“Eating,” as poet, environmental activist, and farmer Wendell Berry penned in one of his essays, “is an agricultural act.” Be it vegetables that sprout directly from the dirt or animals who forage on green pastures, our food finds its roots in the soil—soil that is tilled, sowed, and cared for by farmers.
In the Upstate these days, you don’t have to go far to find fresh, delicious, nutrient-packed food without the worry of salmonella-contaminated eggs or E. coli–tainted beef. A cornucopia of local farmer’s markets offer just-picked produce and pasture-raised meat and eggs. More and more, area restaurants are turning to local farms to find the highest-quality ingredients, the availability of which is made possible by cultivating the relationships between local chefs and farmers.
The insistent peeping of two-week-old baby chicks fills my ears as Steve Ellis, the owner of Bethel Trails Farm, opens the door to the small building that holds the newest batch of residents on the six acres he leases in Honea Path. Since the chicks are too young to regulate their body temperature, they are kept warm under heat lamps in the “mama house.” After about three weeks, Noah Tassie, who works this farm for Ellis, will release them into the pasture to make room for the next batch of Cornish Cross chicks, which arrive every two weeks.
Noah Tassie helms the Honea Path location of Bethel Trails Farm, raising chickens and lambs for meat consumption and ducks for eggs
Tassie keeps the birds in portable “chicken tractors,” which he moves to different parts of the pasture every day. Ellis came up with the design for the flat-roofed structures 14 years ago so his then-12-year-old son could easily lift them. By moving the houses around, the chickens will fertilize the fields with their nitrogen-rich manure, which in turn nourishes the grass on which his cows and sheep graze.
“We let the animals do the work,” notes Ellis, whose chickens owe their good health to plenty of fresh air and sunshine. A veteran farmer, Ellis lives on 15 acres he owns in Gray Court, where he moved in 1999. At the time, he had a home-remodeling business, and raising chickens became a side line. In 2007, he made the leap to full-time farming, and the number of egg chickens he keeps has flown from 100 to 700. “Farming is relentless work,” Ellis concedes, “but it keeps me in shape—we call it farmer’s CrossFit.”
He also leases 11 acres of pasture in Gray Court where he grazes Angus cows, and a 20-acre plot where he keeps 300 Berkshire and Tamworth pigs, both heritage breeds. At the Honea Path farm, Tassie raises meat chickens, egg ducks, and lambs.
Ellis estimates that 60 to 75 percent of his total sales of meat and eggs go to local restaurants, including The Anchorage, Bacon Bros., GB&D, and both Stella’s Southern Bistro and Stella’s Southern Brasserie. Greg McPhee, owner of The Anchorage, which earned a James Beard Award nomination for Best New Restaurant 2018, receives a delivery of 50 dozen of Bethel Trails’ pasture-raised, non-GMO chicken eggs every week.
Chef Greg McPhee, chef and owner of the Anchorage in the Village of West Greenville, holds a pork saddle from Bethel Trails Farm. His dishes often feature duck eggs from the farm.
“We only use Bethel Trails’ eggs,” reports the chef, “and we also buy 8- to 10-dozen duck eggs to use in our ice cream and pasta.” With their high fat content, duck eggs lend deep color to the chef’s house-made pasta and yield a rich custard for his ice cream. McPhee also buys lamb, pork, chicken, and chicken livers (for the chicken-liver mousse on his charcuterie board) from Ellis.
“Quality and flavor are definitely driven by freshness,” McPhee declares. “Knowing at what point in its life those proteins or eggs are landing allows us to put a fresher product on the plate.”
His diners notice the difference in taste, and McPhee encourages his staff to inform customers they can find Steve and his wife, Michelle, at the Simpsonville Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings, if they want to purchase Bethel Trails’ products. The Ellises also sell directly to their customers year-round through the farm’s online Buying Club.
