Going green on a former Southern plantation

Photos by Ron Barnett.
Rows of organic strawberries ripen in the greenhouse at Rose Hill Plantation.

The first people who lived on what is now called Rose Hill Plantation were the original organic farmers of these parts—the Cherokee. When the earliest white settlers claimed the Indians’ winter campground here in Anderson County, S.C., cotton fields were cultured the old-fashioned way.

After decades of modern farming techniques through incarnations as a dairy farm and later a sod farm, the plantation now is returning to its roots. A descendant of the antebellum owner is turning the place into an organic operation again, and has earned a reputation as a grower of some of the best-tasting strawberries in the area.

The sign welcoming visitors to Rose Hill Plantation.

Pam Corey’s plans go beyond the confines of her hydroponic strawberry greenhouse, though. She is expanding into vegetables and herbs, cut flowers and pumpkins, and she operates a store on the farm where she sells a variety of locally produced food products and other items.

“This used to be a dairy farm, and that’s how I grew up,” Corey says. “I’m real big into supporting other local farms, and just local people.”

Back to the land

Corey didn’t necessarily set out to be a farmer. Although she had grown up in the dairy business and raised cows for competitive shows, she worked for BellSouth for a decade before she decided to go back to the land.

“When I found out I was going to inherit the family home, I knew I wanted to do something with the farm because we weren’t dairying anymore, and daddy was growing sod at the time,” she recalled. “So, we started looking into initially just doing an herb farm, and while it has appeal in other parts of the country, I didn’t think just an herb farm would go well in this area.

“So we started looking at some other things, like hydroponic tomatoes. Mom and dad went to a hydroponic growers conference in Florida and discovered the guy who patented this system, the We Grow Right system.

“We saw his greenhouse full of strawberries and said that’s what we want to do.”

Doing berries right

That was about 10 years ago. This is Corey’s ninth season of growing organic strawberries.

She feeds her 9,000 plants three times a day through a drip system. Humidity inside the greenhouse is controlled automatically. This year, she installed a polytech system on the sides of the building so that they can be dropped to let heat out.

Corey brings in a hive of bees once every 10 weeks for pollination. She has a sign posted on the door of the U-pick greenhouse reminding visitors to close the door quickly so that no bees can escape—they cost $3 apiece!

Bees aren’t the only insects Corey has brought into the greenhouse. Predator mites feed on spider mites, and ladybugs and praying mantis take care of other harmful bugs.

She plants in September and usually has a crop ready for picking in December and January, depending on the amount of sunshine. Picking continues until June, when it gets too hot inside the greenhouse.

“In the summertime, we clean it out, sterilize it and get ready to start over,” she said.

The 5,500 pots are arranged in three rows, with two plants in each pot on the top two rows and one plant in each on the bottom rows, which don’t get as much sunlight and, “People don’t want to bend over to pick the bottom row.”

Corey uses a fertilizer product made by Metanaturals that includes nutrients derived from seaweed, bone and blood meal and feather meal.

The results keep her customers coming back for more, and not just for the health benefits.

“Most of my customers tell me once they’ve had my berries they can’t ever buy them from the grocery store again, because they taste so much better,” she said. “I even had one lady tell me she made her regular strawberry pie recipe and she said the next time she made it she was going to have to cut back on the sugar because our berries are so sweet.”

They get sweeter as the season goes along, too, with the increased sunshine.

“People have been telling me this year they think the strawberries taste better than they ever have,” Corey says. “They think this is our best crop yet.”

Why organic?

Corey grew up on a conventionally operated farm, but she got into organics when she had a baby.

“You start thinking about what you’re putting in your body and what you’re putting in their body,” she said. “I started doing more and more research on it, and just gradually made the move toward it.”

Now, she feeds her family as much organically grown food as possible and has transferred that philosophy into her business.

Pam Corey cares for her hydroponic strawberry crop.

In her store, she sells chemical-free nonhomogenized milk produced by a local creamery, as well as hormone-free beef from another grower in the area.

“So my philosophy is eat it the way God intended us to eat it—pure and natural without all this stuff on it,” Corey says. Strawberries, in particular, are difficult to cleanse of chemicals that have been sprayed on, she says.

“A strawberry is so thin-skinned that if a pesticide is sprayed on it, you can wash it all you want to, but you’re not going to get that pesticide back out of it because it’s going to soak down into that berry,” she says. “Most of my customers are very much intune with what they put in their body and they want things that are organic.”

Vegetable operation

With that in mind, Rose Hill Plantation is expanding its offering of organically grown produce—making a second attempt at a U-pick vegetable and herb operation on land where her father, John Merritt, grew sod after he got out of the dairy business in the 1980s. Merritt gave up the sod operation because he found it difficult to keep employees on the job.

Corey planted vegetables, herbs, cut flowers and pumpkins for the first time last year, “and the drought killed me.”

Even with an irrigation system, she wasn’t able to save the crop because the creek she was using as a water source ran dry. Also, the weather was so hot, the pumpkin blossoms wouldn’t set. The deer apparently were having a tough time finding food, too, because they ate pumpkin vines and other plants they normally wouldn’t touch, she said.

“Hopefully, the weather will be a little more cooperative this year,” she said.

She opened her shop in 2006 and draws a fair amount of business for a country store, but she’s hoping to pull in more traffic with her U-pick business.

“I think the farm is what will make the shop successful,” she said. “People will travel, I think, for a farm. They’re not going to travel for a shop.”

A new century for Rose Hill

Corey’s dad handles the plowing on the vegetable plots, and frequently turns up arrowheads left by the original inhabitants of this area. It’s something that’s been going on here for at least 150 years, when the first of his ancestors claimed the farm, which grew to nearly 1,000 acres, and now is between 600 and 700 acres.

Across the road there’s a hill that used to be covered with wild roses, and there sits a clubhouse for an upscale subdivision called Rose Hill.

Details of the earliest white occupants of the land have dimmed from memory, but Corey has heard stories of black slaves who stayed on the farm after they were given their freedom because of their love for the family.

“There’s a lot of things my grandmother told me that I didn’t write down that I’m kicking myself over,” Corey said.

For now, Corey is looking ahead to a new century for Rose Hill Plantation—a productive and green one for a new generation.

Ron Barnett is a freelance writer and has been a frequent contributor over the years. He resides in Easley, S.C.