic way. “Farming with chemicals never really made sense to me, but I didn’t actually question it when I was young,” he says. “When I first heard the word ‘organic’ used in an agricultural sense, I thought, ‘Of course that’s how we should raise our food,’ but it wasn’t until much later that I realized just how incredibly far we’ve taken our food production down the wrong path.”
One thing is sure: Darel has committed himself 100% to his new goal, and it’s obvious that it’s a passion for him. “I just want to act as an example and show other local farmers how simple it is to grow organically, and teach folks about the importance of actively choosing their food. I’m nurturing my soil, and incorporating more and more permaculture ideas into the landscape.”
Teaching and expanding the knowledge of his peers doesn’t stop at the organic way of life, either. A self-proclaimed seed lover, Darel loves looking over seed catalogues, discovering new varieties of fruits and vegetables that he happily shares with neighbors who buy from his farm. “Folks around here are used to eating the same few veggies they’ve always eaten, and the same varieties,” he says. “My customers are more willing to experiment than most, so I’m able to throw things like kohlrabi and New Zealand spinach out there. I even have some transplanted Northerners who are gobbling up my okra and my Hickory King grits!” At this point, one of his biggest challenges is growing enough to feed the demand for good food, a demand he’s happy is increasing around him.
“I think most people would be appalled if they followed their food backwards from their plate, and I’m sure they would make different choices if they knew how it was raised and processed,” he says. “More and more people are realizing the consequences of eating this ‘food,’ though, and want to do better for themselves and their families, and they really are starting to understand that we have to treat the soil right if we want to keep growing food. Me? More and more, I’m getting my food not only fresh from the field, but I’m building up a pantry of my own canned veggies and sauces, as well as those of other farmers. I’m getting local, organic flours and rices and juices and wines and so much more. I do admit to the occasional junk food binge, though, where anything goes. I just can’t quite kick those cravings completely. I can make my own chips and salsa now, though, from scratch, so I’m getting there.”
Even with these little forays into the snack aisle, Darel’s food philosophy — an organic and vegetarian lifestyle — can be viewed as slightly radical, especially in his native South Carolina, where food culture depends heavily on meats. But he doesn’t preach what he practices: a radical food philosophy is not for everyone, and even small steps can help bring people closer to an organic and more natural way of life.
“If you’re shopping at a grocery store, ask them if they buy locally and encourage them to do so,” he suggests. “Also ask that they carry more organic produce, and then support them by buying it. Much better, shop at a farmers market. Many, if not most, roadside vendors are not farmers and sell the same pesticide-laden veggies that you get at the grocery store, so farmers markets are a better bet. Even then, ask questions. Ask what insects are a problem right now, what variety that tomato is, or for some advice about your home garden. Any real farmer will love to talk to you. Once you find a farmer or two that you like, patronize them regularly. Go by the farmers market first and then go to the grocery store to finish off your shopping list.”
Darel speaks from experience: this farmer loves to chat with customers who seek him out for his more “radical” organic practices. “Lots of folks are looking for a radical to grow their food,” he says. “I’m their guy.” Whether it’s discussing the minutia of soil structure and permaculture with interested customers or selling produce to customers who just want to get home with their goods, Darel enjoys bringing this new kind of food to loyal consumers.
“I like to be available so that folks can ask questions and so that we can develop a one-on-one relationship,” he says. “It’s important, too, to get some face time with my customers to find out what they’re liking a lot or if there are any disappointments. That’s how I know they’re getting too many beets or they’re burned out on kale, or that the spinach has been a little sandy lately. Or that they really loved that ugly tomato last year and they hope I grow more this season.”
As for right now, Darel is already welcoming early cherry tomatoes and peppers, as well as cool season veggies like beets and chard. But the veggie he’s most excited about right now? “Asparagus!! I love it in so many ways, but my favorite is one of the simplest, grilled with a little butter or oil and garlic.” More of Darel’s own recipes, as well as updates from the farm, can be found on his very own blog. http://sugarfootfarms.com/blog
Organic Authority would like to thank Darel Watts and all of the sustainable, organic farmers and chefs whose work is providing healthy food for us all to eat. We honor you as being conscious stewards of our planet. And, we are thrilled to have you participating in our Earth Day event!
Images: Darel Watts and Sugarfoot Farms