“Bethel Trails has been the cornerstone of our farm portfolio since we opened in January 2017,” states McPhee, who sources at least 85 percent of his ingredients from local farms in summer. Either Steve or Michelle personally delivers to The Anchorage every Thursday. “We legitimately feel we know who’s raising this animal,” Greg says, “and that gives us more respect for the meat we’re using.”
When Jeff Kelly took the reins at Stella’s Brasserie a little over a year ago, he adopted the farm-to-table philosophy of the restaurant’s owner, Chef Jason Scholz. He also happily inherited the network of local farmers who have steadily supplied Stella’s Bistro in Simpsonville for years with fresh-from-the-field vegetables, fruit, meat, and milk.
One of Stella’s longest-standing relationships is with Margie Levine of Crescent Farm in Clinton. Levine, a New Englander who took over the six-acre, certified organic operation from Daniel Parsons (Parson’s Produce) in 2014, has farmed for most of her adult life. What draws her? “The smell of a dairy barn, the taste of a tomato, the calmness, the mucking around in the ground all day.”
Diggin It // Margie Levine owns Crescent Farm in Clinton, SC, which she procured from former owner Daniel Parsons (of Parson’s Produce) in 2014. She grows a variety of vegetables that she picks, washes, and packs herself, selling to area chefs such as Jeff Kelly at Stella’s Brasserie.
Levine farms year-round, growing 35 to 40 types of vegetables of different varieties—carrots, turnips, squash, tomatoes, greens, brassicas (veggies such as broccoli and cauliflower), sweet potatoes—about two-thirds of which go to local restaurants (Levine doesn’t participate in any markets this year, but she does offer a CSA, a weekly share in the farm’s produce). Every January she sits down with her chefs and asks them what they want her to grow for the coming year. “It’s like fashion,” she observes, “there are always new peppers coming out, or different colors of vegetables appearing every year.” On Wednesday afternoons, Levine delivers her vegetables to 13 different places, Stella’s Brasserie among them. “Margie is one of the most laid-back, easy-going, sweetest people I’ve ever met,” Jeff Kelly crows. “She’s my go-to. I can call her and say ‘I’m in a bind, can you bring some turnips to me?’ And she’ll do it if she can. Seeing her always brightens my day.”
Frequent contact, be it via email, phone, or face-to-face, enhances the mutual trust between farmer and chef. “Jeff knows when he orders from me that it’s going to be what he wants, he knows how it’s going to look, he knows it’s going to taste delicious,” says Levine. “He’s come to expect that from me.” If Jeff requests turnips that are two inches in diameter, Levine can oblige him because she’s the one who picks, washes, packs, and delivers all her vegetables.
“When Margie comes in and lays things out, it’s like an adrenaline rush. It sparks that fire of creativity, no matter what she brings,” Chef Jeff Kelly declares. “I use these products out of love and respect for what these farmers do,” he says. “They work a lot harder than I do.”
Roughly 40 percent of the local produce Kelly uses at Stella’s Brasserie comes from Crescent Farm. Margie’s arugula tops the carpaccio. Her mustard and chard greens figure in the chicken and the pork chop entrées. Her kale complements the catfish dish. “I tell Jeff I have the next batch of arugula coming in next week and it looks really great,” she notes, “so he feels like he’s part of the farm because he knows what’s going on.”
“It makes me proud of somebody that puts so much love into a product they’re bringing to me, and that inspires me to put just as much love into that dish,” Kelly says. To help him plan his seasonal menu, he asks Margie in winter what she has in the ground that will be available in spring and summer.
“When Margie comes in and lays things out, it’s like an adrenaline rush. It sparks that fire of creativity, no matter what she brings,” Kelly declares. Since Margie and other local farmers support him, the chef believes it’s important that his guests know not only that what’s on their plate is local, but also who grows it. “I use these products out of love and respect for what these farmers do,” he says. “They work a lot harder than I do.”
