Spotlight

The Art of Farming

From just outside of St. George, the fresh produce grown at Gruber Family CSA Farm brings healthy and delicious colors to the palette of our “new normal.”

A few miles south of St. George, the canvas of the landscape is painted with the colors and textures of fall. Under its cerulean sky, rows of eggplants are aubergine jewels, and beets blush delicate red beneath purple-veined foliage. Tassels of gold highlight fields of swaying corn. On sturdy stems, globes of amber pumpkins lie amidst curling green vines and sunshine yellow squash crook curved necks. The unlikely artist responsible for the scene wipes the dust from his hands. His gaze settles on land that has meant everything to him and his family. Once Stanley Gruber’s father drew the color from this fertile soil, and now it is his turn at the easel. He knows what a gift it was to learn the art of farming from a master.

Fresh from the trenches of WWII, Wilson Birnell Gruber stood on this plot of earth in 1948, ready to pursue his dream. Purchasing the property that would become Gruber Family CSA Farm, the senior Gruber launched himself into farming. Overcoming the ups and downs inherent in the calling, he poured heart and soul into the land. The seeds he planted would grow into a future for him and his family. Decades later, his knowledge, determination, and gift for growing things began to lay the foundation that the business is now built on. “Daddy and I ran the farm together, and when he died, I just kept doing it,” says Stanley Gruber of carrying on his father’s work.

Acres of crops stretch to the horizon. When he set out to plant for the 2020 summer season, the farmer had no way of knowing what would happen in the world by the time the crops were harvested. And like most of us, he could not have imagined that come September, the nation would still be held in the grip of a global pandemic. Our way of life drastically changed, taking us by surprise and holding us hostage in our homes. Like many growers, the Gruber’s farm was affected early on by the loss of farmer’s market sales, and wholesale and restaurant orders. “I always plant some excess, even beyond what I think I’m going to need,” says Gruber of the surplus that he and many farms across the country faced. But while Covid-19 challenged the normal way of doing things, the “new normal” created an unexpected opportunity.

With quarantine, sheltering in place, and social distancing topping the headlines, the popularity of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) immediately began to grow by leaps and bounds. “People were at home, and they started cooking. We had started with the CSA a few years ago, and when the virus hit, we were able to use what we’d normally sold wholesale to fill the orders coming in.”

The produce subscription concept is a win-win proposition for both farmers and those who use it. Participants pay a fee at the start of the planting season that helps growers cover the cost of operating their farms. In return, the farm delivers 12 consecutive weeks of fresh, healthy, local produce to supporters at drop-off locations. It is not a new concept, but one that has taken off due to current circumstances. Gruber predicts that it may well continue even after things return to normal. “Time will tell, but people have been pretty happy with how good and convenient it’s been. I think people have already been signing up pretty good for the fall season.”

There are two growing seasons for Gruber’s 175 acres of produce and 150 acres of row crops. CSA boxes offer around 40 to 50 items to choose from, in small, medium and large quantities. The spring season runs from late April to early July and the fall from late August to December. “We never have done as much in the fall as we do in the spring, but we’ll see what happens this year.”

As dedicated as he is to farming, Gruber’s life has been more than fertilizer and crop rotations. For over three decades, a third season occupied his thoughts and much of his time: football season. He holds rock star status in the community – a standing earned from his success at growing an annual crop of winning football teams. As head coach at Dorchester Academy, his 300th win made him the most winning coach in the SC Independent School Association’s history. By the finish of his 35 years at Dorchester Academy, his scoreboard showed seven state titles, 325 wins in SCISA, and close to a 5-6 record. That’s no small potatoes.

At a time when farming has almost become a lost art, Stanley Gruber has taken the wisdom of his father’s years behind the tiller and applied modern-day farming practices to the time-proven methods. As a result, Wilson Gruber’s farm flourishes in the hands of the son, who followed in his footsteps. It is an undeniably hard life that is not suited for the faint of heart. “I got started at about 2:30 this morning, and I’ll probably finish up about 7 this evening. You really have to want to do it.”

What does he see for the future? “I don’t know. They say the average age of farmers in the United States is the late 60s. People just aren’t getting into it anymore because they know it is hard work.  And I can’t imagine how much money it would take to start an operation if you didn’t already have your feet in it.”

“Most of us that do it are getting old now, and I don’t see any young people doing it. There just aren’t a lot of people willing to put the time and effort that farming takes.”

The rows are flushed with color, and the harvest awaits its debut on tables across the Lowcountry. For now, as long as there are men like Stanley Gruber to hold the brush, the art of farming is alive and well, and the Gruber Family CSA Farm is in good hands. AM

By Susan Frampton