Sidi Limehouse, left, and Clemson Cooperative Extension horticulture agent Zack Snipes talk about farming.
JOHNS ISLAND – The white four-door Dodge pickup rattles over bumpy trails in fields of vegetables as 2019 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo South Carolina Farmer of the Year and Clemson alumnus Sidi Limehouse talks about farming at 80 years old, being forced to relocate his roadside stand, working with employees and volunteers who are more like family and, of course, Clemson University.
Limehouse steers his pickup to a plot of land he shares with another Johns Island resident. White bumblebee hives sit near rows of watermelons that soon will be ready for picking.
“Bees are very intelligent,” Limehouse said. “Once they become acclimated to an area, they get to work pollinating and crops are better for it. I set out these hives, waited a little while so the bees could get used to the area and then I started planting. Always have a good crop. We protect native pollinators, thereby reducing our overall insecticide use and increasing our yields.”
Watermelons currently are planted on the property. The next crop that shows up in the field probably will be different.
“I believe in rotating crops,” he said. “I don’t plant the same crop in the same field year after year. Different crops provide different nutrients and other benefits for the soil. We also use cover crops to help build the soil and we employ drip irrigation to save water.”
Limehouse is a firm believer in conserving the land. The property on which this year’s watermelon crop is planted belongs to Charleston County. It became county property after its owner died. The land was sitting idle until Limehouse took a trip to county offices. Now he and another resident farm the land.
“After the owner died, this property was going to waste,” Limehouse said. “I went to the county and asked how much they were paying to keep this property mowed. They told me $10,000 per year. I told them they could save $10,000 per year if they’d let me farm on it. They agreed, so now we’re farming on it and the county is saving money.”
He learned about land conservation and the advantages of using pollinators and rotating crops while earning his degree in agricultural engineering from Clemson University.
“I always wanted to be a farmer and Clemson was the school to go to for a degree in agriculture,” Limehouse said. “So that’s where I went and I’m glad I did.”
When he returned home, after graduating in 1960, Johns Island roads weren’t paved and there was no electricity.
“But the hunting and fishing couldn’t have been better,” he said. “Times were good back then. Everybody knew everybody else. It was paradise.”
The truck continues bumping along as it travels to Limehouse’s Rosebank Farms, where he grows more than 50 crops including okra, tomatillos, tomatoes, watermelons, fruits, vegetables and herbs.
“This is the first year I’ve tried to grow tomatillos,” Limehouse said. “I was planting tomato plants and ran out. I had these tomatillo plants so, I thought, I’m going to stick these in the ground and see what happens. Now they’re growing.”
Produce he grows is sold from a roadside stand he and his partner of 50-something years, Louise Bennett, lease at 4362 Bohicket Road, Johns Island. The stand previously was located 4475 Betsy Kerrison Parkway, Johns Island.
“The town decided they needed a new municipal complex where the stand I was leasing to sell my produce was located,” Limehouse said. “After much discussion and all, we moved to our current location. It has worked well for us. We’re in a good location, easy for people to find us. So it all worked out.”
In addition to produce, Limehouse and Bennett also sell flowers from the stand. Eight flower varieties of annuals and perennials grow along the ditch banks, drive rows, roads and virtually every unused space on the farm. About 3,000 hydrangea plants grow around their house.
“My grandmother grew hydrangeas and so I started propagating them,” Limehouse said. “Turns out, this is one of the most profitable things we grow. Hydrangeas are low-maintenance and are easy to grow.”
Other items sold from the stand include banana nut bread made by a local baker, homemade pimento cheese, cocktail sauce and tomato pies. For the Christmas holiday, they sell Christmas trees and custom-made wreaths and garlands they make from native materials.
“We also sell Clemson Blue Cheese and Geechie Boy grits and rice,” he said.
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Limehouse puts a lot of hours in each day working in his crops. He suffers from spinal stenosis, a narrowing of spaces within the spine, which can put pressure on nerves that travel through the spine. He uses a walker to get around. This doesn’t stop him from climbing up on a tractor although getting down can sometimes be tricky.