Margie’s arugula tops Chef Jeff Kelly’s carpaccio at Stella’s Brasserie
PARTNERS IN THE PASTURE
For several years now, farmers Chad Bishop and Roddy Pick have been toying with the idea of opening a farm-to-fork restaurant. Business partners in Greenbrier Farms, Bishop and Pick oversee 300 acres in Easley that once belonged to Bishop’s aunt and uncle, Joyce and John Palmer. Fork & Plough, their joint venture with Chef Shawn Kelly, is set to open this summer in the Overbrook neighborhood of Greenville. You could call it the ultimate farmer-chef relationship.
Pick met Kelly several years ago when he delivered chickens to High Cotton in Charleston for Pastured Poultry Week (Greenbrier was raising chickens at the time). Chef and farmer stayed in touch, and eventually Pick invited Kelly to come cook at one of Greenbrier’s on-site beer dinners. Chad and Roddy hit it off with the chef, and when the Greenbrier guys started talking seriously about opening a restaurant, they called Shawn, who moved his family to Greenville last June.
“We wanted a chef who would be a partner,” says Bishop. “We wanted somebody who would have skin in the game. In the end, Roddy and I both have full-time jobs farming, so Shawn’s going to be running the restaurant. We want him to be as motivated as we are, since our role in the restaurant will principally be supplying food.”
Roddy Pick and Chad Bishop (pictured) own Greenbrier Farms, along with Bishop’s wife, Amy. Greenbrier supplies area restaurants with beef, pork, and veggies, and is a fixture at the TD Saturday Market in downtown Greenville.
That food will come from the same land where Bishop spent summers as a boy, and grew to love working in the fields. After being diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer in the late 1980s, Chad’s uncle adopted a drastic lifestyle change. “Organic farming wasn’t a thing at the time,” Bishop remembers, “but my uncle bought into that and he was on the forefront of raising grass-fed, grass-finished beef here.”
After his uncle died in 2007 (nearly 20 years after his dire diagnosis), Bishop went to help his aunt manage the farm temporarily. Turns out Bishop preferred the fields to a corporate setting, so he and his wife, Amy, moved to the farm permanently in 2009.
Chad and Amy worked that first season on the farm by themselves, but soon realized they needed help running an operation that included both plants and animals. So Bishop called Roddy Pick, a good friend and former Greenville neighbor who was living in Indianapolis at the time. “I don’t know how I convinced him to do it,” Chad admits, “but Roddy decided to come farm with me.” At the end of 2009, the two men set up their own LLC.
It’s a Dirty Job // Greenbrier Farms partnered with Chef Shawn Kelly to create the Overbrook restaurant Fork & Plough. Kelly’s menu will change frequently but will feature such dishes as BBQ ribs and fixin’s
Today Bishop cultivates up to 50 different kinds of vegetables on six acres, while Pick manages the pastured cows and pigs they raise for meat. Greenbrier’s hormone- and antibiotic-free beef and pork is prominently featured at Fork & Plough—both on the menu and at the butcher counter—while Bishop supplies his produce overages to the restaurant. “We don’t want Fork & Plough to have an exclusive deal with Greenbrier Farms,” says Bishop. “With Roddy and I being on the farmers’ side, we want to make sure all the local guys get a chance to sell to our restaurant.”
For his part, Kelly goes against the grain when it comes to planning his bill of fare.
“Ingredients inspire my menu, not the other way around,” maintains Shawn, who sharpened his culinary skills working with Chef Frank Lee in Charleston. “I don’t write a menu then go look for the ingredients; I find ingredients then write a menu. My menu will change almost daily.”
Every year, Bishop, who participates in the TD Saturday Market, sees more consumers and chefs who want to buy things locally. “I think that the palate of the average consumer in Greenville is changing for the better,” he notes.
His observation frames the future of food in our city. Knowing where your food comes from is important on so many levels, from personal health to the economic boon for individual farmers. Ultimately, the Upstate community reaps the benefits. If the majority of what we eat comes from the soil, then the closer that soil is to where you live, the better your food is going to taste, and the more nutritious it is going to be. So the next time you talk to a farmer at a local market, make sure, as Michael Pollan advises in his book In Defense of Food, to “shake the hand that feeds you.”
Originally published June 2018.