At the time of this interview, it was late summer (August) in the LowCountry. Every year about this time, my internal clock wants to fast-forward to Fall. Summer in the LowCountry is hot. Actually, it was really hot and humid. The only break you get from the heat is either to leave the area and go to a cooler climate or, stay inside with the air conditioning cranked. Most days, it pays to get an early start on the day, especially if you work outside or need to run errands before the temperature rises to uncomfortable levels. Even the amazing beaches can be too hot when there is not enough breeze.
Come August, many of the local farms that grow our fruits and vegetables are done with summer crops and begin to transition their fields with fall crops. It is not un-common for gapping to occur during this time as existing crops are replaced with new season ones. Not to mention, it is just too darned hot for farmers to be out in the field for very long durning the day!
Recently, I drove over to nearby John’s Island, to visit one of my favorite local vegetable farms named Fire Ant Farm. It was a typical hot August morning, Farmer/Owner Anthony Anatoli, was there to greet me when I arrived. The farm sits quite a way off the Main Road to the Island nestled near the salt marshes on eleven acres. On this day, there are four large beds occupying an acre +/- prepped and full of distinct kinds of peppers, eggplants, okra, small tomatoes, basil, arugula. One of the beds was transitioned already and prepped for new seeds. I couldn’t help but notice how meticulous each bed looked and that there were no helpers or a crew there besides Anthony himself. He has some help on some days doing harvesting and cleaning before selling to some local restaurants and the nearby Sea Island Farmers Market on Saturday morning.
Fire Ant Farm uses Regenerative agricultural methods to enhance soil health, which in turn is good for the soil, crops and the environment. The environment at this farm is in some ways simple and yet in many ways extraordinarily complex. Farming using regenerative methods create a web of intricacies that are all interdependent of one another. Regenerative methods provide a healthier ecosystem that does not use or rely on inputs such as pesticides and other chemicals to treat land and grow our food. More farms across the country, are beginning to employ regenerative methods as they realize the benefits. As we continue to experience climate change, much can be measured from the negative effects of industrial farming methods have had on the environment. According to research, as much as 10-12% of GHC emissions. Conversely, regenerative methods do not rely on inputs like soil amendments and pesticides. At Fire Ant, Anthony does not till the soil and has more crop diversity per acre to restore and provide good soil health by keeping CO2 in the soil. Good soil health also provides healthy crop outcomes and food that is better for you. Typical large scale, industrial farms, often rely on chemical inputs to soil as well as pesticides, single crop planting in large quantity in one vast area, which deplete nutrients from the soil that in turn, is not good for the farm, the crops and the environment. This mono-crop approach does not give back to the soil and only depletes it of nutrients. Regenerative not only sequesters, it also gives back by growing in a smaller footprint with more crop diversity and crop rotation throughout the growing seasons. When a bed is being prepped, it will be composted from compost made at the farm eventually. They are starting to make their own and still buy some locally and applying ground cover to retain moisture and nutrients before the next plantings occur. Anthony’s wife Ellen helps to run the business side of the farm when she is not working for the Department of Natural Resources as a Marine Biologist. She is also an occasional tractor driver some days. You will usually both see them at the market on Saturday morning along with their two Carolina Dogs! Aka: American Dingos, Cora & Nico. This breed is actually a real thing, we never heard of the breed until we came across their mom. On Friday at noon, they open their digital marketplace with what is available, linked to their Instagram page for orders. I have been trained to place my order for pickup at the market on Saturday. It works great!
Here is a Q&A with Ellen & Anthony, we did via Zoom.
MT: When did Fire Ant Farm start?
E&A: Four and a half years ago.
MT: Where did the name come from?
E&A: When we took over the farm, we were battling fire ants in the field. They were everywhere and are quite destructive in addition to being an annoyance.
MT: Is this your first owned farm?
E&A: Yes. Previously, Anthony worked on four other farms, three of them grew vegetables, one of them was a goat farm making goat’s milk cheese.
MT: When did you decide to become a farmer?
A: You can say, the seeds were planted during my punk rock days living in New Jersey, where I grew up. Ellen and I went to the same high school there and are from the same town in NJ but, weren’t connected. We met years later in Wilmington, NC. and started hanging out. We eventually moved to Hawaii where I managed food and the kitchen at an organic co-op. They have both lived all over and, in more places, than I can keep up with...Seychelles, Costa Rica, Albuquerque, Portland Oregon to name a few.
MT: How did you come to settle on John’s Island, SC?
E&A: We knew that we wanted to be on the East Coast, closer to friends and family. We lived in Hawaii for 5 years. It is beautiful but, it feels isolated. Anthony used to visit the Charleston area a lot when he played in a punk rock band to visit friends. So, it was familiar. A couple of punk bands that influenced us were 2.5 Children Inc. there was a "Fanzine" called Slug & Lettuce about the DIY Punk scene. Great name for a farm!
MT: You practice regenerative methods and low till farming, why is this important to you?
E&A: It just seemed like the obvious thing today. Natural environment, homesteading and permaculture are important to us. Small farms, good land stewardship. I don't like to use tractors. I prefer to farm with my hands. In fact, we didn't have a tractor for the first 3 years. We use "no till" method. We are trying to make our own compost, hopefully we will get better at it. For now, we still get compost from All Seasons on Johns Island and then other amendments when necessary. The goal ist to one day does not need to rely on stores for fertilizer, compost etc. We finally bought a tractor that is used for managing the "un-farmed non-food" portion of the 11 acres. We want to do the right things that we believe are good for our land and the environment. We want to stay small and not have to rely on many people like suppliers and a lot of employees. We have about 30 chickens, 2 ducks currently. We hope to have other animals like goats and sheep and more ducks!
MT: What are your biggest challenges?
E&A: Summer heat & humidity. The climate in South Carolina is tricky. We get extreme heat and humidity often coupled with lots of rainfall. That's why we pretty much shut down for the month of August. Summer is the worst growing season here! Also, we have the possibility of hurricanes. Luckily so far, with many different weather events since we've been here, we have not had major crop loss as a result. We have been lucky! Another thing, it is next to impossible to grow lettuce here successfully in the summer, the heat and humidity is just not conducive, especially, if you are growing the way we grow outside in the field rather than in a controlled environment. Consumers don’t always understand this.
MT: What is your elevation:
E&A: We are also at 12ft. Elevation.
MT: That is more than I thought! I was hoping it was not at Sea Level.
MT: Where do you see the farm in 10 years?
E&A: We haven’t thought of it in those terms! Long term, we plan to plant native trees that build habitat. Rehabilitate the land, greater biodiversity, have a market garden where people can come to the farm and buy food.
MT: Favorite vegetable?
A: Swiss Chard & broccolini which I personally harvest.
MT: Favorite thing about farming?
E&A: Growing our own food. We always have good fresh and delicious vegetables. We also like to collaborate with other farmers like G&S, help share ideas, success and failures. We collaborate now with other local farms like Lowland Farms and Kindlewood Farms.
Check out their Instagram @fireant_farms