“If I can’t get off the tractor, I just fall off of it,” Limehouse said. “I’ve learned to fall so that I don’t injure myself.”
It’s this work ethic and positive attitude that inspired Zack Snipes, Clemson Cooperative Extension Service horticulture agent in Beaufort and Charleston counties, to nominate Limehouse for Farmer of the Year.
“The biggest lessons I have learned from Sidi is to not sweat the small stuff and that change is inevitable,” Snipes said. “Since I have been working with him, we have been through four hurricanes, a major flooding event when his irrigation ponds became inundated with saltwater and his farm land being moved. All of this would devastate most folks, but Sidi just shrugged it off and found alternate solutions.
“He just seems to take life as it comes keeping a positive attitude all the while working hard and taking care of others. Just about anyone can learn how to grow things. What I have learned from Sidi is that growing produce is just a small percentage of the overall battle. Attitude, a yearning for knowledge and getting better, and helping others is what I strive to do as an Extension agent and Sidi embodies this. What a great teacher.”
Limehouse partners with the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service to conduct on-farm research projects, such as grafted tomato variety trials, disease and insect monitoring and resistance screenings. He also has worked with the Lowcountry Local First Apprentice Farmer Program, providing technical expertise, equipment-share and labor to new farmers. He’s trained a number of apprentices who’ve become successful in both traditional and organic agriculture. He lends equipment to other farms across the United States, as well as donates space in his packing shed and cooler.
Limehouse is founder and president of Friends of the Kiawah River, an organization formed to protect the Kiawah River Basin from the hazards of development. The organization works closely with the Coastal Conservation League and the South Carolina Environmental Law Program protecting the barrier islands. He also served in the South Carolina Legislature from 1967 to 1968 and from 1971 to 1972.
Limehouse constantly is on the move, and accompanying him on his daily farming journey is a three-legged black and white Shih Tzu named Joker, who rides laying on the center console. A library of ag-related magazines and papers he refers to “daily,” cover the dashboard. A square bluebird’s nest sits in the far-left corner.
“Joker is with me 24/7,” Limehouse said. “He was given to me after I accidentally ran over his leg and the vet had to remove it. He had climbed under my truck to escape the heat of the sun. I didn’t see him, backed up the truck and hit him. I took him to a vet and was told his leg would have to be removed. The vet said Joker was young and he would adapt to having just three legs.”
In addition to Joker, Limehouse and Bennett have four other dogs – all rescue dogs.
“I counted one time and I’ve had 102 dogs during my life,” Limehouse said. “I wrote down all of their names once. It took me a few days, but I did it.”
After Limehouse checks his crops, he drives to the produce stand. Workers and volunteers help customers.
“We’re all family,” Bennett said. “Some of our employees have been with us almost 20 years. We love them and they love us.”
Yolanda Gonzales has worked for Limehouse and Bennett for about 16 years. She carried her infant son Eric “Denny” Gonzales in a carrier on her back as she worked in the fields. Denny is now 13 years old. He works at the farm and at the produce stand when he’s not in school. He also plays soccer, the violin and he has read the entire “Harry Potter” series. He already has a college fund thanks to Limehouse and Bennett who designed and sold a 2018 calendar full of information about Life with Nature in the South Carolina Low Country.
Terry Raasch of Blue Springs, Missouri, is one customer who frequents Limehouse’s roadside stand every time she is in town.
“I love the freshness of the produce, especially the heirloom tomatoes,” she said. “The taste is wonderful, different, not like anything else.”
In addition to selling produce from the stand, Limehouse also sells produce with the help of GrowFood Carolina, a program started by the Conservation League in 2007.
“We provide a marketing tool for growers to bring their produce to the public,” said Anthony Mirisciotta, the program’s general manager. “This allows them to do what they do best, which is farming. They grow the food and we help them sell it.”
If Limehouse has anything to do with it, he will be growing food for years to come.
“I may give it up when I’m 93,” Limehouse said. “That’s 13 more years and I figure it’ll take me that long to teach someone else all I know so that they can do it right.”