Sam Hall wouldn’t have to dig very deep to find his roots. They’re draped over the dirt of Bush-N-Vine Farm like the tendrils of strawberry plants.
The house up the road, where his older brother Benjamin lives? That’s the old Hall homeplace. There are cracks in the walls from the 1886 Charleston earthquake.
The white farmhouse next door to the Bush-N-Vine Farm Stand on Filbert Highway? That’s the home of his parents, Susan and Bob, who raised five kids on the farm and still work there every day.
The weathered brown barn behind it was a mule shed. His grandfather, John Hall, 87, used mules to plow fields on the peach farm his own uncle started in the 1920s.
Last week’s chilly weather slowed spring down a little, but it won’t stop it. In the next few weeks, people across the Carolinas will put their kids in the car and drive out to places like Bush-N-Vine to pick a few quarts of strawberries or stop at a farm stand for a bucket someone else has already picked.
Here’s the thing Sam Hall, 26, would tell you about those farms: The important thing isn’t land. It’s farming it.
“I’m not all that old,” he says. “But I know this: You don’t go out and buy land to start a farm. You’ll never make enough to pay what land costs. The farms we’ve got left is all there is.”
Picking the part you play
Farmers markets, roadside stands, pick-your-own fields, community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions – they’re all part of the business that keeps farming alive in this area. Not many people just plant and harvest anymore.
“We’re niche farmers,” Bob Hall says. “Row crops in this area, that’s gone. Our goal has always been to produce fruit and vegetables and get it directly to consumers.”
Bob Hall’s father, John, worked on the farm as a young man, and decided there had to be an easier way to make a living. He became a surveyor. But when Bob wanted to go into farming himself, his father didn’t try to stop him.
“I told him, ‘Life’s too short not to do what you want to do. If you love farming, you go to it.’ ”
When Bob got out of Clemson University in 1980 and took over the farm, you-pick was 90 percent of their business.
“The Depression people, Daddy’s generation, they’d come out and pick.” Homemakers would pick 25 or 30 gallons of strawberries or peaches for canning and freezing.
By the early 1990s, that was changing. Two-income families didn’t have time to process food. They just wanted a a few quarts to eat right away.
What they really wanted to do was show their kids the food. So the farm adapted, adding hay rides, observation beehives with glass sides, and an annual strawberry festival. By the late 1990s, there was a term for it: “agritainment,” or visiting farms as a family activity.
“It gives them reassurance,” says Sam Hall. “They can see it and know how it gets to the store.”
‘Keep it in farming’
In the Hall family story, two names come up over and over: Elizabeth and Mary Campbell Hall. The daughters of the John Hall who started the peach farm in the 1920s were teachers who never married, but stayed on the land.
Elizabeth Hall passed on what her father had wanted: “He told them, ‘If anyone in the family wants to farm, you let him have this land,’ ” says Bob Hall’s father, John. “She didn’t want it ever cut up.”
To keep the land in production, Bob Hall worked with N.C. State University starting in the 1990s to add the big, plastic covers called high tunnels that can cover a couple of acres. Using that protection against cold, you can add months to the growing season.
Before high tunnels, strawberries were a four-week crop. Now, they’re 35 to 40 weeks a year. Sam Hall gives his dad the credit for that innovation.
“That’s his hard work and his research,” he says. “His research was done on his own dime.”
With more time to grow crops, the Halls had more to sell. Instead of one farm stand, there are now three.
Expanding the season also meant that Sam could branch out into CSAs. Every week in spring and summer, he fills 150 to 200 boxes with fresh food for subscribers who pick it up from Rock Hill to SouthPark.
“You’ve always got to be looking for something different,” he says. “People think farmers are just out here growing stuff.”
Twitter, Facebook and babies
Bob Hall gives Sam credit for branching out in another way: Social media. Bush-N-Vine today is active on Facebook. Walk into the farm stand and you’ll see a sign on how to post your pictures to Instagram and Twitter and a signup sheet for the emails that Sam’s wife, Lindsay, writes for customers.
Bob Hall marvels at the immediacy of it: If they have more strawberries than they can sell, they send out an email offering a $1 off. People rush in and the extra fruit disappears.
“Samuel has added a lot of energy,” says Bob.
No one pressured Sam to follow his dad onto the farm, he says. When he went to Clemson, he majored in agricultural economics, and planned to go into business some other way. In the end, though, he knew where he wanted to be: Right there on Filbert Highway, on the Hall family farm.
On the counter at the farm stand, there’s a picture of a newborn baby dressed in a strawberry suit and tucked into a Bush-N-Vine bucket. That’s Sam and Lindsay Hall’s daughter, Macey, born last May in the middle of strawberry season.
Sam Hall says his brother and sisters don’t question the future of the farm. They know what the land is for.
“If it stays in the family, it stays in farming,” he says. “If you sell it, it’s gone. You can’t buy it back.
“You don’t buy legacy.”