Friday, February 28, 2014

2/27/14 St. Helena Island tomato farm

Fletcher Sanders

     Fletcher Sanders was one of the members of the instrumental group at the old St. Helena church I featured last Sunday.  Fletcher is the fifth generation of his family farming what used to be a Beaufort area plantation called Seaside Farms.  What used to be land used to grow Sea Island cotton is now used to grow primarily tomatoes, with watermelon as a secondary crop.  His grandfather made the shift to tomatoes back in the depression era of the 1930’s, and lots of work since has expanded and modernized the farm. The current farm has operations at numerous locations on St. Helena Island.

Bundles of tomato stakes

     Roughly 500 acres of tomatoes are planted and processed each year.  The actual harvesting and processing is geared to take advantage of a window of time when none of the other east coast tomato producers are harvesting – the month of June.  So every year 11 months of work goes into preparing for one month of incredible activity.  Fletcher says that the process in June usually runs pretty smoothly – the most hectic time is the month before when everything is being prepared.

     First, the tomatoes have to be grown, which requires a lot of specialized farming equipment.  Soil has to be re-nourished before the crop, and then stakes and lines have to be installed for the tomato vines to grow on.  400 – 500 migrant workers come in for the month, so their housing has to be attended to.  Rows of trailers and dormitories sit quietly awaiting their arrival.

     Mixed in the farming equipment are old school buses for transporting watermelon.  They cut the top of the passenger compartment out and install rubber floors to protect the crop.

     Off site of the farm, up by Route 21 where trucks can get in and out two other large facilities have been built.  One is the processing plant and the other is a large refrigeration building, which I did not photograph.  

     In the processing plant, large plastic bins full of tomatoes come in from the fields.  They are then washed and run down conveyor belts where they are sorted by size and quality.  Upstairs are automatic box making machines that assemble and glue the traditional 25 lb. cardboard tomato boxes.  The tomatoes are then boxed and shipped.  There are days in June that over a million pounds of tomatoes are shipped out of here – the usual total harvest runs between 600,000 and 900,000 25 lb. boxes. 

     As a side note, you may remember the story about the hogs on Pritchard’s Island that were brought in to try to control the snake population.  Well, the hogs have not made it here, but they are known to swim.  It is a nagging worry that wild hogs could make their way to St. Helena Island where they would devastate the tomato fields.

     Part of the property acquired included some of the late 1700 and early 1800 structures that you reach by traveling a dirt road that runs through pecan groves and hardwood forest back to the river.  This is a barn on the family property made of oyster shells – an early construction material called “tabby.”  Rights were purchased to use this house as a model for duplicate house built for the movie “Forest Gump.”  (Most of that movie was filmed in the Beaufort area.)

     The property sits on the end of the island nearest the ocean – so when a hurricane hit here in the late 1800’s the majority of the islanders fled to the other end of the island.  Well, the other end flooded and thousands of people were lost, but this end was spared the worst of the storm surge.

     It is always a pleasure to see what can evolve out of a vision and hard work.  Fletcher and his family are very involved in their church and community, and I found Fletcher particularly bright and engaging.  Spending the day with him was most enjoyable.

All have a great Friday !!

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