An unlikely path to agriculture paved the way for Charleston’s most creative farmer to implement big ideas on a small scale.
John Warren is not a typical farmer. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
Warren is not following a family tradition of farming; his parents made their livings in administrative assistance, teaching, and criminal psychology, though they both always loved to garden. Warren doesn’t own a large plot of land. At the time of this writing, he was still using a shared space at Dirt Works Incubator Farm in Johns Island. Warren didn’t receive a standard education in anything related to agriculture; he graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with a major in Sculpture. Warren’s table at the farmer’s market does not resemble that of any other farmer, particularly locally, as it is stocked with uncommon produce, herbs, and flowers.
But Warren has the grit of a farmer, the determination, the scrappiness, and the ability to roll with any punches the weather or the land doles out. He has an untiring work ethic and a connection with the land that only a truly successful farmer knows well. John Warren is not a typical farmer, but his unconventional pathway to the agricultural industry represents a growing trend in the sustainability movement, one that is a boon to the Charleston area.
As a child growing up outside of Columbia, John Warren visited the Charleston area regularly to spend time with grandparents, aunts, and uncles on Sullivan’s Island and the surrounding area. To Warren, Charleston was always a sort of second home, and even when he moved out of the state, he always assumed that he would end up back in the Lowcountry one day. In September of 2001, at the age of eighteen, he moved to New York City.
Two weeks later, he watched the towers of the World Trade Center fall, catapulting him into a reality that forced a rapid and somber maturation. He excelled at his art and sculpture studies at the Pratt Institute and went on to become a professional mold maker, casting and fitting sculptural elements for some of Manhattan’s most famous buildings. Occasionally, Warren worked on rooftop gardens on the side, relishing the feeling of breathing life into a space and toiling over the soil. As the years went on, Warren began to experience respiratory issues from both living in the city and being in closed quarters with the sculptural materials used in his line of work, and he became weary with his struggle for good health amidst so many barriers.
He took a trip to Widbey Island, WA, in 2011, visiting friends who were well-established in a farming lifestyle. Inspired and “totally sold on it,” Warren quit his job and left New York City to become a farmer.
Warren immersed himself in research regarding his ideal type of growing operation: the small scale organic farm, consulting industry experts such as Eliot Coleman and others based in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. He apprenticed on a Block Island, Rhode Island farm for years, and then came to South Carolina to work at Joseph Fields Farms.
While working there, he noticed that many of the farming lessons he learned through books and his apprenticeship didn’t apply to the southern climate, and he began coming up with his own techniques, theories, and experiments. When he caught wind that Lowcountry Local First would be starting an incubator farm for new farmers, he was the first applicant and waited patiently over a year for his spot to open up. When he finally moved in, he called his farm “Spade and Clover,” and immediately set to work making the 2-3 acres parceled out to him feel just like home.
Four years later, much has changed for John Warren. Dirt Works Incubator Farm is shutting down this fall, though Warren is in talks with the owners of the land to stay on his allotted acreage and purchase some necessary equipment. Most importantly for Warren, he feels great; no longer does he suffer from the respiratory issues he faced in New York. And oh, how his garden blooms.
Utilizing his artistic passions and curiosities in his growing practices, Warren grows a dizzying array of unconventional produce: taro, white and black turmeric, ginger, heirloom kyoto eggplants, holy basil, jerusalem artichoke, all kinds of sweet potatoes, lemongrass, dwarf papaya, jicama, and togarashi, shisito, fushimi, ají dulce, paprika, and trinidad perfume peppers; and those are just the items that are currently striking his fancy. Warren is ever on the search to find new produce that is native to humid, subtropical climates like the Lowcountry, but may be something that people may not have a culture of eating locally.
At that point, growing and harvesting the plant is the easy part—when they are native to this climate, they require minimal inputs and interventions. The more lengthy part, for Warren, is the process of educating people on the unique fruits, vegetables, and herbs, and convincing many tried-and-true Southern cooks with traditional Southern palates to be open-minded about newcomers to the market table.
Still, he has found rousing success with many of the more experimental chefs at downtown eateries including Edmund’s Oast, The Lot, McCrady’s, Two Nixons, and more, and has quite the following at Marion Square, the Sunday Brunch Farmer’s Market, and the online farmer’s market “SILO.” He sends much of his yield through Eastern Carolina Organics to be distributed across the region, and plans to start a CSA in the fall so locals can purchase subscriptions to receive regular boxes of Spade and Clover produce.
Concerning his place in the vast and ever-changing agricultural landscape of South Carolina, Warren says that he is here to stay and views himself as a steward of the land. In a perfect world, he says he would produce on a scale that allows sound decision making, specializing in medicinal foods and produce that does not have to be forced to thrive in the Lowcountry climate. Most importantly, he hopes to expand the taste buds and interests of locals and visitors alike.
Ever the diligent artist, Warren’s farm has become his art career and an outlet for his earnest creativity, much to the benefit of the new Southern table.
By Jana Riley